Steve Woodhouse sent me a message on Twitter a few days before Christmas.
His message revealed he was crazy.
He bought a relatively new newspaper called the Marion County Express — a real paper printed on newsprint that can be spread out on the breakfast table or taken to the bathroom to be read on the throne.
Being a journalist in the 21st century is like being an endangered species that is actively hunted. Newspapers aren’t dead yet; they’re more like a hospice patient denied their fentanyl drip.
Greedy Wall Street hustlers gobble up the remains of newspapers large and small. Their finance vampires suck the last of the blood out of papers and let the bodies hit the floor.
Institutions that served their community for 150 years or more die so some billionaires can become fractionally richer.
I don’t blame the corporations or the hedge funds entirely.
I worked for the local newspaper in Des Moines for most of my career.
The digital tools available to editors of newspapers and websites tell people exactly what kinds of stories people want to read.
Here they are:
1. Sports — just the two big universities, not even high schools.
2. Politics, national not local, but the meaner the better.
3. Food and beer, the snobbier the better.
4. Pets, which are the children of the generation that refuses to have children.
5. Salacious crime, especially the kind that can ignite a good race argument or involves a young white woman.
That’s it. Some other stuff will occasionally light up the spreadsheet, but not often.
I tried to do it for four years as a columnist and had so little success that it ripped my guts out.
I took leave several times to sort out my mental health because I truly wondered if I was worth anything at all if I couldn’t be a successful newspaper writer.
The bosses took the column away at the end of 2019. The took my job away in early 2020.
I grieved. I felt like a failure. Then I got some therapy and squared up my head.
I enrolled in graduate school; I start student teaching in a few weeks on my way to becoming a language arts teacher for the second half of my working life.
This brings us to Steve’s message.
I stand by my assessment: He’s whacko.
Newspapers are heartbreakers; this is a heartbreaking time to get into the game.
Half of all journalism jobs disappeared between 1990 and 2020.
Newsrooms cut a quarter of their jobs since the pandemic began.
And Steve wants to dive into the headfirst? Bonkers.
I’ve come to believe newspapers were never as good as I thought they were — and certainly never as good as they led everyone to believe.
I believe in an informed citizenry. I just don’t know how to cope with a citizenry that doesn’t want to be informed.
I remember watching MTV in 1989 when the network was doing a bunch of year-end specials.
Steven Tyler, the lead singer of the band Aerosmith, told an interviewer: “If we had a button on our chest that gave us an orgasm, we’d all press the thing until we passed out.”
That seems to be the republic we want.
News is fine if it confirms what we already believe or makes us angry or keeps us afraid. Put your local TV news on mute sometime and watch the contortions of the anchors’ faces. They look maniacal.
Listen to a weather report about snow. The talk is apocalyptic. It’s all a show designed to keep you watching and clicking.
News should be telling us about our school districts, city councils, and county governments.
Local officials control your schools, police, fire department, paramedics, roads, sewers, libraries, hospitals, and scores of other things that have direct impact on our daily lives.
Presidential politics are important, but it’s not Joe Biden who is going to press the defibrillator paddles on your chest after a heart attack and zap your heart back into rhythm.
One might assume people would care about how well local government is maintaining that equipment and offering training to its departments.
The assumption is wrong.
Instead, we follow presidential politics, where the reporting on the candidates is little more than celebrity gossip mongering.
The idea of issues guiding a campaign is antiquated to the point of absurdity and has been since at least 1960.
Go on YouTube and look up the classic Bob Newhart stand-up comedy routine “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue.”
After you stop convulsing with laughter, think about presidential elections and you’ll realize his fanciful jokes from more than 60 years ago are our reality.
And yet again Steve wants to buy and run a newspaper in the middle of this nation of hedonists? Looney.
But God bless him, he’s my kind of crazy.
He’s trying to right a wrong. Marion County lost the Pella Chronical and the Knoxville Journal-Express to corporate cutbacks.
He wants to roll up his sleeves and get ink under his fingernails.
So why did he reach out to me?
He wondered if I’d be willing to write a column for the paper.
I said no.
I’ve put that part of my working life to rest.
However, I am a writer. And I have this blog at paragraphstacker.com.
If Steve wanted to pick up posts from my blog, he’s welcomed to publish it.
Maybe you folks in Marion County will like it. I hope so. It’s nice to be liked.
Consider this column just another feature of a great experiment: the Express.
Subscribe and see how it goes.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
I hope that you keep blogging and Steve starts publishing. Some of us still read and appreciate non-sensational news. I will always subscribe to our small local newspaper.
This should be required reading by, well, everyone.
Hoping you’ll share your insights the day you figure out “how to cope with a citizenry that doesn’t want to be informed.”
Wishing you all the wisdom, courage, patience, creativity, kindness, and more as you embark on student teaching. The kids will be lucky to have you.
My breath caught briefly until I heard you told him “no”. I admire your ability to stay strong.
However, being one of those who also threw in the towel (or subscriptions) over the years, I did subscribe to the Storm Lake newspaper this year, and I’ve always maintained two local newspapers. The small staffs don’t have time to delve deeply, because they have to keep seeking the ads to pay for the printing. I will wish them better days, as I subscribe also to eight newsletters online.