Tuesday, December 09, 2008


There's been quite a bit of hullaballoo in the state since The Des Moines Register axed seventy-some employees last week. That's not surprising, really. Times are tough for newspapers these days, with The Tribune Company filing for bankruptcy and The New York Times looking for a sugar daddy.

But the bloodbath at The Register stood out for its heartlessness, coming as it did smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, and base stupidity, with its high-profile firing of editorial cartoonist Brian Duffy, not a particularly shining talent but a guy who toiled at the paper for a quarter of a century, and was obviously well-known and liked by its readership. No, a staff cartoonist isn't important in the grand scheme of things, but his firing is bound to be seen as a betrayal by what's left of The Register's readership.

For me, the most poignant name among those fired was that of Juli Probasco-Sowers, listed at the time of her firing as an "outdoor writer". (She used to be a straight-up reporter, but The Register barely bothers with actual journalism anymore, so she gravitated to feature writing instead.) Before her name became hyphenated, Probasco edited The Perry Chief, and responded positively to my proposal for a regular column devoted to TV and film reviews.

So began my semi-professional writing career. True, The Chief was just a small-town weekly, but I had a regular forum to express my views, and to my considerable surprise, I acquired a (slight) following. This was in the nineties, not so long ago at all, and yet a time when people still read and cared about newspapers, and when writing for one seemed to carry a certain cachet. It meant something that my work was regularly seen in print.

Because, after all, someone had to decide your writing deserved to be read. Now, any schlub can put their work out on the interweb and have a larger potential readership than any ink-stained wretches of the past could dream of. I never made much in any of my semi-pro writing gigs, but if I worked this little enterprise hard enough, networked other bloggers and search engines in a naked bid to up my readership enough to justify selling add space or adding a tip jar, I could easily make more from this site than I ever did from my print jobs. Anybody could.

Which is great, and it democratizes the creative process and all, but...I miss the days when the craft of writing commanded a certain respect, when it was something done only by those who'd heard the calling and followed their dreams. The ongoing failure of The Register makes it clear: In only a few years, it will cease to exist in print form. Whatever new incarnation it takes on will surely rely more on graphics designers and bullet point presentations of factoids than such silly, archaic notions as coherent sentences and stylish form. Writers need not apply.