A Remembrance of Old Media
The untimely passing of a colleague from the Glory Days of Atlanta media leads to a wistful gathering and tales of reinvention amid the tears.
We laid one of our tribe to rest this week. Elizabeth Vaeth was a longtime member of the Atlanta media community going back to the 1980s. If you’ve consumed Atlanta media since then you heard her on radio and read her in print, or otherwise felt her effect.
She was taken much too young, the victim of surgical complications. She was someone who friends and colleagues always viewed as indestructible, indefatigable, a smile to greet every setback and a job lead for anyone she knew who had suffered one of those setbacks.
For the first time in my life, marked in no small part by deaths natural and unnatural, I stared dumbfounded at the sad Facebook news shining up at me from my morning screen and said aloud “this can’t be.”
We gathered after a somber church funeral service this week at her North Fulton home, for lunch and a few cocktails and the chance to mourn together the loss of one of our own. She would have appreciated the sight of us all, milling about her kitchen and grumbling about our industry as we shed tears and shared favorite stories.
Our group included 30 years' worth of media insiders and outriders, digital immigrants who have struggled from the halcyon days of Atlanta radio, print and television into a 21st century media environment that sometimes defies understanding.
We mourned our friend, but there was also a certain sadness in the air about a business we loved together in boom times. Back when there were jobs to be had and careers to be made, working for media outlets in an era when most Atlantans had a mere handful of sources for daily news and events.
But that was then. Today the media is fragmented into a thousand choices, and what was once the sinecure of a “solid” position in local “big” media is no more, long gone. In point of fact, news of our friend’s passing reached most of us via Facebook, a printed obituary not appearing until much later.
Today, many of us hanging on by our fingernails to Atlanta media gigs work two, three, four contract jobs at a time to pay the bills. The talent and skills we developed in the last century must now be re-tooled on the fly for an age ruled by social media and user-generated content, niches inside of niches.
The smart ones in the room opted out, marrying well or getting a real estate license. Our beloved friend was like most of the rest of us, hanging in and hanging on, staying current and trying to fit our old media skills into a new paradigm where people look for breaking news from Twitter instead of the Associated Press.
But back in the old days, sonny, we had us a time in Atlanta media, and our friend was usually found somewhere in that swirl. We covered the World Series and the Olympics, bombings and riots, launched national media talking heads from our humble studios and newsrooms, and tracked the goings and comings in our own realm in a way that made it seem all the more dashing and romantic.
In this early 1990s Atlanta media hive, when the Braves made miracles and everyone laughed at that silly Billy Payne and his Olympic dreams, it never occurred to us that we were nearing a seismic shift in our business models and media reality. Hard on the heels of Atlanta’s Olympic summer came the hellhounds of deregulation and the Internet.
Those two factors were to change our world from good times to hard times, as thousands of new media choices (like this one you’re reading), corporate debt, and diffusion of advertising revenue would lead to the point we ruefully admit to warning young people away from our business if they have any desire to move out of mom and dad’s basement and pay for their own health insurance some day.
So we gathered to wish our fellow media warrior farewell, and to look each other in the eye and nostalgically remember different times. The flip side of all of this is that media folk have by necessity been forced to reinvent ourselves, and many of us have met that challenge and become stronger for it. But it’s easy sometimes to feel like a dinosaur, circling the tar pit, wondering if we’ll be able to cross over.
We’ll all miss you terribly, EV. I won’t ever write another word for publication or broadcast without thinking about you.