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PAINTER: How newsrooms are changing the ways they operate

• Jul 9, 2018 at 2:00 PM

When I was a journalism student at Central Michigan University in the 1970s, many aspiring reporters yearned to be another Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.

They were the two Washington Post investigative reporters who broke open the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Their superb reporting led to an uptick of students seeking journalism degrees and hoping to be just like them.

There were some other national reporters at the time who also did fine work in covering the Vietnam and Washington, D.C., politics — two of the hotbed news stories in the 1970s. David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Seymour Hersh were also outstanding newspaper reporters.

I followed the career of Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the My Lai massacre, in which innocent Vietnamese men, women and children were murdered by U.S. troops fighting the war in Vietnam. Hersh, who at the time was a freelance writer, hired an agent who then sold the story to large newspapers.

Hersh would eventually go to work for the New York Times, where he also had a number of major scoops. He also has written a number of books. He was a hard worker.

I never pictured myself as being another Hersh, but he did inspire me to be a reporter who worked hard at his trade.

So, when Hersh wrote his latest book, titled “Reporter,” I was eager to read it. While the book is a fascinating read of his successful career as a journalist, and how he went about writing investigative stories, it was his introduction that really caught my attention.

Hersh lamented the state of today’s daily newspapers. “I am a survivor from the golden age of journalism, when reporters for daily newspapers did not have to compete with the 24-hour cable news cycle, when newspapers were flush with cash from display advertisements and want ads,” he wrote. “... Yes, we are a mess. And there is no magic bullet, no savior in sight for the serious media.”

He went on to say that mainstream newspapers, magazines and television networks will continue to lay off reporters, reduce staff and squeeze the funds available for good reporting.

Yes, these are difficult times for the news media as newspapers have to deal with “fake news” characterization and dwindling finances. But newspapers are fighting back for the future of journalism.

A recent documentary on Showtime called “The Fourth Estate” gives a glimpse of how the New York Times has adapted to the changing roles of newsrooms. The four-part series focuses on the Times’ coverage of President Donald Trump’s first year in office. While the storyline follows some of the biggest stories that occurred during the president’s first year, it also gives us an unprecedented look at how reporters have taken to social media in gathering information for news. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have become tools of their trade.

I was fascinated how reporters, working on major scoops, have their stories ready to go, awaiting final confirmation. Once the editors give the green light, the reporter hits the send button and the story appears on the newspaper’s website. There was no waiting around for the next day’s edition of the New York Times.

The reporters and editors do more than just write stories and edit them. They also participate in podcasts and even appear on national television talk shows. One reporter told how he is single, lives alone and doesn’t even have food in his refrigerator. In other words, the newspaper is his life.

Not everyone is onboard with some of the changes in the newsroom. When Executive Editor Dean Baquet announced that he wanted to lay off editors so that he could have more money to hire more reporters, it caused an uproar at the newspaper. Opponents said laying off copy editors would diminish the quality of the newspaper, but Baquet argued that more reporters were needed to keep up with the changing technology in the newspaper field.

A number of years ago, when I was still at the Tribune, I attended a newspaper convention in Las Vegas with colleagues and the owner of our publication. At one session, the owner, Dave Rau, stood up and stressed to journalists that newspapers needed to change the way they operate in a social media-driven society.

He was so right. I do believe newspapers are doing just that, including the Grand Haven Tribune, in which covering the news is a round-the-clock operation. As Baquet said, reporters now work much harder than they did in the past. .

Yes, we are no longer in the golden age, but we shouldn’t give up hope for newspapers. They still play a vital role in our lives.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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