It’s been anything but tweed

To call the past two decades a tumultuous period in news is to call the sun hot. Yet, as I retire from the newsroom, I’m fighting off a quaint sentiment I haven’t experienced in years: optimism.

In 2002, when I was considering an offer to become an editorial writer at USA TODAY, a friend tried to warn me off. I was, at the time, just in my 40s and was contemplating a job with a reputation for being a last stop before retirement. “You’re not ready for tweed jackets,” he said.

As it turns out, the job became my last stop before retirement, at least from full-time journalism, which will begin on Wednesday. But it would take nearly 20 years, and those years would be anything but the cozy and sedate affair represented by the tweed jacket motif.

Dan Carney (Photo: Jack Gruber/USA TODAY)

To call the past two decades a tumultuous period in journalism is to call the sun hot. Publications that once made a good living from print, and print ads, have been forced to chase much lower digital ad rates. As a result, journalism has lost roughly a quarter of its jobs, and newspapers have lost more than half of theirs.

News organizations have not only downsized but moved to a younger, more tech-savvy workforce. This point was driven home to me after attending a reunion of my 1987 class of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Of roughly 150 people, fewer than 10 were still employed in the field.

If this weren’t enough to depress a career journalist, the past four years have been one of the lowest points in American political history, with a president who produced near daily doses of incompetence, outrage, inhumanity and mendacity.

While friends often complimented me for my searing critiques of an administration untroubled by law and the Constitution, and utterly unequal to tasks such as keeping a pandemic at bay, I had to remind them of the downside. To render these unfavorable verdicts, I had to read the president’s speeches and follow his tweets, enough to put anyone in a sour mood.

This president spewed lies with such volume and ferocity that he seemed like some kind of deranged hybrid of Big Brother and the cult-driven dictators I encountered in Africa when I lived there in the 1980s. Much to my dismay, however, it worked, at least with tens of millions of my fellow Americans. Lies and conspiracy theories might have predated this president. But, thanks to him, they are now a big business.

And yet, as I leave USA TODAY, I find myself fighting off a quaint sentiment that I haven’t experienced in years: optimism.

For one, American newspapers strike me as finally having found a bottom. Most have gone to a digital subscription basis and are showing some impressive increases in paid readership, even amid a recession-driven collapse in advertising revenue. They are reaching equilibrium as they realize that they are not supposed to be omnipresent and at everyone’s doorstep, but rather to serve as high-quality news products available for purchase and for delivery via a variety of platforms.

One can even imagine something bigger. The television and movie industries are in a mad dash to reconstitute themselves as media companies (as opposed to the mere content providers they had allowed themselves to become) by creating their own streaming platforms such as Hulu, Peacock and ESPN+. Newspapers could do something similar, taking back much of the power over their destiny that they have ceded to social media, search and the internet in general.  

As far as the junk news, conspiracy theories, lies and the other unpleasantness of the last four years, they will continue. But products like these — designed to play to people’s emotions, grudges, insecurities, political leanings and preconceived notions — are, at bottom, entertainment. And entertainment has a way of growing stale and having to be reimagined, or scrapped.

Fake news won’t go away. But it could be overused or lose its potency as its ability to impact actual events is questioned. I imagine it someday being more of a guilty pleasure — like WWE, or astrology — than a motivating force.

Pollyannaish perhaps. But two decades at USA TODAY is enough to make one see the positive side. It has been an absolutely delightful place to work and has provided front-row viewing to an America engulfed in rapid, and at times painful, change.

What’s more, there is this simple fact: I’ve always really liked tweed.

Dan Carney is retiring as an editorial writer for USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @dancarney301


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