Writer’s Digest My Story #20: Journalism is Dead

This is the 1,200-word or so version of the 730-ish version I sent to Writer’s Digest. In a few weeks, I’ll post the shorter one.

Journalism is Dead

By Richard Zowie

Kevin Ballard loved his job.

For the past six months he’d worked as a reporter for the Los Patos Star, a weekly publication in Los Patos, Texas (a town of about 15,000 and an hour’s drive south of San Antonio). Kevin carried two beats: the local schools and their sporting activities. That meant sitting in on school board meetings, talking to teachers, students and coaches and digging to discover what happens behind the scenes. Armed with his digital audio recorder, pens, notebook and modest digital camera (the paper was too small to afford the thousands of dollars needed to buy a camera that took great pictures that would’ve made Annie Leibovitz widen her eyes in professional admiration), Kevin did his best to write 10 or so stories a week. Sometimes he even got to write a column.

At first, he was nervous. Kevin wasn’t from Los Patos, and it was one of those Lone Star State towns where most of the longtime locals’ families went back not only to before the Civil War but even before 1836, when Texas gained its independence from Mexico. It could take years, if ever, for an outsider to gain trust and respect. Especially if it was someone like Kevin, who had subtly tried to shake his Michigan accent by changing his pronuncation of vowels, going from saying byalance to balance. When he wrote, he made sure he did so fairly and accurately. He always got both sides of the story.

There was that tense moment when the Los Patos School Board held an issue of teaching both evolution and intelligent design in the classroom. Representatives of the Texas State Board of Education were against it, as was the lawyer of the ACLU threatening lawsuit. Many parents and, of course, the local Christian clergy, supported it. The science teachers at the high school, the ones who would speak on the record, told Kevin they did not support the measure. The others supported it but wanted nothing to do with the debate, fearing it would cost them their jobs.

Wanting an intelligent design quote from a professional instead of just parents and clergy and pushing against the demands of his editor Joseph (who loved H.L. Mencken and the endless muckraking he did during the 1925 Scopes Trial), Kevin found a science professor at the local college, the University of South Texas, who was a proponent of intelligent design. Dr. Ellington, who always wore a white lab coat even when eating breakfast tacos in his office, flatly told Kevin that in his field of neurology, he couldn’t understand how anyone could blindly swallow Darwinism and believe the human body evolved out of “pure, dumb luck.”

Another Dr. Ellington quote became the article’s secondary headline: “‘The human body screams of intelligent design’, local science professor says.”

Kevin expected the worst, wondering what the editor and the public would say. When the calls came in, he was surprised. For the most part, even the state board rep and the ACLU lawyer thanked him for being impartial in his reporting.

That had been three months ago, and Kevin was preparing to send that story to the Texas Press Assocation in hopes of winning a prize that would look great on his resume.

At 3 p.m., he returned back to the Star office after having spent much of the day at the high school. A math teacher was resigning to open his own engineering firm, the football team’s star quarterback was about to break the town’s heart by signing a letter of intent with the University of Oklahoma and two sources told Kevin the high school was planning to start teaching Mandarin Chinese to go with its Spanish and German classes. Many parents, especially those who despise “Made in China” products, will not be happy, they warned him.

He sat, ready to scribe his notes and then call it a day when Joseph, the editor, called him into his office.

Kevin sat in the editor’s office and noticed Joseph closed the door, something he didn’t do unless there was something very private to be discussed.

Joseph sighed deeply and sat in his chair. Kevin could never tell what color Joe’s eyes were because Joe always had a strange habit of never making eye contact. He especially seemed evasive now, glancing at his desk, at the ceiling and at Kevin’s breast pocket. Opening up a drawer, Joe reached in and pulled out a long, folded rectangular piece of paper.

“Joe, I already received my paycheck today,” Kevin said.

“I know,” Joe replied, quietly. “This is your severance check.”

For what seemed like 10 minutes neither spoke. Kevin didn’t know what to say, and Joe twitched in his chair and constantly refolded his hands as he waited for Kevin to talk.

“I’m being fired?” Kevin finally asked, his voice hoarse. He’d already been laid off from four newspapers in the past two years .

“No. Laid off. We’re having to make cutbacks, and since you’ve been here the shortest, they’re letting you go. With two weeks of severance.”

“But…I thought I did a good job. In the six months I’ve been here, I’ve only had one error in my reporting and I get calls from people all the time saying they like my work.”

Joe nodded. “I know, Kevin, and I fought like hell to keep you here. I don’t like this either.” He paused and sighed again. “What I’m about to tell you stays between us. If you tell anyone I said it, I’ll deny it and won’t give you a letter of recommendation for your next job. Got it?”

“Yes.”

“Truth is, Kevin,” Joe said, still glancing at the walls, the door and at Kevin’s folded hands, “the company has this bullshit new business model where they save money by getting rid of higher-priced help and bringing in younger, cheaper talent. They’re looking to hire some kid straight out of college who will work for about five dollars an hour cheaper than what you will. I’ve seen this kid’s work, and, to be honest, he can’t write worth shit.”

Kevin Ballard cleaned out his desk, deleted any unnecessary files, e-mailed his best photos and stories to a private e-mail account and drove home. Before he left the driveway of the newspaper, he called his wife and told her the news. She sounded too shocked to be angry. He deposited the check and drove, wondering how they’d pay the rent, their utilities and where the next job would come from. He’d been laid off three times in the past five years, all for the same reason: cutbacks.

Half an hour later, when he arrived home, he expected his wife to give him a hug and tell him everything was going to be fine, as she’d done before. This time, she handed him a sheet of paper that contained the names of institutes with medical professional careers like pharmacy assistant, front office assistant and x-ray technician.

“All of these jobs pay great, and the medical field’s in high demand,” Sarah told her husband. “Sweetie, I know you love to write, but let’s face it: journalism’s dead. We can’t live like this anymore.”

As Kevin called, he knew his writing career for the time being would consist of one thing: blogging.

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