OPINION: Progress: Here comes the nightmare again

Apr. 20—Every April, members of the Tahlequah Daily Press team wonder if they will make it into May. Long-time readers and friends understand the angst, for that is the month we produce our annual Progress. For the journalistically uninformed, this is the story of a community's progress, and the agonizing struggle to tell the tale.

Most print journalists share my trepidation and the desire to be anywhere else when it comes time to produce the Progress edition. But "back in the day" — a phrase often employed by elderly folks like myself — it used to be worse. Much worse. Our edition, which comes out in April, used to consist of about 200 pages. In those days, all employees — not just the ad reps — were expected to start fanning out in late February and talk to every business, institution, and organization in these parts. Almost everybody sold ads for it, and I sold more than anyone else — even the ad staff.

It's a unique opportunity. With every ad purchased, the clients get to tell the story of their successes over the past year. It's like one giant "advertorial," but readers liked it, because it reminded them of who was out there selling products and services, what they had on offer, and whether the ample-chested Ms. Fuzzlewuzz still worked behind the counter. Advertisers used to call us in May and tell us customers had dropped by to say, "I forgot all about y'all until I saw that story in the paper." Believe it or not, that still happens.

Back in the '90s, '80s, and certainly earlier, everybody in a small newspaper office did a little bit of everything, and no one saw a conflict in a reporter selling an ad. Sales by news staffers were pretty much limited to nonprofit entities and businesses run by friends. We thought everyone understood that spending money with us wouldn't buy our silence if a client got into trouble and we had to report it. But as part of a national newspaper group — and especially with our industry under the microscope in recent years — drawing a line between news and advertising is ethically essential. Besides, all newsrooms are much smaller than they were then, and the digital age has given us far more to do than simply covering the news in the time-honored way. Page design happens in the shrinking newsroom as well; thanks to desktop publishing, composing departments are a thing of the past.

Producing Progress is more time-consuming than a daily paper or other supplements, for a number of reasons. This is why employees shudder when they hear the "P word." I've had colleagues at other papers tell me that right after Christmas, they become depressed — not because the holiday season has ended, or because they are facing another year of unknown challenges and rapid aging. It's because Progress looms on the horizon. I used to log 80-hour weeks for a a couple of months leading up to the Progress publication. That's just how long it took, when this community had hundreds of local businesses, as opposed to the chains, which don't give a hoot about community involvement or image, as long as people buy their substandard fare.

The loss of mom-and-pop businesses is one reason Progress is now smaller, but also, we don't have as many ad reps to sell it, and not as many are buying into it — because of lack of time or money, or because they have nothing new to report. Since tariffs on newsprint and other issues in the past few years have forced most newspapers to cut down on print days, and it has historically published the last print day of the month. That's the case this year; it still hit the stands Tuesday, April 30, provided I don't die upright — or slumped over — in my chair.

And where Progress is concerned, when it rains, it pours. I've gotten very little sleep over the past two weeks, and not just because of long hours. I used to be able to put in 80 without many residual side effects, but now, I'm old, and even a 60-hour week — coupled with arthritis, failing vision, and a lack of energy — sometimes seems a nearly insurmountable challenge. Progress also marks the time when newspaper employees' children have trouble at school; houses burn down; vehicles go on the fritz; servers and other equipment fail; someone gets sick; or a relative dies. And the biggest bugaboo of all comes in April: taxes.

It's said that only two things are inevitable: death and taxes. On Facebook, when I mentioned Progress as the reason I won't be socializing for a few weeks, another journalist of my acquaintance embellished on that notion: "A former colleague of mine used to say there are three sure things in life: death, taxes and special sections." Dylan Goforth, editor of The Frontier, an online enterprise journalism outfit, weighed in with this interjection: shudders. Former TDP coworker Rob Anderson compared Progress to "two-a-days in football." A few other former TDP employees made emotive noises of sympathy, and Bob Gibbins — who was our courts and crime reporter for 21 years — admitted that Progress had "invaded my thinking space the other day." That's sad — and the things of which nightmares are made.

But the one I identify with the most came from Dana Eversole, a Media studies professor at NSU for decades since she left TDP: "I just threw up a little in my mouth." I'll try to keep my gorge down, but I'll ask for your prayers, your patience — and if you've got some spare change, your advertising. Just call Heather and she'll get you set up.

Editor's note: Parts of this column have been previously published.