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You need a thriving newsroom, too

Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were standing in a hardware store trying to figure out which contraption works best for storing a garden hose.

Another customer, standing near us, overheard our discussion and weighed in. It was clear he'd done his research. We laughed as we explored the ins and outs of hose winding. In the end, we went with his choice.

Walking out of the store, I couldn't help but think of the typical newsroom. Stay with me, please, as there is a connection: In both places -- in the aisles of a hardware store and in just about any place where reporters gather -- you're likely to benefit from the gift of someone else's expertise. All you have to do is raise a question, and the opinions fly.

Sometimes you're getting help to pick out a silly home improvement tool.

Sometimes you're brainstorming how to protect democracy.

Alert the blogosphere warlords: Here I go again.

I've written a lot about the decline of newspapers and how this imperils a thriving democracy. I've had a stake in newspaper journalism for more than 30 years, so call me sentimental if it makes you feel all warm and superior. Do, however, grant me the lessons of my experience. I've worked as a freelance writer for peanuts and as a staff person with the rumbling force of a major newspaper. With few exceptions, there's no comparison.

Online aggregators and so-called citizen journalists never will be a substitute for the newspaper tradition. For that, you want reporters with the time and expertise to dig through the lies and obstructions of politicians with something to hide. For that, you want reporters who make a living wage. You also want reporters who put up with one another in the same room on a regular basis, with time to breathe. Home offices and Facebook do not a newsroom make, no matter how often you're instant messaging.

I recently confided to a fellow journalist that I miss working in a newsroom. "I miss the camaraderie," I said, "all the brainstorming."

He shook his head.

"No," he said. "You miss working in the old newsroom, the one 10 years ago. You don't miss what's going on now."

We all should be worried about how the changing personality of newsrooms is crippling the creativity of their brightest people. I'm not talking about editors who dumb down content and issue bans on narrative journalism. Those are bad developments, but smart reporters always find ways to work around uninspired bosses.

What I'm worried about is the pervasive climate of fear and exhaustion that whittles away at what makes newsrooms such formidable forces for good. There's little time or energy -- or enough people -- to spark the innovation born of free association. Small talk gives birth to big discoveries. You have to be relaxed to do that. When you're scared for your job, free time feels dangerous.

"Creativity is not talent," Monty Python's John Cleese said in a 1991 speech. "It is a way of operating."

I've not quoted Cleese much in the past, a habit I now add to my list of flaws. His entire address is worth watching. It's at Maria Popova's brilliant blog, "Brain Pickings" (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/12/john-cleese-on-creativity-1991).

At the very least, consider this excerpt:

"To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But -- here's the problem -- we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures, which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.

"This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they've become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode."

You could say the same thing about most newsrooms today.

Last week, we found out that the celebrated Times-Picayune cut its print edition to three times a week and slashed its staff. You'd think that as an industry, we'd be used to bad news by now, but this was a bomb after a volley of hand grenades.

Almost immediately, I started getting emails and calls from journalists in other newsrooms who sounded as if they'd just seen the shadow of the guillotine. These are gut-wrenching conversations with some of the best human beings in my life.

They sound scared and very much alone.

This is bad news for all of us.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. Email Connie Schultz at con.schultzyahoo.com.