March 5, 2018: A headline in The Dallas Morning News reads, “Where does our poop and pee go in Dallas? Curious Texas investigates.” By Jennifer Emily.
June 5, 1971: With a double partial major under his belt in English literature and something else suggested by a graduation counselor two weeks before graduation because somehow accidentally there were enough credits for it on his transcript, recent college graduate Jim Schutze ponders a career in journalism.
Pros: Glamour. A hand in history. Possible way to get dates. How Hemingway started. Has its own constitutional amendment. Possible way to get dates. Endless adrenaline-fueled excitement. Great way to piss people off. Fascinating topics. Good way to make a difference. Possible way to get dates.
Cons: No money (not a real problem as long as you have some). Many people hate reporters (but they’re so wrong). Possibly not a great way to get dates (so quit).
Schutze goes for it. The years pass. The decades pass. In spite of heroic efforts to hold on to readers with fascinating history-changing topics, daily newspapers are shedding readers like fleas off a drowning dog. Readers migrate online.
Newspapers hit on the idea of migrating online themselves to chase the readers, plus they hit on the idea of giving the readers the newspaper for free. Works great, except chief operating officers all report dramatic decreases in revenue. And all over America, newspaper owners slap themselves on the forehead and say, “Oh, shit.”
Schutze still in journalism, cranking it out. Covers mostly drainage. Bigger problem than most people think. Also bigger problem than most people care.
But Schutze learns a great deal about water flowing downhill — much more than most partial English lit majors ever suspect. Water can be pumped uphill but only FLOWS downhill. Weird, eh? Over the years, Schutze cranks out millions of words on topic.
Meanwhile, entire industry progressively shrivels. Someone has got to figure it out — got to save journalism, got to get it back to where the chief operating officers report small amounts of money actually coming in, back to where it’s a good way to get dates (well, to where it’s a good way to get dates for the first time), back to the glory days, back to when Humphrey Bogart is standing in the press room with presses roaring, holding the telephone receiver boldly aloft and telling the gangster on the other end of the line sneeringly, “That’s the press, baby.” OK, that was a movie.
Wouldn’t it be great, though, if Schutze could do it? No, look, I’m just asking you, if you were Schutze, wouldn’t you want to be the one who figures out the golden formula, who rings the bell just right so that the readers come flocking back in droves, the money comes rolling in and the dates and everything?
But, no! Of course not! Decades of service writing millions of words about water flowing downhill mean nothing. NOTHING! Because guess who figures it out? Oh, wouldn’t you just know. It’s the dratted Jennifer Emily at The Dallas Morning News, with the headline that turns it all around, the headline that brings the industry back from the cliff:
“Where does our poop and pee go in Dallas? Curious Texas investigates.”
Of course! It was right there in front of Schutze all this time, literally in front of his nose. But he didn’t see it. She did. So she gets the headline and the byline, the moolah and the adulation.
As soon as that headline hits the streets, bells ring all over the city. People rush out onto balconies shouting, “Exactly! We’ve been wondering that all our lives. Where does our poop and pee go? Please! Someone tell us.”
Jennifer Emily does. Of course she does. She loves this. She knows what it means to the industry and what it’s going to mean for her. She pours it out, and it goes downhill!
First, she quotes the chief of the sewage treatment plant. He says in her story, “If it was flushed, it ends up here.” You see what she’s doing there, right? If you don’t flush your poop and your pee, it goes nowhere.
Schutze knew that! That’s like drainage 101. Everybody in drainage knows that. It’s so obvious. You have to flush. But he didn’t think to tell people. He hates himself for this. He’s such an idiot. He can’t believe he didn’t think to do that story.
Now Jennifer Emily’s gone and done it, so it’s too late. It’s yesterday’s news. People wrap their fish in it, although Schutze has never really known exactly what that expression means.
Probably there are some very embarrassed people on balconies right now, exchanging sheepish looks and whispering behind their hands, “I think this explains our little problem.” And the dratted Jennifer Emily gets all the credit.
In her story, Emily goes to some length and exercises what admittedly is a very fine writing hand to explain that all of the city’s poop and pee, gathered in one place, smells very, very bad. Again, this is very old news to Schutze personally, because in his decades of writing on drainage he happens to have visited many sewage treatment plants. They were all of very objectionable odor.
But did he think to tell anyone? No. He never had the snap. Now he must look back at the missed opportunities. “NEWS BULLETIN. THIS JUST IN. HUGE AMOUNTS OF POOP AND PEE SMELL HORRIBLE.” That could have been him. HE could have been the one up for the Big P, as the most coveted award in the industry is informally known.
But, no. On he trod, on he trudged, cranking out massive amounts of words on water flowing downhill, never once even glimpsing the headline in all of it. Poop and pee go downhill. If you flush. Of course!
All of our poop and pee gathers in one place at the bottom of the hill of life, in a strange, exotic and horrible-smelling realm seldom glimpsed by regular folks: Poopy-Pee-Land. And in that realm dwells a king — the manager of the sewage treatment plant. In Jennifer Emily's story, the sewage treatment plant manager tells her, “To me, it smells like money.”
Incredible! Yes, yes, we have seen that quote in a million stories. In every story about a steel mill town, somebody says the air pollution from the mill “smells like money.” In a story about a noxious dog-rendering plant, inevitably somebody associated with the plant, often the owner’s son-in-law, calls the odor from the plant “the smell of money.”
But to say that the odor of all the poop and pee from the entire city is the smell of money takes the metaphor into an entirely new dimension. If that were true, wouldn’t people hate money? Wouldn’t people spend all of their time trying to keep money away from them, kind of like going into journalism?
Schutze knows what you’re thinking. If, by writing about where all the poop and pee goes, Jennifer Emily and Grant Moise, her new publisher at The Dallas Morning News, have hit on the golden ratio, the secret formula that will rejuvenate journalism, what is Schutze whining about endlessly? Why is he not rejoicing? Is this not the wave that will lift all news boats?
Of course, you’re right. So he doesn’t get to be the one, the savior, but maybe he does get to keep his job. Win some, lose some. That makes perfect sense.
Here is the problem. He’s not sure he can even do it. He wants to, but he didn’t do it all these years. He just kept cranking out all those millions of words about drainage and he never once spied the big chance, the golden opportunity before him. Why would he think he could make the switch and do it now?
He’s trying. He wants to be there. He’s working on it. He has some ideas. OK, for example, now that we know where all of our own poop and pee go because Jennifer Emily already broke the story, what about our dogs’ and cats’ poop and pee? Hmm? What do you think? Worth trying? You know they don’t flush.
Toenails? If Schutze could be the reporter who found Toenail Mountain, his reputation would be pretty much made for life. And what if they were burning it and the guy in charge said, “To me, that’s the smell of money.” Talk shows, here comes Schutze.
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The thing about journalism, everything we do, we do for you. It’s all about you, the reader. And then us and the dates and the money. But you come first because, without you, we would all be parking cars for a living.
This holy grail that we seek constantly in our business, it’s all about you. We’re trying to figure out what you really want to know, so we can tell you, so you will read us, so we can sell some ads, so we can make some money. It’s a noble cause, take it from us.
What Jennifer Emily and Grant Moise have done is slice through all the boring verbiage about drainage and water flowing downhill to get to the very heart of what you, the reader, really want to know. That’s why Schutze is so envious. He hopes he can get on board with the new stuff, but he’s not sure. In fact, he is unsure about the whole thing, frankly.
He worries. After you know where your poop and pee go, are you basically done? Instead of the golden ratio that revives reader interest in journalism, could this be the unintended coup de grace? You might read to the end of her piece or maybe just read the headline and say: “Thank you so much for this. We’re done reading you now.” And all over America, newspaper publishers will slap themselves on the forehead and say, “Oh, shit.”