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Around Campus: Profiling Journalism Professor, Charles Zobell

By Natalia Lancellotti
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Charles Zobell, 65, is a journalism professor at UNLV with a remarkable career in print journalism at the Review-Journal. During his 37 years as a reporter and editor, he has noticed a dramatic change in quantity and quality of the newspaper industry.

“There were countless numbers of challenges,” Zobell said. “The biggest challenge was watching the newspaper business decline.”

When Zobell started at the Review-Journal in 1975, the staff was composed of professionals in all the areas. He covered the police beat his first year and then was assigned to cover City Hall. He also reported on the 1977 Legislature from Carson City. He worked with editors that had an unquestionable experience in the market.

“I worked as a reporter for three years,” Zobell said. “I covered cops and general assignment, city government and state Legislature, full time in Carson City.”

Las Vegas was not a big city back then and stories were published promptly. The newspaper produced four editions every day, so the news was always being updated. The first years at the newspaper were outstanding. There was a stable number of readers following local issues in the valley by opening up and reading the newspapers every morning or afternoon.

However, in recent years the newspaper industry suffered a noticeable crisis and managers made a decision to lay off employees. As advertising revenue, particularly from classified ads, continued to decline, increasingly more cutbacks were made.

 

“Watching that happened at the newspaper that I care so much about was difficult,” Zobell said. “I did not have to make those decisions, our editor made those decisions and he was the one who told people they were leaving. He had me sit with him that was part of the policy.”

According to Zobell, the company policy requires two people to be present at the time of each employee is given the bad news. As managing editor, Zobell sat with Executive Editor Mike Hengel each time a newsroom staff member was let go.

“It was really tough to see them go,” Zobell said, explaining that the chosen people were not the always the most recently hired; instead they sometimes were those with the most experience.

Frustration about potential unemployment filled the Review-Journal newsroom. After the cuts, everyone was wondering who was next and no one felt secure about their job, including Zobell, who helped decide who would be let go and said it was a sad reality.

The newspaper could not make sufficient profits even with several rounds of layoffs. Even some of the most senior editors, including Zobell, began to fear for their futures with the paper. Their fears soon were realized.

“They eliminated six of their top editors, including myself. That was quite of challenge,” Zobell said. “I got eliminated; I was not a person anymore.”

Of the top editors who were dismissed, sports editor Joe Hawk said he “was the one person who they kept and asked me to do another position.  It was very difficult to see people like Charlie let them go.”

The positions of managing editor, city editor, sports editor, business editor, features editor, editorial editor and art director were eliminated. Hawk, who had been a sports columnist and then sport editor for several years, was allowed to stay, but in the position of traffic reporter.

“A lot of my good friends and good journalists have lost their jobs; it was heartbreaking,” said Jane Ann Morrison, columnist at the Review-Journal.

Zobell felt that the elimination of several key newsroom managers would affect the quality of the paper. He knew after the layoffs that the newspaper was about to have problems in many areas, especially the content.

“The quality of the paper declined as a result of the six of us not longer being there,” Zobell said. “They are still publishing a good newspaper; I think it was better when we had a bigger staff.”

After so many years of work, Zobell felt his job experience and performance were thrown in the trash. He was fired from the paper where he had learned journalism. It was never just an eight-hour-a-day job. He said he put his full heart and energy into making it a good newspaper for the people of Las Vegas.

But in spite of a not-so-happy ending, his career in Las Vegas journalism was successful. After working three years as a reporter between 1975 and 1978, he accepted a position as director of intergovernmental relations for the city of Las Vegas. Among his responsibilities were press relations, liaison with other Nevada cities and preparing the city’s proposals for the 1979 Legislature. He said he enjoyed working for the city, but missed journalism.

In late 1980, he received a call from Mary Hausch, who was at the time the managing editor. She asked him to go back to work as a city editor. After all, his experience was valued.

“When Mary offered me a chance to go back to the newspaper, I took it,” Zobell said. “She was very demanding in her expectations for writing.”

After serving as city editor for 12 years, Publisher Sherman Frederick chose him to be managing editor under Executive Editor Tom Mitchell. With the growth of Las Vegas, staffing levels slowly were enhanced at the Review-Journal during the 1990s and early 2000s. But then, as the economy sank, and newspapers across the country faced dramatic losses in circulation, the layoffs began.

Due to the loss of good editors and reporters, the paper showed unfavorable. Fewer writers, photographers and editors had to work even harder to keep up with the news. The time spent on good editing suffered.

“They just simply cannot do that; they do not have enough editors to read stories that closely,” Zobell said, describing the situation of the lack of involvement on news stories.

Zobell and the other top editors were dismissed in 2012. A year later, Zobell changed from print to broadcast news and went to work for KSNV, Channel 3. He began as a senior producer for a few months and then moved up to director of digital media.

In his transition to television, Zobell realize that entire news industry had made a drastic turn and companies were cutting news employees to improve profits. That situation was the same in all journalism layers, going from print to broadcast.

“The newspapers are trying to find a way to stay relevant,” Hawk said. “There is a speculation that within 20 or 25 years they are not going to exist anymore.”

The quality of the content was not priority anymore. To keep the audience informed about the biggest issues was not a priority anymore. To maintain news with local and national stories was not a priority anymore. News companies typically take all the content created for print or broadcast and slap it into a digital format, hoping to attract young consumers.

“The quality has deteriorated a little bit,” Morrison said. “There is not the same space for stories. You get more online than you get on a paper.”  

“Any day of the week I can read the paper and see the difference,” Zobell said.

“They are hiring good writers in the last two or three years but there is a lack of experience from those reporters,” Zobell said, emphasized that the problem is the shortage of editors compared to decades ago.

“It is difficult to provide all the direction and feedback,” Zobell said. “What you see in print is not as good as it once was.”

According to Zobell, attention and involvement by supervising editors are requirements for good content. He said that to keep up with the news needs of a large city, the newspaper needed to increase its staff size rather than cut back.

“The staff at the newspaper has not grown proportionally … to the population growth,” Zobell said. “The issues facing the community are more complicated.”

Zobell was even more critical of local TV news. He said TV viewers cannot possibly know what is happening in their city if they rely only on broadcast news.

“Mostly they are just covering breaking news,” Zobell said. “The content of the newspaper is still far better than any TV station. There is just no comparison for the variety and depth of information.”

According to Zobell, it is a reality that the gap between those two types of media is considerable.

Not surprisingly Hawk, who worked with him for years, also shared the same thought and emphasized that television’s main priority is to beat the other stations.

“Television has changed so much over the years,” Hawk said. “TV news is all about getting it out first.”  

Hawk defended the print industry by saying that one advantage of newspapers is that they can expand on stories rather than cutting short videos to get the news first. He also remarked that accuracy is a factor than can hurt the reputation of the market. At the newspaper, they take their time to check out sources and verify the information, but TV stations do not always rely on those important factors under the pressure of competition.

“Nothing is worse than putting out something that is not accurate,” Hawk said. “It is necessary to triple check.”

“The printed newspapers that will survive the longest will be the small town newspapers,” Zobell said. The local paper is the only news organization that cares about most communities, he explained.

He said that when he was managing editor at the Review–Journal, “we were kicking around all kinds of ideas of how can we change the model to make more money of digital media.”

Revenue for new companies is a big concern but the biggest is to attract young generations to read news.

“None of the students in my interviewing class read the paper every day; some of them go online and read,” Zobell said. “Most of young students are getting the information from social media.”

According to Zobell, those who still read the newspapers are older generations who won’t be here anymore. Younger people don’t care much about what happens in the country due to the lack of interest to be informed and educated.

“That is a challenge for editors and news directors — to figure out a way to educate the public,” Zobell said.

After a remarkable career in journalism, Zobell decided to keep teaching at UNLV. He had worked in the print industry for 37 years and had been a first-hand witness of the transitions the industry had made.

Zobell said he enjoyed his first months working at Channel 3. But with the death of station owner Jim Rogers and the sale of KSNV to Sinclair Broadcast Group, the stations top priority became growing the audiences for every newscast. Their way of doing that was concentrating on police news with very little time devoted to community issued.

Calling himself a perpetual optimist, Zobell holds out hope for the news industry. As journalists become smarter and more creative in how they use digital media, as they create content that is more interesting and useful to their audiences, they will find a business model that works.

“I encourage my students to look forward to a bright future in the news. If they can write well, are naturally curious and take advantage of their knowledge of all things digital, they will find good jobs,” Zobell said. “People will always want to know what’s going on.”

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