Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ben Beagle's Dismissal Means Loss of Still More Institutional Memory

With the announcement that Ben Beagle (right), who began writing a column for Roanoke's daily newspaper in 1954, will be jetisoned after today, the institutional memory toll of the past two weeks has easily passed 125 years.

Combined with the dropping of longtime, part-time movie reviewers Jeff DeBell and Chris Gladden last week (they were both feature writers or editors at the paper for many years before leaving), Beagle's half a century-plus sends the numbers to the outer reaches of the career longevity galaxy.

The reason given by Managing Editor Michael Stowe in his column today is that Beagle's removal from the column roster was "made to reduce newsroom expenses." That was the same reason given for eliminating the movie reviewers. In recent years, the paper has increasingly grown to depend on people who write for free or for little money to fill their pages, especially the little zoned editions they put out daily. I can assure you that Beagle, DeBell and Gladden are not paid a lot of money (they loved what they were doing and didn't require much compensation), so times must really be tight on Campbell Ave.

Meanwhile, the paper's circulation director says its print audience is up 9.1 percent (according to a blog post at the Newspaper Association of America) and the paper's Web site gives daily circulation figures of 88,403 and Sunday circulation at 100,387. Not so fast, my friend. The Audit Bureau of Circulation this past spring put those numbers officially at 75,740 and 91,186, part of a steady decline in the past two years. That doesn't look like "up" to me.

The publisher was recently quoted in Media Life Magazine as saying the paper is "a profitable, well-managed company." That would be due in part to a hiring freeze, wage freeze and five unpaid days of leave in recent months, in addition to a trimming of older staff members (remember the buyout "offer" a while back, the one that wiped out a huge swath of institutional memory?).

Beagle's column was popular among long-time (read "old") readers and, like Andy Rooney on "60 Minutes," he couldn't connect with anybody younger than, say, 50, but you must remember that an awful lot of us are older than 50. The largest generation in American history, in fact, will hit 65 in June. I am not and have not been a fan of Beagle's column, though I think that he is one of the finest feature writers and newsmen this region ever produced. I realize that a guy who is 84 years old and has been writing a column for more than 50 years will be left with a hole in his life, the same one some of his readers will feel on Mondays when they pick up the local paper and see something else in his spot.

This is just one more reason--on top of a pile that grows almost daily--to find something else to read. A lot of people are doing that.

13 comments:

  1. You mean Beagle was actually still writing those columns the last 10 years or so? I thought they were just recycling his old columns (I guess, I stopped reading them years ago) because they pretty much were the same thing and theme over and over.

    I do agree, though, that Beagle was a top-notch reporter and writer who could turn out a very, very good news or feature story on just about anything he was sent out to cover. Too bad there aren't any more like him left in the newsroom.

    Chris Winston commented the other week that the New River Current is alive and well, and he can push that idea real hard, but when a lot of the editions are close to content free (with maybe one staff-produced article), that's a hard idea to swallow. One wonders how much longer it will be before the RT is picked up at a fire sale by someone looking for a bargain.

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    1. Right! I wouldn't buy it at a fire sale without Ben Beagle! Beagle had a God given talent to educate, inspire and give enjoyable memories.

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  2. Welcome to the rest of Big Corporate America, Dan. It doesn't help the fact that your industry is going the way of Kodachrome film and the horse-drawn buggy. But what you're witnessing is what other big corporations have been doing to their employees for years.

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  3. I've been a fan of Beagle for many years. Frankly I'm surprised the paper was still using his work given his age. I've been in the newspaper industry on and off since I was a kid. I can remember when my family fought over the sections of the Sunday paper, and my family subscribed to three papers--morning, evening, weekly.
    The industry likes to blame TV, Internet, etc. for it's decline. But the truth is much deeper. Like many others, I think the business model changed years ago, and the current owners/stockholders/managers forgot that content is king. Except for a few celebrity type reporters and columnist, nobody ever made much money working in the newsroom.
    I've had veteran newspaper owners tell me people actually buy their paper for the advertising, and read every ad in the paper, and they actually believe that. But the numbers so otherwise.The business model for all the declining newspapers treat readers/subscribers as marks. The goal of the paper has become nothing more than to make money for the owners, and win some awards given by professional organizations made up mostly of other newspapers going down the drain. It is a sad and terrible loss. A loss no other media is currently replacing. Ben deserves some time away from his typewriter. I wish him and all the other people who love journalism, but have lost their jobs to bean counters, well.

    Charles
    (An award winning writer and photographer).

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  4. Tim sent me a link to this. Actually, I have it on good report that Ben connected to readers younger than 50...

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  5. Dan, if you think the old coot is so valuable you should hire him for your rag.

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    1. Three years later you're still an idiot.

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  6. Hoylier: Actually, we do not produce a "rag," which is low-grade paper. The quality of the paper we use is pretty high (and very expensive). Ben's column would not fit with our format and, as I said, I'm not a fan of the column. I'd love to have him write features for us, but my guess is that at his age, he'd rather not get involved.

    Chuck: Big Corporate America never pretended to be the hedge against Big Corporate America the way newspapers have. Some papers actually were and I recall a time not so long ago when the RT--with people like Beagle reporting--was just that.

    Beth: my most recent wife is 50 and loves Ben, but she's not "younger than 50" which was my cutoff.

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    1. I stopped buying the Roanoke Times after Ben Beagle left. I loved his column and I hated the left-leaning editorials because they usually failed to present a valid enough argument to satisfy me. Actually, after one especially heated argument with Tommy Denton over the phone one afternoon, my parting shot to the man was to ask him how one went about subscribing to the Extra section. The response was an audible click as I hung up laughing.

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  7. Dan, I was not referring to the paper quality. I was referring to the writing quality of your "publication." My guess is you already knew that and was trying to be funny. Nice try.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Hoylier: I'd love it if you'd use your name when you criticize. People of integrity do that. People of courage do that. When I see a criticism from somebody hiding behind anonymity I have to say "consider the source" and go on to what's next. If you have specific criticisms of our magazine, I'd love to hear them, but you are obviously too frightened to speak publicly.

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