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Rob Curley: In an early-morning call, losing an old friend and finding a way forward

Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley (SR)

Her voice was soft, not a whisper, but quiet enough that you really had to listen to get all that she was saying. The layers told you she had lived a life just by the way she said the simplest words.

And she was upset.

At me.

She couldn’t believe one of her best friends had been taken from her.

Well, being honest, she had never really met him before, but she had laughed with him many mornings, cried with him on some days, been angry with him about a whole lot of different things and giggled as they made fun of local politicians together.

And now he was gone.

Doug Clark was retiring. It was right there on the front page of The Spokesman-Review and she didn’t feel like it was necessarily because he was ready to stop writing for her local newspaper.

I called back as soon as I heard her message on my phone. We talked for at least a half hour.

When we finally hung up, we both felt a little better, mostly because talking about all the things the legendary local columnist had written made us a little happier. But we also were both still a little weepy.

For different reasons.

After dreaming about it since the third grade, I finally got to work for a daily newspaper in 1996 – the legendary Topeka Capital-Journal. At least it was legendary to me. I had grown up reading it around my family’s kitchen table. Every single day.

I was finally walking the same halls as my favorite columnist in the world, Good Ol’ Boy Bob Hentzen.

What I didn’t understand in 1996 was that I was seeing the newspaper world from the top. At least financially.

Most of this nation’s newspapers would never make as much money as they would during those next couple of years. They weren’t really going to struggle – at least not for another decade – but they were done growing. At least as far as the bankers and accountants were concerned, so there would be some cuts and changes to newspapers … but nothing like we were about to see.

In 2006, the entire U.S. newspaper industry’s combined revenues fell by less than $170,000. It seemed kinda like a rounding error, but marked the first time the industry hadn’t seen combined revenues grow since the 1940s.

The very next year, newspaper revenues would drop by $3.9 billion. Within a decade, it would drop by $31 billion, as 50 years of growth was wiped out in a matter of just a few years.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that over the last 15 years, more than half of the news industry’s jobs have disappeared. They didn’t really need to tell me that. I saw it on my Facebook feed almost every week.

By all accounts, I’m a true believer. I love newspapers with everything in my heart. Just like I did when I was 11 years old.

This week marks my one-year anniversary as the editor of The Spokesman-Review. I wanted to be here for so many reasons, but mostly because I had grown to dislike the smell of corporate journalism. I wanted to work someplace where profits weren’t the only measure of success.

We talked about making our newspaper better. Then we did it.

In an era when newspapers get smaller and smaller, we got bigger and bigger.

We wrote more local stories and published more local photos than we had in years. We added pages back to our newspaper that had long been gone. We brought back the beloved Northwest local section. And had Dorothy Dean cook for us again.

It wasn’t just the amount of stories, photos and pages that grew. So did our circulation, which was the most contrary act of all.

In a matter of months, The Spokesman-Review grew from about 68,000 subscribers to nearly 82,000 – making it one of the fastest growing local newspapers in the nation. Actually, one of the only growing local newspapers in the nation.

Local advertisers noticed their neighbors reading the newspaper again and watched their cash registers ring as newspaper ads brought people back to their stores.

The problem is, the national department stores quit buying big ads or simply closed. Pharmacies and grocery stores continue to merge. Sporting goods companies closed.

Even when you’re selling a lot of local ads, it doesn’t come anywhere close to making up for all of those huge national ads vanishing.

At newspapers owned by hedge funds and massive corporations, cuts are made to help service loan payments and make sure the shareholders continue to get handsome dividends. The people who work at those newspapers care deeply about both their communities and their journalism.

It’s just that their investors typically don’t.

That’s why I craved working at a family-owned newspaper again. The demands are different. And, more importantly, things are done differently.

When the numbers at the end of multiple quarters aren’t the right color, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle it. You give the people who worked hard for your community for so many years the opportunity to leave with dignity. Even respect.

As hedge funds buy more and more newspapers, staff reductions aren’t just demoralizing, they’re insulting. Many big-chain newspapers don’t even think twice about giving people two week’s pay to go along with their pink slips.

That’s not even close to what happened at The Spokesman-Review. No one was tapped on the shoulder and asked to go to H.R.

It was generous and completely voluntary. And not the kind of voluntary that’s followed by a few winks.

That’s why storied local journalists like Doug Clark and D.F. Oliveria and Rich Landers will be leaving us over the next few months. The company offered a package that was so much better than what other local newspapers typically offer that even though the paper only needed a few to take it, 10 did.

I gulped when I learned that number, followed by an hour-long walk around downtown Spokane while I tried to gather my thoughts. And composure.

I’ve mentioned before that an annual survey of the worst jobs in the nation loves to name “newspaper reporter” as worst of the worst. Year after year.

Being a journalist has always been stressful. Adding in financial concerns and other completely justified career uncertainties just adds to the stress.

With that stress, some in our newsroom have wondered how they might try another career, but knew they couldn’t afford to even think about it. For those, this provided an option to try something else. So they took it.

Yes, we get to replace them. And not just with “younger” and “cheaper” people like other companies often do after moments like this. Some of the most-respected journalists in the nation have reached out to join The Spokesman-Review.

Will our newspaper be different?

Of course.

You don’t lose this sort of talent, experience and knowledge and be the same. But we also aren’t giving up.

We’re still going to have all of those extra pages we’ve added. And all of those local stories and photos.

We’re still going to do huge projects like our yearlong look at Washington agriculture. We’re still going to cover all of your favorite teams in a way that makes other teams’ fans completely jealous.

And we’re still going to try to figure out why no one knows how to plow snow in Spokane.

These are all of the things I said on that phone call.

At the end of the conversation, her soft voice got even quieter.

“Thank you for telling me all of this. I love this newspaper and can’t even think about beginning my day any other way.”

Me, too.

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