S-R web producer says goodbye to the newsroom she loves

Spokesman-Review Web Producer Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen was one  of 21 young staffers laid off last week. Thuy just wrote this goodbye to the newsroom she loved working in. She posted it to her friend’s network on Facebook, but I thought I’d share it (with her permission) with everyone. Tinged with sadness, her message still finds hope for the journalism profession she leaves behind and for her co-workers left to pick up the pieces.
I cried today when my assistant managing editor, Carla Savalli, said goodbye to everyone in the newsroom.

She told about growing up in a family that subscribed to both Spokane newspapers, when she decided she would start her own neighborhood paper at the age of 10. The first page was news, and gossip about neighbors. The second page was art from coloring books. The third was filled with recipes, the first ever being her mother’s zucchini bread recipe.

Savalli’s biggest dream while growing up was to be the editor-in-chief of The Spokesman-Review. Things didn’t happen that way (she was the No. 3 position when she resigned), her resignation was her own decision, but she is not abandoning this industry.  We all know this industry is really a religion – of journalists – of storytellers.

The S-R has always housed great storytellers. I admire everybody I’ve had the honor to work with. We celebrate everyday people who do phenomenal things, as well as – like the iron sculptor making African mammals, the retired police officer caring for his paraplegic dog, the record producer multi-instrumentalist who dropped out of high school and started his own studio, the twin brothers from Hauser Lake sent to Iraq. We also witness things we never wish we’d have to witness, like the Spokane mayor recalled after a sex scandal.

But then you poke around on the inside and newsroommates are also good storytellers in-house. Christmas parties, funerals, potlucks, people bringing babies into the newsroom and sharing good news, talking about recipes, going fishing, sharing tomatoes, staying late for election night when some of our families probably think we ought to be at home. Spending all day trekking around at political conventions, forgetting to eat, excited to be witnesses to a ridiculously amazing process (or is it amazingly ridiculous?).

We spend more waking and bonding hours with our coworkers in this weird environment of nasty negative things. Bizarre murders, car crashes, house fires, building fires, Taser incidents (I remember being the producer in the hot seat when surveillance video contradicted officers’ accounts of Otto Zehm’s death. The most stressful work day), writing and posting news on deadline, relying on each other to not just be accurate and fair but to call out each other’s mistakes, of which I made many, and they forgave me.

Storytelling is then a collaborative activity, a collective consciousness, bringing formless data to a higher plane, like prayer. Ask around in a newsroom about how people feel about their job, and most of them will tell you it’s a religious calling – The way anybody would choose to be a priest or a nun, somebody chooses to be a storyteller.

Until I join another newsroom, I will miss having front-row seats to everything that happens. I will miss following the senior political reporter to events – I would follow him to the end of the world and would have missed him when he retires in several years. I will miss video training, usual staff meetings, blogging about ethics in our Transparency Initiative and explaining to the public how our news decision-making process works.

I was given a blog and was trusted to write what I saw fit about news decisions and internal affairs. I was given a camera and was trusted to shoot, to essentially invade other people’s lives at interesting times. I was trusted for journalistic sensibility, audiovisual perfectionism, trusted to capture reality and present it as realistically as could be done. They trusted me with such big responsibility and for a long time, it baffled me that they did.

I will miss the honor of being able to say to someone, “I work for The Spokesman-Review” When we got the announcement that 21+ people would be laid off, including myself, I wondered who would be without the Review. The sensible answer is that I wouldn’t change as a person – I would retain all the skills gained and life would move forward, eventually. I’d find the next thing, just like when somebody gets a divorce they (might) move on.

But that doesn’t negate the value that the S-R has in the community among its readers – A newspaper will always be a big deal, and it will always be a big deal to have that honor of reaching out to readers who wake up in the morning and get crisp warm newspapers on their doorsteps, welcoming us into their homes and exposing us to their children – or in this day and age, opening up the computer and exposing their household to our video stories on the web. I get butterflies in my stomach not just when nice guys hold my hand, but when little old ladies tell me how long they have been subscribers and how much they wait for it in the morning.

Counting this layoff round and last year’s, the newsroom is down 35 percent people. That’s 35 percent fewer content makers. This will be a smaller group, but I just like hearing people say, “Things will be better – I promise.”

I don’t want this industry to die. But I also wish I knew how to save it, immediately, instead of doing my thing and hoping it will help, wondering if I’ll “recognize” journalism in twenty years. Probably.

But for now, this is everything I have loved about what we have been doing. If the universe permits, I would like to do it again – Even if it’s somewhere else, in that newspaper in the sky where all the good journalists go when they die off.

Meanwhile I really want to cuddle and watch Cinderella.

The message is clear: Change or perish

Black Monday seems to be striking American newspapers on a daily basis. With almost a thousand journalism jobs lost last week alone, there seems to be a concerted effort by everyone in the industry to reinvent the medium. While noble, it’s sad these changes didn’t take place sooner. But hey, we had a good gig going for the last 150-years, why mess with what works?

It’s strange how the people running newspapers have been talking about changing for most of my 20-year career. Yet, all they’ve really done in that time is tinker under the hood a bit. Now as the revenue crisis deepens by the day, publishers and editors around the country are willing to start listening to their content producers for fresh ideas. The reimagining of our industry, no longer a covenant of the suits, will probably be shaped by those of us who have the most to lose-reporters, photographers, editors and online producers.

Yesterday at my newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, we had our annual come to Jesus meeting. My editor, Steve Smith gave all of us the gloomy news: Revenues are way down, the cost of doing business is way up and cuts need to be made. Luckily, the layoff demon has been held at bay—at least until the next round of dismal revenue projections hit. Smith asked the newsroom to just do what we always do—produce good journalism. He also let the room know that we can’t do things the way we have in the past. I, and pretty much everyone in that deadly quiet meeting got the sense that we are now done talking about change. If we are going to protect our jobs, then we need to find a way to reinvent the newsroom on a completely different multi-platform model. No job, or job title is secure. The message is clear. Change is now baring down on The Spokesman–Review newsroom like a runaway logging truck without brakes.

A few days before the newsroom meeting, editor Smith quietly invited eight of our newest, young journalists into his office. He asked each of them, who basically have no stake in the processes of the past, to suggest ways to streamline the newsroom operation. He wants them to find a way to make it more efficient, thus letting people spend more time on developing quality journalism instead of just shoveling content.

The “Great Eight” as I call them, are meeting daily to share ideas and work up a plan. What they come up with is anybody’s guess. They have been given boundaries with which to operate. No suggestions to stop publishing the print newspaper, no downsizing or upsizing the present newsroom staff. Whatever they come up with, the challenge is for management and older co-workers to really listen to what they have to say. They are the future of our business. If we don’t change fast, they won’t stick around for the sinking of the ship.