You Get What You Pay For

You Get What You Pay For

I can be dumb as dirt about a lot of things, but I’m at least smart enough to know this: What you have here, folks, is a reporter who got lucky, very lucky and has been more-than-above-average blessed.

Part of my good fortune is that I’ve covered a lot of big stories in my lifetime. But sometimes if you are close up to a story, if you’re so close that you’re living it, you don’t quite realize how big it really is. I have come to realize that this is true of journalism itself. As I contemplate what I have seen over my nearly 90 years I realize it has been a bit like (excuse the old angler metaphor) fishing in the surf. I cast my line out seeking to catch big stories as wave after wave of change sweeps over me.

When I was growing up in Houston, Texas - then a small regional city with ambition, sort of like a teenager looking to make his mark on the world - I dreamt of becoming a reporter. It was really the only job I ever could imagine wanting for as long as I can remember. “A reporter” was always my answer to the question, "Danny what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Now dreaming of being a reporter from a working class (barely) family in a place like Depression-era Texas meant harboring the faint hope of one day seeing your name as a byline in the local paper, the Houston Chronicle. I could imagine, if I closed my eyes really tightly and allowed my mind to drift into alternative universes of possibility that my father might some day open his beloved paper and see Dan Rather in print above a story I had written.

Of course newspapers weren't the only place people got their news, even way back in the olden times. I listened to the radio with fervor, especially as I lay bedridden with rheumatic fever as World War II raged. But the idea that someday it would be my voice broadcast across the miles of open country, with my Texas twang and my "e's" turned into "i's" (If you had asked me how old I was in fifth grade I would have answered "tin"), well that was preposterous. I may not have known a lot back then but I knew enough to know I didn't sound anything like my hero, Edward R. Murrow, the urbane newsman reporting on the Blitz from London.

I tend not to be prone to nostalgia. Perhaps it’s that news sense honed through a lifetime of being “on the story.” But I do find myself thinking back with increased frequency over the journey I have traveled. I did make it to the Chronicle as a print reporter...well, sort of. It was a try out that didn’t pan out because my spelling was so poor that I spent more time with my nose in the dictionary than I was writing. I found the pace of being “on the air,” suited me far better, so I gravitated to the Chronicle’s radio station. Then I made my way to that newfangled invention of television and joined the other young’uns --the ones the old newspaper men who ran the station in Houston didn’t quite know what to do with.

The biggest dream you could have in television at the time was to make it to “the network.” And the network that mattered more than any other back then was CBS News, home to Murrow and his “boys.” I got my break, and then a lot of others - covering civil rights, wars, the White House, helping pioneer 60 Minutes, and then the anchor chair. I knew I wasn’t smarter than many of my peers, but I was determined that nobody would work harder. And I got many lucky breaks.

The biggest break I got was timing. I was able to ride a wave of TV news ascendency. It came with incredible audience reach, and the resources to travel the world reporting on the stories that mattered. But by the end of my tenure at the network, where I had spent almost my entire adult life, the end of the era was apparent. Cable news had already eaten into the ratings and profit margins. And the internet was growing with the speed of weeds in a cow pasture. I knew how fortunate I was. I had been very well compensated and my family and I would never have to worry about food on the table or a roof over our heads. But I also knew that I still had work I wanted to do.

I got another great break, from Mark Cuban, who allowed me to build a newsmagazine program (Dan Rather Reports) on his TV network HDNet. And when that ran its course after many more years than I could have hoped for, I pivoted to an interview show (The Big Interview) and new ventures like social media. And more recently, I launched a website (News and Guts). I have a book out (What Unites Us), including in graphic novel form, and now a newsletter (Steady on Substack). My great luck has continued. I say all this not to boast but to show that I have had to evolve with the times. And the times are being propelled by new technology.

I can see the disruptions in journalism from this technology everywhere, and even in my own world. As I moved from network employee to small business owner I felt first hand the struggle to make payroll and find ways for sustainability. I have seen the marketplace for news shift, and the kind of reporting I was used to doing fall out of fashion. I have seen the scramble for revenue, from commissioned projects, advertising, subscriptions, and other ideas, constantly searching. Of course, the devastation to those old stalwarts of American journalism, local newspapers, has been especially breathtaking.

That is why I am so hopeful about this new Paygo service. Is it the answer, or even an answer? I don’t know. But I think this could really work. If we don’t try something new we’re in danger of succumbing to the next big wave of disruption with more erosion of our journalistic infrastructure.

I can see the strengths and weaknesses in all the forms of journalism I have gotten to experience in the course of my lifetime. I can see how we are long past time for more diverse newsrooms. How the press was far too late for big stories, like climate change and LGBTQ rights. I can see that we now have “platforms” (still an odd expression for me to wrestle with as I remember the dominance of “publishers”) that amplify lies through their algorithms. But in the end, journalism, no matter its form, is about a few basic things. Getting as close to the truth as is humanly possible. Holding the powerful accountable. And informing the citizenry about what’s important, what’s interesting, what’s awe inspiring, and sometimes, what’s just plain fun.

I don’t know how many more times around the sun I have. But I hope that when it comes to journalism, what’s ahead will feel a lot more like a dawn than a sunset.