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Wednesday, July 30, 2008 09:33 am

Things I’ve learned

Journalism will survive the passing of some newspapers

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Soon after they emigrated to the U.S., in 1954, my parents bought a fancy hi-fi radio-record player. A couple of decades later, when I was in high school, they got a new stereo and gave me the hi-fi. The belts on the Grundig Majestic's turntable were worn, but the vacuum tubes still glowed, the shortwave still worked, and with a long copper wire as an antenna I could get the world to crackle and pop through the old speakers.

Tuning in big international stations — Deutsche Welle, Radio Nederland, and the BBC — was a cinch; reaching through the static to grab faint signals from Albania or Egypt wasn't.

I'd listen to the broadcasts, write down what I heard, and mail off reception reports. Weeks later, I'd get free stuff: Primers on Afrikaans from South Africa. Copies of Soviet Life from Radio Moscow. Proceedings of the Chinese People's Congress from Radio Peking.

Mom joked that the mail carrier gave her the evil eye whenever he delivered packages from a People's Republic of This or of That.

But it wasn't about the freebies. I was fascinated by the programming, what people on the other side of the globe thought was important. Sure, most of it was propaganda — but in those years, when the Vietnam War was winding down, propaganda was about all we were getting from our own government — and I was a skeptical and curious kid.

I've always believed that other people are like me — intensely interested in what's happening at home but also hungry to know about the bigger world around them.

I had good reason to think that way. Back then, before cable, cell phones, and the Internet, we had vigorous, independent newspapers.

As an example, take my old hometown paper.

The family-owned Louisville Courier-Journal — my family moved from Chicago to Kentucky in 1968 — was, at the time, one of the nation's best newspapers. It had its flaws, but it was progressive, devoted to public service, and would expand its news pages to run special reports, such as transcripts of the Watergate hearings. Louisville was a sleepy, conservative Ohio River town, but it had a newspaper that made it seem enlightened and worldly — seemingly, its entire business function was about producing a quality editorial product.

It was more, much more, than just a "local information and connection utility."

If you count the Mustang Courier, a mimeographed "newspaper" I launched and edited in grade school, back in 1971-1972, I've been involved in journalism for most of the past 37 years. I've worked as a reporter and editor for dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. A few of the publications I've worked for are defunct; others have changed dramatically. That's the nature of this profession: There are no guarantees.

I earned my first regular paycheck as a reporter back in 1981, during the first Reagan recession, but I was laid off after three months. I wasn't the only one feeling the pinch then. Within two years, owners pulled the plug on well-known dailies such as the Washington Star, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and the Cleveland Press. Tough times always bring casualties, and usually the newspaper that dies in a competitive market is the one that produces a weaker editorial product.

My experience here makes the point. Illinois Times is generally a better newspaper when we have three staff writers, as we do now, than when we have one or two. This isn't rocket science: More is more, less is less — and readers notice.

Soon there'll be less of me here. In a couple of weeks I'll be stepping down as editor of this newspaper.

Before I go, indulge me as I take the opportunity to share a few of the things I've learned by working at more than half-a-dozen media companies:

Be skeptical when readers say they love what you're doing — you may be hearing only from people who think like you. Remember, journalism isn't selling burgers or putting on a show; sometimes it's like administering medicine.

Readers may appreciate big stories, but they remember the screw-ups — misspelled names, wrong dates, misleading headlines, and grammatical errors. Details matter.

Newspapers try to accurately report what people say, but what people say isn't always the truth — and, more often than not, newspapers don't ask enough people.

You're more likely to succeed if you give yourself modest goals, but if your ambitions are small and your vision is narrow you should learn to be satisfied with mediocrity.

Finally, what I believed as a kid, when I was noodling around on the dial of an old radio, is still true today: People are intensely interested in what's happening at home, but they're hungry to know about the bigger world around them.

Journalism that feeds that need will never die.

Contact Roland Klose at editor@illinoistimes.com

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