An unsuspecting journalism student walked into a buzzsaw of devastating criticism Sunday after innocently accepting an offer to write a column for the Winnipeg Free Press about the impact on her, the future generation of reporting, of the latest round of layoffs at the newspaper.
Her crime? Honesty.
Honestly. The daylong stomping she got in return was totally unwarranted. Honestly.
Stefanie Cutrona is a student in her third week at Red River College's Creative Communications program. She stepped up when somebody at the FP thought it would be a great idea to ask what students looking to enter the profession thought when they saw newspapers laying off their youngest staffers. It was a great idea.
But 19-year-old Stefanie never imagined the backlash that would be unleashed when she gave her honest opinion. She still may not realize that it all stemmed from her very first sentence: "I don't read the paper."
Anything she wrote after that was lost in the cacophony and vitriol raised and thrown her way, starting with a verbal assault by mainstream reporters.
I find it weird that a column titled 'what's wrong with the newspaper" inadvertently displays what, imo, is wrong with current trend...a column devoid of hard facts or stats, just musings in the first-person.
James Turner, of the Winnipeg Sun, jumped in:
@stevelambertwpg from a person with zero actual authority to make predictions.
Even Alison Mayes, one of the laid-off seven, thought she should pile-on:
" I just wrote a very long reply to Stefanie and then deleted it. What can you tell an entitled, uneducated 19-year-old who thinks she has journalism figured out? All you can do is laugh."
It went downhill from there.
What was lost in the verbal stomping being delivered was that Stefanie was only speaking the truth as she knew it.
She wasn't pontificating about the future of news delivery. She was laying out the challenge to newspapers---the next generation, her included, doesn't get their news from the papers.
She may not have realized that the assault on her was also born of honesty -- reporters honestly scared of that future. They know she's right. They see that the industry they are part of is dying. And when you're suffering the death of a thousand cuts, you don't know which cut will be the final one. If it's not this one, will it be the next?
It's that fear that precipitated the over-the-top attacks on a 19-year-old student who was excited at getting into print for the first time.
The one thing her column managed to do was take the heat off two of the veterans at the Winnipeg Free Press who had written their own columns about the layoffs of seven of their colleagues. Gordon Sinclair and Dan Lett.
Sinclair's column commiserating with the laid off seven was especially ironic given the reaction from the strongest supporters of the dismissed employees that the newspaper should have gotten rid of its "deadwood" before its youngest staffers. And by deadwood they invariably mean Junior.
But what they don't know is that Sinclair -- and Lett, too -- will never be laid off. They have a lifelong guarantee of their jobs. It's in the contract. Life or retirement, whichever comes first. So columns filled with crocodile tears don't cut it.
Lett, on the other hand, used the layoffs to lecture readers about the economics of the newspaper business. Advertising is down, societal forces are driving newspapers to offer their product on the Internet for free, and they can't make money giving away the news for free.
He said the latest layoffs were not done to save the newspaper money.
They will save the paper more than half a million dollars, though. Melissa Martin, the only news reporter to get the axe, was making more than $73,000 a year and due to get a raise on Oct. 1st. (Lett and Sinclair make $80,598 a year.)
There's a more likely reason for the layoffs.
The union contract expires Oct. 1, 2013. Was this a shot across the bow of the union? Go on strike again and watch every job added in the last decade disappear? The layoffs went back to 2004; there's still a good cushion before the staff list dates back to the last century.
That experiment has been gutted. It was intended to lure new and younger readers by letting them meet and mingle with actual reporters doing actual reporting from the cafe. A bold idea that obviously failed to live up to its goal.
" These layoffs only further reinforce the sentiment that journalism is a dying profession, instead of reinforcing what it should be: that it is an evolving one." wrote Stefanie Cutrona.
What will that evolution look like?
Perhaps the answer lies with one of Canada's most famous thinkers, a media philosopher with a Winnipeg connection. None other than Marshall McLuhan.
Not his most famous dictum, that "the medium is the message."
But his other observation which we paraphrase as "when one technology supercedes another, the older technology becomes an art form."
News reporting as an art form. There's a thought.