12/09/2008

Shumaker saw newspapers' current problems coming decades ago

The Chicago Tribune and its affiliate publications are in bankruptcy, and somewhere in the Great Newsroom in the Sky, Jim Shumaker is shaking his head and muttering a few profanities.

At least, that’s what I want to believe, because the Tribune has long been known as a hard-nosed newspaper, and Shumaker was the epitome of the hard-nosed journalist. But if he were still alive, he wouldn’t let the above lede see the light of publication unless I’d confirmed that not only had he been shaking his head, but I could also quote in exact detail the profanities he’d used.

There’s deep trouble among newspapers across the U.S. Besides the Trib’s bankruptcy, the New York Times is essentially mortgaging its mid-town Manhattan home to keep afloat. And the Miami Herald, once a bastion of journalism excellence, reportedly is up for sale because its owner, the McClatchy Company, also is having cash-flow problems.

Newspapers are suffering from a steep decline in advertising revenue caused by both the emergence of the Internet and the current economic crisis. But there are other reasons, including dramatic changes in the national psyche and our sense of priorities. And Shumaker saw at least part of the change coming decades ago.

As a reporter and editor from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, Shumaker was fearless, stubborn, and driven to find the truth and report it accurately. He hated pomposity and pretense. And he had little use for reporters who avoided the vital nuts-and-bolts news stories and cherry-picked high-profile glamour stories with an eye toward winning awards.

Shumaker was a legend at the University of North Carolina when I was in school there. I wanted badly to get into his news reporting class, but it always filled up.

But I was lucky enough to become friends with him in the mid-1980s when I was managing editor of the News of Orange County, a county seat weekly in nearby Hillsborough. I’d drop by his office on the UNC campus every week or so. By that time, Shumaker had achieved an odd form of celebrity thanks to cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, one of Shumaker’s former students. MacNelly was the creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip “Shoe,” which starred an ill-tempered, quick-witted, sneaker-wearing bird named P. Martin Shoemaker, who was editor of the Treetops Tattler-Tribune.

Everyone around the UNC J-school knew that Shumaker had been the inspiration for MacNelly’s irascible bird/editor. But for the first few years of the strip’s life, the quickest way to get cussed out and booted from Shumaker’s office was to mention the comic strip in his presence.

By the time I started hanging out in Shumaker’s office, he’d accepted the link between himself and the cartoon bird. MacNelly had given Shumaker one of the original drawings for a Sunday “Shoe” strip, and Shumaker had framed it and hung it in his office in Howell Hall. Still, he referred to the strip’s main character as “the buzzard.”

During one of my visits, the subject of journalism awards came up, and Shumaker snorted. Awards mean nothing, he said. He told me about the time he’d been asked by the Florida Press Association to pick three winners from among dozens of news stories submitted by Florida newspapers. “Like a damn fool, I agreed to do it,” he said.

Soon, a big box of newspaper clips arrived. Shumaker opened the box, glanced at the contents, and shoved the box into a corner of his office.

Time passed. The Florida Press Association sent a polite letter gently reminding Shumaker of his obligation to pick three winners from among the entries. He ignored the letter. A second letter, not quite so polite, came to his office. He ignored that one as well.

Finally, a letter that was blunt enough to impress even Shumaker arrived. But it also made him angry. He hauled the box from the corner and dumped the contents into a pile on the floor. “I reached into the pile and started pulling out clips,” he said. “I said, ‘This is first place, this is second place, and this is third place.’ They never asked me to be a judge again.”

Shumaker also was bothered by the students he was seeing in his classes in the mid-‘80s. They weren’t taking his reporting classes to become news hounds. They wanted to learn to manipulate the news, and they wanted to be paid more than they could earn as reporters.

“They all want to go into (bleeping) public relations,” Shumaker said.

Shumaker was still a member of the UNC faculty when he died of cancer in 2000. By that time, what had been the School of Journalism had been reconfigured and re-named the School of Journalism and Mass Communication – a concession, I assume, to the growing trend of managing the news instead of reporting it.

A couple of years ago, I had lunch in Chapel Hill with Phil Meyer, whose advanced reporting class I’d taken at UNC. Before joining the UNC faculty, Meyer was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter in the old Knight Ridder chain. Meyer isn’t as earthy and profane as Shumaker was, but he is every bit the old-school journalist that Shumaker had been.

Our conversation eventually came around to Shumaker. Meyer said that Shumaker had been upset by the changes in the J-School and what he perceived as the dwindling number of old-fashioned journalists on the faculty.

The reasons why newspapers are struggling are complex and varied. But as Shumaker had noted, the roots of the current mess go back at least 25 years, when newspapers began turning away from substantial, in-depth journalism and started focusing more on bottom lines and superficial reporting.

The photo of Jim Shumaker is from the web page
http://parklibrary.jomc.unc.edu/shuendow.html

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Here's the thing: People knew what was coming when I got in the business 20 years ago. Told me so as I got out of school.

And we laughed about it as an industry, like it was a cute little tchotchke symbolic of our (then) underdog careers.