Could Tribune bankruptcy be a good thing for storytellers?

December 9, 2008

Could the Tribune Co.’s demise – along with the slow slide of traditional papers – actually be a good thing for storytellers and storytelling?

Maybe wounds are too fresh to have this conversation. Still, newspapers and their formulaic style of storytelling have been rapidly flipping toward chapter 11 for a while now. When you’re a reporter, you learn how to write the archetype on deadline. The murder story. The-Sunday-afternoon-re-create-Saturday-night-mayhem story. The election story. The court story. The meeting story. And sadly, the layoff story.

And the layoff story is one you don’t mess around with. When I was a green reporter, I turned in my first layoff story with a lead saying that hundreds of local grocery workers “had been sacked.” I picked up the paper the next day to see that what I thought of as my “masterful” lead had been replaced with a plain old straight news special. When I walked in the newsroom, the managing editor, who aspired to curmudgeon status, stopped me.

“Never get cute about people losing their jobs,” he said. “Sacked is a good verb. But not when you’re talking about City Market workers.”

He was right. Lesson learned.

So excuse me if it seems a little crass to suggest that bankruptcies and layoffs in the newspaper industry might actually be healthy for storytelling in the long run. See, the ever-cheapening corporate newsrooms, with shrinking staffs, shrinking budgets and shrinking coverage — the ones j-school profs love to criticize — might actually fall victim to the bottom line. That would leave us to start from scratch. Lauren Kessler, an accomplished author and professor at the University of Oregon, likes to say that to really write well she had to “unlearn” most everything newspapers taught her.

In other words, when she decided that she really wanted to tell stories, she had to start from scratch. And that’s how the long-heralded demise of newspaper titans might actually be a good thing. It might let real storytellers start from scratch.

Layoffs of any kind hurt. They aren’t funny. Good people losing jobs and pensions is awful. I’m sure the Tribune Co. and its papers will limp along in some form for a few more years. Newspapers have, in general, served us well. Their ultimate demise — if there is one — will leave a huge gap. But think of it not as a gap, rather as a giant cyber news hole for real stories, by real storytellers. It’s a chance to start from scratch.