Four years ago today -- on April 30, 2013 -- I retired from newspapering after a 45-year-career that began with a post-Navy reporting job at the New Albany (Ind.) Tribune in 1977 and ended with an 11-year and 8-month run as editor of The Monitor here in McAllen, Texas. Along the way I worked at reporting and various editing jobs at nine newspapers ranging from major metro to mid-sized dailies in seven different states.
This morning, it seems somehow fitting the fourth anniversary of my retirement comes the day after the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington that was boycotted by America's so-called president, Donald Trump. It was an event keynoted by speeches by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward the two Washington Post reporters whose Watergate reporting led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. They were introduced as two reporters whose work inspired a generation of American Journalists.
I was one of them.
As they spoke, I could not help but reflect on where American Journalism rose to in the wake of their Watergate work and where it has descended to today, something that has troubled me seriously since well before I retired as I watched the newspaper industry withering.
Many of my former newspapering colleagues along with newspaper industry critics and analysts say the newspapers are dying because they are an outmoded medium that readers are abandoning. I, however, have long disagreed with that assessment, contending instead that newspapers aren't dying, they are committing suicide and continue to lose readership not because readers are abandoning them but rather because they have abandoned readers.
Proof of my theory is quite evident with this morning's edition of the final newspaper that I had been editor of, The Monitor.
As editor, I always felt that the Sunday edition -- the highest circulation paper of the week -- should be a showcase with a front page featuring at the very least one well-planned, primary story package that was investigative or interpretive or analytical in nature and always an in-depth piece with photos or illustration or graphics and always of real and serious importance to and impact upon readers. It was a philosophy my staff always shared and executed throughout my tenure as editor even as the company that owned the paper -- Freedom Communications -- slipped into bankruptcy and was taken over by investment bankers interested only in profits who gutted our budget and forced me to reduce staff by nearly half -- fortunately, mainly through attrition rather than any large layoffs. In the end, the paper was sold -- along with Freedom's other Texas papers -- to its current owners.
Today, only seven members of the news staff that was at the paper when I departed remain and only one staffer remains who was there when I arrived for my first day at the Monitor on August 27, 2001. At its peak that news staff numbered 53 people, many of whom -- because of their talent and hard and outstanding work at The Monitor -- have gone on to bigger and better things at some of the nation's top major metro dailies or highly respected, and REAL online news sites and at least one having a piece of two separate Pulitzer Prizes.
Some my former staffers, who have now no longer with The Monitor, told me a couple of months after my departure that after they mentioned to my successor that something wasn't being handled the way it would have been while I was editor, he told them (quite correctly) that "this isn't Steve Fagan's paper anymore."
And that was quite evident in today's fourth anniversary of my retiring from newspapering edition of The Monitor.
The main story package was not an in-depth investigative, interpretive or analytical piece, but rather at five-paragraph, five-inch-long, "Staff Report" story revealing that a float normally featured in the McAllen Christmas Parade had been carted up to San Antonio for the 2017 Fiesta Flambeau Parade. The story -- which read pretty much like a press release -- was accompanied by three really bad (and badly reproduced) handout photos provided "courtesy of McAllen Parks & Recreation" department. In Steve Fagan's Monitor, this would have been a single photo and cutline probably inside the Valley & State section, but certainly NOT on the main package on Page 1.
One of the other three Page 1 stories -- also bylined as a "staff report" -- announced that former San Antonio Spurs forward Robert Horry would be the keynote speaker at the 2017 All-Valley Sports Awards Banquet, an even sponsored by The Monitor and its parent company AIM Texas Media, which also owns the Brownsville Herald, El Nuevo Heraldo, the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen and the weekly Mid-Valley Town Crier.
A third story was a piece headlined "Island LGBT celebration wraps up with parade today." This story had some promise particularly if it had dealt, at least somewhat, with the issue of LGBT discrimination in Texas -- which has long been pretty rampant -- and where it stands as we rapidly descend into becoming Donald Trump's bigoted America. It could have featured, maybe, some interviews with actual participants in the event and their feelings on where things are headed with LGBT rights, etc. It, however, didn't and ended up reading more like a South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce press release.
The last story on the page, headlined "Valley businesses joining May 1 strike," had the most potential. In fact, in terms of its topic, it could have been the main story package for the Sunday paper. But it fell woefully short because, apparently, no one recognized its potential for being something better than it was or, if they did recognize that potentially, they simply didn't care enough to push to develop it. Hispanic organizations across the United States are calling for a nationwide "Day Without Immigrants" (Una dia Sin Immigrantes) strike to call attention to the importance of immigrants in the United States' society and economy and to decry the immigration policies and attitudes of Donald Trump, his administration and the Republican controlled Congress. This could have been a meaningful, Valley wide story that took a serious look at immigrants and the roles in America. This area, after all, is something like 90+ percent Hispanic in population and tens of thousands of people here are immigrants both legal and undocumented and hundreds of thousands are descendant of immigrants. Here, a strike by a significant number of immigrants and their supporters who grind everything to a complete standstill. This story could have explored how many area businesses are going to support their employees' participation in the strike and how local government officials, chambers of commerce, schools, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, South Texas College, etc. view the strike. The story could have included interviews with workers, students, etc. who are planning to participate in the strike and what message they are hoping it will send and what good they think it might actually accomplish. It could have been a very strong Sunday package including photos of the anticipated participants, perhaps with strike placards they are making or have already prepared. But to have carried that off would have required that someone be awake at the switch, which didn't happen. The story instead was simply coverage of a press conference in which two businesses said they are supporting their workers who might want to participate in the strike -- a disappointing piece full of unrealized potential.
Essentially, the Sunday edition of The Monitor, published on the fourth anniversary of my retirement from newspapering had a front page that gave readers absolutely no reason to pick it up off the lawn and certainly no reason to buy a single copy newspaper off a rack. And a such is unfortunately way too representative of what's wrong with too many newspapers today.
Yep, "it's not Steve Fagan's paper anymore."