With publication of my 21st book on track for October, I am working with the good folks at my longtime publisher, Crossroad Press, on some of the critical aspects of a book post-writing: editing, layout, cover design, audio, e, etc. Herewith a peek at Ch. 1.
CHAPTER ONE: Market value
Once upon a time, I, Nick Nolan, wrote exclusively about marginalized people who had little or no voice in the mainstream media. Socioeconomic and health disparities, mental health, and intellectual and developmental disabilities were among my topics. My stories prompted change. Some won awards and three were Pulitzer finalists — but, more importantly, I helped advance the social-justice agenda as only a crusading journalist can do.
When I left hard news to become a columnist, a move I believed would afford me greater power to prompt change — think Anna Quindlen and Nicholas Kristof — I was merciless when I took aim at corrupt politicians and judges, self-serving civic leaders, misogynists, unethical corporations, climate deniers, opponents of LGBTQ+ rights, and racists and demagogues wherever they were found.
My column was always on the front page, I was nationally syndicated, and I hosted a popular TV show. My website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube accounts had hundreds of thousands of followings. Simon & Schuster published a collection of my columns and in its review, The New York Times proclaimed me “brilliant.” The Los Angeles Times went further, calling me “a writer who eloquently frames truths. The world needs more Nick Nolans.” Promising millions, a Netflix producer had reached out to me, wanting a pitch for a series about the newspaper business.
How long ago this all seemed the morning we learned that our newspaper, the family-owned Boston Daily Tribune, had been sold.
It was August 23, 2021, the second year of the coronavirus pandemic.
By then, my social media activity was tepid.
By then, my column was buried deep inside metro/region.
By then, not even bottom-feeder agents contacted me.
By then, the January 6 insurrectionists had stuck another dagger into the heart of democracy — and out-of-town and hedge-fund newspaper chains that paid their executives obscene salaries and bonuses while laying off actual journalists as they ghosted and killed local papers were pushing it in deeper.
By then, my muse had forsaken me.
More correctly, the muse had been slain.
Using Google Analytics, a member of our marketing staff had “proved,” as he phrased it, that social-justice columns did not generate the numbers of online views and engagements needed to justify my job.
Or anyone’s job, this marketer said. What do you think this is, socialism?
The new reality? Newspaper executives wanted clicks.
Fuck public service, unless somehow there was a Pulitzer in it, which would be a marvelous come-on the shrinking sales staff could bring to certain advertisers. Well-endowed non-profits, for example. But not car dealers, real-estate firms, floor and rug installers, hearing-aid manufacturers, the Jitterbug cellphone company, and shyster companies promising cures for erectile dysfunction, which remained among our biggest advertisers.
Maybe a feel-good piece every now and then that hints of public service, for old times’ sake, this marketing moron said, but that’s it. Maximize your clicks. You’re no dope. You can read the tea leaves. You still like a paycheck, right, good buddy?
Good buddy my ass.
But I held my tongue.
As real newspapering continued to die, I knew the inside game intimately. Not the time to shoot yourself in the foot. Definitely not the time to proclaim Dana Priest, Seymour Hirsch, and Neil Sheehan as three of your heroes.
So what was getting the clicks on that August 23, 2021?
Consider a few of the so-called “recommended” headlines and accompanying stories — all from free-content providers — that were posted on our website that day,
Go Topless Day Draws Hundreds, Even a Few Men
Desperate Housewives Without Makeup, the Shocking Reality
Giant Rabbit Hops Across Wyoming, Arrives Hungry in Idaho
Texas Christian Has Proof She Walked on Water
She Hid Under the Bed to Spy on Her Husband But Instantly Regretted It
Sultry Country Star Steals Rival’s Diamond Necklace, Hides It in Her Cleavage
Man Buries 42 School Buses Underground. Look When He Reveals the Inside
The Baddest Biker Girls in the World
We Can Determine Your Education Level in 25 Questions
Does Your Cat Throw Up Often? Try This One Trick
50 Photos That Show the Wrong Side of Cruise Ships
20 Hair Shapes That Make a Woman Over 60 Look 40
20 Southern Phrases Northerners Don’t Understand
17 People Who Learned the Hard Way
And there was no escaping these abominations.
They populated the home page from top to bottom and owned its entire right side, and they popped up inside every second or third paragraph of every story. Adblocking software couldn’t stop them. Rebooting and clearing the cache couldn’t stop them. Clicking on the “X” next to the dread AdChoices button in the upper right-hand corner couldn’t stop them.
You get the picture. A pathetic fucking picture. Not what I signed on for those many years ago, when journalists believed journalism really could change the world, not just line the pockets of newspaper executives and owners.
But ordered by management to get the clicks, I had “retooled my toolbox,” as the idiot marketer phrased it.
The result? I was now writing nonsense, three times a week, except for July, when I vacationed on Block Island, where I fantasized I might live someday as I wrote novels and screenplays.
Nonsense about socks, for example — 45 numbing inches about losing socks in the washer, finding socks under sofas, socks without mates, the amazing secret life of socks. I contemplated the greater meaning of winter sunsets (OK, not bad), spring robins (also not bad), and Jell-O (shoot me now), and I explored my separation from my wife, a columnist at DigBoston, Boston’s leading website. Cue violins now, please. Or barf, your choice.
I recommend the latter.
Alliteration, adjectives, and clichés had become my stock in trade, and I killed no darlings (see Faulkner, King, et. al.).
If anyone needed further proof of how pathetic I’d become, it could be found in how often I wrote about the difficulty of writing columns: 4.5 times a year, according to the smugly published calculation of my soon-to-be ex-wife. Her math, sadly, was correct.
I took comfort knowing I wasn’t alone.
Our once-mighty newspaper — defender of truth, champion of the common man, Pulitzer Prize winner, published every day since 1823 — through wars, pandemics, depressions, civil strife, patriotic and idiotic presidents, divided Congresses — was on the ropes, too.
Starting in the 1990s with the advent of the online era, The Tribune’s daily circulation had tanked, from an Audit Bureau-certified 410,000 to less than 50,000 and still dropping. We couldn’t even stabilize our flagship Sunday edition, which once had a circulation north of a million, despite cutting the subscription price, lowering ad rates to peanuts, and sponsoring online crossword contests with $5,000 cash prizes. Not sure if we ever paid them, or just dangled that out there and followed up with excuses or movie passes, but whatever, I digress. I do that a lot.
There were even rumors of moving to five-day-a-week publication, or going entirely online — or even, in a worst-case scenario that increasingly seemed possible, ending publication altogether, the presses after two centuries silenced for good.
Had we been a two-rag town, by now we surely would have become another ghost paper, run by a skeleton crew working remotely from Texas or Indonesia.
But having bought and then folded The Boston Chronicle, the only other print competition in the metro region, the Trib owned a monopoly, which meant we had a new lease on life, for a spell anyway. It meant we could hold advertisers hostage, to a degree.
It meant we still had some market value, which is why I was not shocked by the events of that August morning, when I arrived at work to find a remote-broadcast trailer with Florida plates in front of our building. A satellite dish lifted toward the sky.
The Delta variant was ravaging the U.S. that summer, but we were in Massachusetts, which had one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. Nonetheless, fully vaccinated people — and that was all of our staff, to the best of my knowledge — were required to wear masks indoors, and we were working hybrid shifts, virtually from home on most days, with a rotating schedule of only small numbers of us at the paper on select days of the week.
This was the first time we had been summoned to be on site all together.
“Looks like the rumor was true,” said Destiny Carter, my best friend. Destiny was one of the Trib’s long-time business writers and an African American, one of only two people of color on our staff. The other was photographer Erica Martinez, who was Hispanic. We employed no one who was of Asian Pacific American or Native American descent. Critics who pointed to The Trib as a pillar of structural racism were right.
“You mean the rumor we were for sale?” I said.
“What else could it be?” Destiny said.
We were standing in the lobby with our good friend, reporter Bud Fuller. A film crew was loading tripods and cameras into the elevator to the fourth-floor auditorium.
“But Gordon vowed we weren’t for sale,” I said.
Just last week, in fact, publisher Randolph E. Gordon IV had issued a written statement denying persistent rumors of a takeover.
“And two years ago he insisted we weren’t downsizing,” said Bud. “His word means shit.”
Bud was right.
Three days after his written statement, Gordon slashed the staff by twenty-five percent, albeit through buyouts that left many of the remaining three-fourths jealous. For the record, that was the last of the buyouts. What came next was good old-fashioned firings: a call to visit HR, where you were told you were terminated, your email and card key would be deactivated in a half hour, and you had until then to clear your stuff out and be off premises or security would be called.
“So, who’s the new owner?” I said.
“Must be SuperGoodMedia,” said Destiny. “It’s the only chain based in Florida.”
My stomach churned.
“They’re worse than McClatchy or Gannett,” I said.
“And you thought downsizing was bad,” Bud said. “We need to see Gordon.”
“Good luck,” said Destiny...