Monday, August 17, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - Ninth in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers

If you want to know what the decline in the number of journalists in newspaper newsrooms means, it's worth listening to Joe Demma. Demma's been around and see and done a lot. He's been involved in three Pulitzer-winning efforts. Now, as he says in the following interview, he's grateful that he's not "10 or 20 years younger worrying about supporting a young family. It's clear, I think, that he's also dismayed by the impact of newsroom cuts on the quality of journalism in America. "Communities aren’t being covered. People aren’t being informed of what’s happening in their neighborhood and nobody’s watching over how government is working. There is no longer a Fourth Estate.

This series explores the impact of newsroom cuts on society, journalism and journalists. Demma speaks with troubling authority on all three topics.

1. Name, age, final paper.

Joe Demma, 66, South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigations editor.

2. What work did you win Pulitzer for, when?

I was actively involved in three Pulitzer-winning projects as a reporter and editor with Newsday.

a) As a reporter, I was part of a team that wrote The Heroin Trail, a 31-part series that traced the drug from the poppy fields of Turkey to the arms of Long Island addicts. It won the gold medal for public service in 1974.

b) I was the national editor who oversaw the reporting of Patrick Sloyan, who won the Pulitzer for international reporting in 1992 for his coverage of Desert Storm.

c) As the investigations editor, I directed the reporting and edited the Cops on Disability series by Brian Donovan and Stephanie Saul that won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting 1995.

3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When?

I left the Sun-Sentinel in July 2008 when they eliminated my job -- and me along with it.

4 What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?

Well, I ride my motorcycle, go to the beach, spend time with my family and am currently working with former Miami Herald investigative reporter Dan Christensen to put together the BrowardBulldog, a non-profit investigative reporting website.

There is life after newspapers, especially if you have Medicare and social security. I started as a copy boy in 1965. We still had hot type and wrote our stories on typewriters with two carbons and sent the stories to the back shop with pneumatic tubes.

It was a great time and Newsday was a great place to learn the craft. I had a terrific run working with some of the best people in the business and on some of the biggest stories of the time. Along the way, we afflicted the comfortable quite a bit and even comforted some of the afflicted.

Now it’s over and I’m grateful that I’m not 10 or 20 years younger worrying about supporting a young family.

5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?

I’m hoping to be retired, but I don’t think I’ll ever get out of journalism. The immediate plans call for us to put together the BrowardBulldog website and get that running. Once it’s rolling -- funded, staffed up and naming names -- I’d like to step away from the day to day operation and work as a consultant/advisor.

6. What has the downsizing of your former newsroom or closing of your former paper meant to the quality of journalism in your community? For example, are there types of stories not being told? You could use your own experience to provide examples here.

Communities aren’t being covered. People aren’t being informed of what’s happening in their neighborhood and nobody’s watching over how government is working. There is no longer a Fourth Estate. When I got to South Florida almost five years ago there were three newspapers elbowing each other for circulation with the Sun-Sentinel making inroads into Palm Beach County and parrying with the Miami Herald for a no man’s land in northern Miami-Dade and southern Broward County.

Now, the Sun-Sentinel has retreated out of Palm Beach County, is printing the Palm Beach Post and has split up the reporting of Broward and Miami-Dade counties with the Herald.

Without the competition, there’s little of substance going into any of the three newspapers.

It’s even hurt TV news, which used to rely on the newspapers to lift the local news. Now they’re stuck doing video of disasters outside their markets.

Even the layout of the newspaper isn’t being done locally, but by template in Chicago.

It’s this vacuum of news and watchdog journalism that is giving rise to investigative and local news websites across the country. Eventually, they will change the face of journalism.

7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job?

They could have not sold out to the Tribune Company. But that’s ancient history. Once the individual papers started getting gobbled up by the chains and the chains went public, Wall Street wanted profit over journalism and the business got a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

This is not new. How many monastic scribes lost their jobs when Gutenberg started cranking up his press?

How many typesetters lost their jobs when offset presses came along?

This has been coming on for a long time. And while all these CEOs of the big chains were talking about how you can’t cut your way to profitability, they kept cutting. When there was no more fat, they cut into muscle and then bone. And what did it get them?

8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today?

Go for it. Whether your reporting is on newsprint or the web, it will be read. Just don’t expect to make a lot of money doing it. This is a calling not a job. And that’s why it is hitting journalists so hard. We all could have made a lot more money doing something else, but we chose to do this mostly because we wanted to make a difference. I still think we can.

To read previous installments: Deborah Nelson, Andrew Schneider, Kim Komenich, Janet Reeves, Jerry Kammer, Paul Giblin, Tamara Jones and Glenn Frankel.


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