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Why I quit the D&C

Flavor-of-the-month stories seem to take precedence over in-depth hard news.

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A few weeks back, City wrote about the Newspaper Guild of Rochester, the union that represents many newsroom employees at the Democrat and Chronicle ("Remaking Media: the D&C's Hazy Future," October 4). I am among the reporters mentioned in that story who recently left the D&C.

I wanted to tell you why I left the paper, and why I think it's important that the public support the Guild in this crucial time for journalism in Rochester.

I first worked for the D&C business desk as a college intern in 2003, and the paper hired me after I graduated in 2005. As a reporter there, I worked with people who are among the most respected reporters and editors in the Gannett company. Each was ready to offer help and advice when this rookie needed it.

Yet ironically, the place where I first affirmed my love for journalism is also the place where my passion for the field died.

The work environment was stifling. Countless veteran reporters used to tell me before I left in August that Rochester was a "destination city" for Gannett reporters. Now, it is a place many are looking to leave.

Since my departure in August, the D&C has lost, by my count, at least seven full-timers from an already depleted editorial staff.

And the absence of a 401(k) plan and other incentives that would otherwise lure more talent to the D&C is just the beginning. If you're a D&C reader, you've undoubtedly noticed the paper's more profound changes.

The sections have thinned out. Stories are shorter. Reporters and editors, left scrambling to "feed the beast" with a shrinking staff, are more prone to fatigue, burnout, and even errors.

The well-to-do east side of MonroeCounty gets relatively more comprehensive coverage; Rochester's urban core and the towns west of the Genesee get less.

Areas we once called neighborhoods were lumped together and dubbed "zones," a stark reminder of the sterile, geographic market-driven approach the D&C and other newspapers have taken in order to survive --- or, in other words, maintain favorable profit margins for distant, faceless parent corporations and their stockholders.

In the process, the D&C confused its identity. Gimmicky flavor-of-the-month stories and target-market niche publications often seemed to take precedence over the in-depth hard news stories that print outlets do best.

And it's not that the paper's management has shunned depth and quality news. But ask other former D&C staffers and they'll likely tell you that there was little incentive to continually pursue the big stories.

For example, one of my stories about a Bausch & Lomb Inc. product recall earlier this year got bumped up to page 1A. But because of the story's placement, it lost half its length and carried a sensational headline that understandably irked a few readers and B&L itself.

The day the story ran, I got e-mails from some B&L employees and even workers from competing companies lamenting that my story was unfair to B&L. They told me it was too short, too simplistic, too much like a "gee-whiz" TV sound byte.

Explaining to those readers why space limitations caused my story to run about as long as a couple of movie listings in the D&C's Insider didn't do much to soothe their concerns.

Or take my final story for the D&C, an analysis of job creation at companies that got tax breaks from MonroeCounty.

Had I known what kind of internal bureaucracy my supervising editors and I would face in preparing the story --- which, for transparency, needed to mention the D&C's own inability to retain jobs despite receiving county incentives --- I probably never would've even pitched the story in the first place.

I'm not denying the economic realities confronting newspapers, particularly those in stagnant markets like Rochester. Nor am I downplaying the value that the aforementioned flavor-of-the-month stories can have for readers.

But in the process of a newspaper redefining itself, it should never lose sight of what it does best.

Nor should it lose sight of the reporters, photographers, editorial assistants, and others who breathe life into the paper, especially those who eschewed ambitions of moving on to bigger newsrooms to instead adopt Rochester's historic daily as their own.

Making those journalists do more with less is not sustainable in the long term, nor does it fool readers into thinking that what the paper's putting out is always going to be a quality product.

So what can you do? Make it clear to the D&C that you demand better coverage of the issues that are most important to you.

More importantly, call or write Publisher Michael Kane and demand that the D&C's reporters and editors get the time and resources to do it.

The looming exodus of young reporters and seasoned veterans from the D&C has done little to spark the paper into action. If the paper's higher-ups aren't getting the message, then readers must send it.

Nishad Majmudar is now involved in public-policy work in Washington, DC.

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