Before Craigslist

By Richard Read ’80

We didn’t recognize print newspapers’ heyday even when it landed on our doorsteps. Charles St. Cyr, a San Diego Union reporter in 1981, tried valiantly to dissuade me from a journalism career when I wrote him for advice, fresh from editing The Amherst Student.

Editors are relentless, Charlie typed, in a three-page, single-spaced letter. Reporters rub shoulders with sordid characters ranging from prostitutes to politicians. Land a big story, he said, and your publisher kills it to protect an advertiser. At week’s end, a newsman makes just enough to cry into his beer.

I telephoned Charlie and thanked him for the letter. I told him I was hooked, I wanted in. “You read every word?” he asked. “You still want to be a journalist?” Yep, I said.

“OK,” Charlie said. “Let’s get you started.”

Illustration of newspaper writer's desk circa 1980

Illustration by Melinda Beck

Good to his word, Charlie helped me launch a 33-year odyssey that’s spanned 60 nations, war zones, earthquakes, tsunamis, economic crashes and, yes, interviews with hookers and heads of state, although seldom in the same room. My path through the Fourth Estate has coincided with journalism’s arc, from the days of hot type and handsome newspaper profits to the Internet era, when newspapers struggle to survive.

When I began in Portland as a general-assignment reporter at The Oregonian, we answered colleagues’ heavy black desk phones and left handwritten messages. We typed our stories on IBM Selectrics. On deadline, the clunky typewriters thundered to a newsroom crescendo.

Reporters fixed typos with correction tape. We handed our epistles to grouchy city editors. They tore off carbon copies and shoved the originals into pneumatic tubes that sucked them into the old building’s guts for scanning by a mainframe computer.

Photographers shot pictures with film cameras. Senior editors disappeared for multi-martini lunches. Longtime reporters played bridge in the cafeteria. The septuagenarian writer sitting to my left had flown his plane to Mount St. Helens to cover the eruption.

Technology marched on. By the late 1980s, when I realized my dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, faxes—not telex machines—beamed stories home from Tokyo. I roamed the Far East, bankrolled by burgeoning auto ads back home. I covered the rise of Asia’s middle class, Japan’s boom and bust, China’s economic opening and North Korea’s repression. Before dawn each day, fleets of trucks delivered fat papers across the Pacific Northwest. More than 450,000 subscribers depended on The Oregonian as the region’s main information broker.

In 1997 I somehow talked my editors into letting me explain Asia’s economic crisis by following a container of french fries from a Washington State farm to a McDonald’s in Singapore and then on to Indonesia’s revolution. The series won the paper’s first Pulitzer Prize since 1957, the year I was born. A brass band played, champagne flowed, and Portland Mayor Vera Katz, wearing a purple pantsuit, flung herself across the newsroom for a hug.

We didn’t recognize print newspapers’ heyday even when it landed on our doorsteps. During the 1990s we crafted in-depth narrative stories, exposed injustices and forced reforms. Many journalists enjoyed solid middle-class lifestyles.

And then came the Internet, the master of creative destruction. In a few clicks, Craigslist vaporized millions of dollars a year in classified-ad revenues. The Oregonian rescinded its lifetime job pledge. The company implemented early-retirement packages, generous buyouts, then not-so-generous buyouts and finally layoffs and cuts in pay and benefits.

Home deliveries of the shrunken print edition dropped to four days a week. News went digital. Now, reporters are evaluated mainly on the number of page views their online posts attract. Celebrity stories, sports reports and cute pet photos capture plenty of clicks.

The twice-daily Selectric crescendo has gone the way of pneumatic tubes. The newsroom has the muffled sound of an insurance office as writers tap computer keys, posting developments as soon as they surface. Often, we publish news online first, for editors to review later.

News these days reaches many more people faster. A Phnom Penh stockbroker can comment on my latest business post as quickly as a Portland beer brewer—and expect an answer just as promptly. Information beams to smart phones, reaching younger news consumers. Tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook entries spread developments ever wider.

Us old hacks thrived on the thrill of nabbing the news first and getting it right. Given a few extra minutes, we strove to imbue our writing with flair. As my old friend Charlie predicted, we gathered each Friday for beers, but with little to cry about. A publisher has never killed one of my stories.

We signed up for the same reasons that many young writers join the industry now: to learn something new each day, to write the first draft of history and, as journalist Finley Peter Dunne quipped in 1902, to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

But as lucrative car ads go the way of the buggy whip, some Amherst grad smarter than me must find a revenue source for high-quality journalism crucial to our democracy. Otherwise the comfortable won’t be afflicted, and the afflicted won’t be comforted.