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The Golden Age We Didn

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					                 The Golden Age We Didn't Know We Had

I will be in the Chicago area this weekend to watch my younger daughter receive her
journalism degree from Northwestern University - the same degree, though from a
different school, that I received 34 years ago.

History may repeat itself, but it never repeats itself exactly.

I graduated in what is now sometimes called the Golden Age of American journalism.
This was a period of just over a quarter-century that began with Walter Cronkite's affable
celebrity and The Washington Post's pursuit of Watergate and ended around the
millennium, when television audiences fragmented and the Internet began to siphon
newspaper readers and advertisers. In my era, newspapers were adding sections, cable
news was invented and broadcast networks raced to add news magazines and late-night
coverage. ABC's Nightline was born amid the Iranian hostage standoff of 1979-81.

When I pick up certain newspapers today, I actually wonder where all the news has gone.
Staffs have been decimated by round after round of layoffs and buyouts. From the
columns they write and the comments they post on social and business web sites, I sense
that a lot of my former colleagues feel victimized, though I'm not sure precisely by what.
"Corporate greed" seems to be a recurring theme, though the alternative of "corporate
altruism" would seem to be an oxymoron. The decline of the labor movement - most big-
city newspaper staffs are unionized, though they seldom refer to it - and the rise of
Google and other search engines, which divorce advertising dollars from the creators of
content, are other culprits. The multiplying demands of technology is yet another.
Reporters today don't report breaking news the way I did; they blog it, they tweet it, they
upload it, and they discuss it endlessly on comment pages with their audiences.

The funny thing about golden ages is that we usually don't recognize them while they
happen. There was a lot of griping about corporate greed in my day, too. There was never
enough staff or enough space or, for that matter, enough money, back when inflation was
running in double digits. I went to my office in Albany, N.Y., one night around 1982 not
knowing whether I might have to walk out mid-shift when our union contract expired.
(Thanks to a last-minute settlement, I have never carried a picket sign.)

Despite all the challenges today's journalists face, I wonder whether my daughter will
look back at this era as a golden age in its own right. Precisely because everything is so
new and change is coming so fast, her generation has opportunities that mine never
envisioned.

A lot of people have forgotten how rigid the business world was back in the 1970s. If you
wanted to buy a truck and carry freight between, say, New York and Philadelphia, you
had to first get permission - for the route and for your rates - from the Interstate
Commerce Commission in Washington. Airlines needed a green light from the Civil
Aeronautics Board before they could launch new service routes; such permission was
often denied if the incumbent carriers objected to the prospect of more competition. If
you are a young person and have never heard of the ICC and the CAB, it is because both
agencies were abolished years ago.

It took courage and deep pockets to launch a significant new outlet for the news, or
something that might pass for news, back then. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification
Church backed The Washington Times, which it hoped would be a conservative
counterweight to The Washington Post's influence in the nation's capital. Gannett
launched USA Today. Time Inc. created People and Money magazines.

Although there were specialty newsletters in which a single reporter-editor might cover a
narrow topic in depth, it was almost impossible for a lone journalist - or even a small
group - to launch a new, advertising-supported general news venue that would attract a
regional or national audience. We had no practical way to create a Drudge Report or a
Patch or a Business Insider.

Some friends of mine once tried. It was in Montana in 1979. Four of the state's five
largest papers at the time were owned by Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa; the fifth
was the Great Falls Tribune, then locally owned and now part of the Gannett chain. Three
reporters with whom I had gone to school at the University of Montana decided to try to
start a statewide weekly that would focus on politics, government, the environment and
similar weighty concerns. Joined by an advertising salesman and a circulation employee
at Lee's Missoula newspaper, they drafted a prospectus seeking $10,000 to launch an
experimental issue of the "Montana Sun."

The Tribune got wind of the enterprise and wrote a story about it, at which point the
Missoula paper summarily fired the four individuals who worked there, including
Jonathan Krim and Gordon Dillow, who are among the best journalists of our generation.
The fifth member of the group was Barbara Miller, who had been my editor on the
college paper; she resigned a job at the Lee paper in Butte.

Montana's loss turned out to be America's gain. Krim went on to help win two Pulitzer
Prizes at the San Jose Mercury News; he then became a news executive at The
Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, where he still works. Dillow did brilliant
work at the Orange County Register in California, which foisted him onto the Marines as
an embedded reporter on the first night of Operation Desert Storm. Miller remains in
Butte, where she directs the National Affordable Housing Network.

If journalists of comparable talent decided to launch an online Montana news outlet
today, they wouldn't need to raise outside money to do it - and the folks at Lee and
Gannett would never see it coming.

Walt Disney liked to say, "If you can dream it, you can do it." Our family's many visits to
his Orlando theme parks were not wasted, because both daughters absorbed this
philosophy early. One, who loves to work with young people, is pursuing a doctoral
degree in psychology; the other is about to launch her post-college journalism career.
Despite all the challenges in today's economy, Disney's philosophy may be truer today
than ever before. If so, we are living in a golden age. We just don't know it yet.

				
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