Surviving the shakeup: Young journos and a revolution in news

April 7, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards.

Finally. The U.S. newspaper industry has come up with a brilliant solution to its profitability problem and will embark on a new wave of hiring journalists to staff its newsrooms and… Darn, I always wake up at that point, then turn to Romenesko to confirm that, yes, I was dreaming.

For those of us who have two or three decades behind us in our careers, the outlook is daunting. But what about journalists who have three and more decades of work ahead of them? How do they get out of bed in the morning and face the day?

I asked my assistant, Ben Frumin, that question and suggested he write about it. As you’ll see, Ben, a product of Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, faces the future with “a strange combination of short-term skepticism and long-term optimism.” It’s gratifying that the talented new generation of journalists still has faith in the future of our profession, even while much of the news industry struggles to reinvent itself. (Of course, his opinions are his own, as are mine.)

Let’s hear from Ben.

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It’s only April, and already 2009 has been the worst year in my lifetime (and in the lifetimes of journalists three times my age) for the U.S. newspaper industry. And judging from the frequent “Woes-R-Us” conversations I have with other 20-something reporters and writers, an entire generation of journalists is close to losing hope.

The devastation in our industry has been mighty. The Tribune Company—owner of big-name dailies like the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun—is bankrupt. Colorado’s best daily newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, shut down in February. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer slashed nearly 90 percent of its staff and stopped publishing a print edition. The San Francisco Chronicle, which reportedly loses $1 million a week, avoided imminent sale or closure (for now) only because its largest union gave management permission to cut at least 150 jobs. My hometown newspaper, the Pulitzer-winning, corrupt congressman-exposing San Diego Union-Tribune, dodged what seemed like inevitable bankruptcy only by selling itself to a Beverly Hills private equity firm whose interest in the paper probably has more to do with the valuable land the Union-Tribune office sits on than the print product it publishes. Across the country, there have already been more than 8,000 layoffs and buyouts at U.S. papers this year.

Even the august New York Times is struggling, temporarily cutting salaries and borrowing $225 million against its fancy new Manhattan headquarters—not to mention another $250 million at 14 percent interest from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, now one of the Times’ largest shareholders. And just last week The New York Times Company threatened to close one of the largest of the 18 newspapers it owns, The Boston Globe, winner of 20 Pulitzer Prizes.

It wasn’t so long ago that U.S. newspapers were profitable and proud. What happened? There’s been much hand-wringing and finger-pointing about the misfortune, mismanagement and mistakes that have led several newspapers to death, or at least its door. Publishers overleveraged themselves for dubious acquisitions. Newspapers spent years bungling their migration to the Internet, giving away content without figuring out how to make money off of it, allowing parasitic websites to effectively steal their stories (and sell ads surrounding them), and too easily surrendering their lucrative classified advertising businesses to Craigslist. Then the recession hit. Goodbye, remaining advertisers.

A thorough and devastating report by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism put it this way: “Imagine someone about to begin physical therapy following a stroke, suddenly contracting a debilitating secondary illness.” Ouch.

It’s not exactly a promising time to be a young journalist. Jobs are scarce, business models are broken, news organizations are shrinking and shutting down, and no one knows how much worse things will get before they get better; if they get better. I’ve been a journalist since 2003, and sometimes I lament with embarrassing self-pity that I got into this business at the absolute worst possible moment in the industry’s history. Then I remember there’s a whole batch of eager young students that will graduate from journalism school this spring. Sheesh. Maybe we all should have gone to law school.

I’m glad I didn’t, of course. I love journalism, and (cue the sappy music) I know that it’s critical to ensuring a healthy democracy and informed citizenry. Sure, you have blogs and Twitter and wikis and iReporters and YouWitnesses and citizen journalists and a seemingly infinite number of other newspaper replacements in this plugged-in, powered-up digital world where content can easily be created and distributed by just about anyone. But none of these things truly replace journalists—professionals who make their living intelligently gathering, analyzing and dispensing information that is trustworthy and true. The paper is, I grant, an outmoded antique. The news printed on it is essential. Crowdsourcing, parasitism, opinionating and happenstance witnessing are not the same thing as full-time, dedicated, professional watchdogging of cops and courts; of government and industry; of the powerful and corrupt. What we do matters. A lot. And celebrating the demise of newspapers—largely self-inflicted though it may be—as some have done, illustrates nothing if not ignorance and ingratitude.

Thankfully, hardly a day goes by now without some new “aha!” plan to rescue or reinvent newspapers being proposed, hailed or ridiculed—and typically all three. There’s been talk of university-like endowments for non-profit newspapers; automatic micropayments each time a reader clicks on a hyperlinked news story; an iTunes model for news; donations to journalists and news organization from readers, given either before an article is reported and written, or after it’s read; moving digital newspaper content behind a pay wall; building newspaper fees into monthly Internet access bills; and even (a not altogether serious) proposal for a government bailout of the newspaper industry.

It seems unlikely that any of these plans on its own will solve all of the news business’s problems. They’re all imperfect. As digital darling Clay Shirky wrote in a recent essay-gone-viral, “Nothing will work, but everything might.”

The great irony in all of this is that the same digitization that sped the destruction of newspapers may also resurrect the news business. Incredible new multimedia storytelling tools; shockingly simple self-publishing platforms that erase barriers to entry; a very literal World Wide Web that allows a writer to be read anywhere—it’s all terrifically promising for the future of journalism. The Internet may be demolishing newspapers, but it has also empowered journalists to untether themselves from news organizations, practicing their craft and publishing their work without relying on the expensive print-and-deliver infrastructure that newspapers once had a monopoly on. Anyone who wants to can be published. Clips are instant and eminently attainable. And the traditional journalism career path of starting as a beat reporter at a small local newspaper and working one’s way up the ladder there, or on to bigger and bigger papers, has largely been replaced by a juggling act of freelancing and self-publishing. Gigs are the new jobs.

While there are plenty of journalists who have found success in this new model, there are still few pros making real money off the Internet. For instance, my girlfriend and I worked as journalists in India for a year and, on the side, casually kept up a colorful blog that chronicled our adventures there. Traffic was paltry by Internet standards—just 500 or so unique visitors each month. Still, we put Google ads on the site, figuring that as long as people were reading our blog, we might as well try to make some money off of it. Total earnings over 14 months: $7.10. Maybe I’ll use that cash to buy us a (cheap) round of celebratory drinks.

Media veteran Alan Mutter put it this way: “The challenge for those who are, or who aim to be, journalists is to find a way to afford to do what you ought to do, what you want to do and what society desperately needs you to do.” Because as is, Mutter continued, “the comparatively thin revenues generated by most of these enterprises are not at the moment providing anything close to the compensation that professional journalists receive at even the stingiest traditional news organization.” It’s not like journalists were making AIG-level salaries to begin with.

Until someone figures out how to make the news profitable again, many journalists of my generation will likely continue to suffer from a strange combination of short-term skepticism and long-term optimism, disgruntled that the prospects of our careers and industry aren’t likely to get rosier any time soon, but sure that someday, even if it takes years, the same technology that demolished print will create a new, imaginative system that can sustain us.

Who knows—if we’re lucky, maybe things will start to turn around as early as this year. After all, it is only April.

Ben Frumin

One comment

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Hi
hi there, good article. my media, water.ca breaks even right now and we have high hopes for the next three years. the trick if there is one is to stop being a journalist for a minute and start being a business person. if your in school find an mba or economics major to talk to. not one that says media and rolls their eyes, one that says cool! a challenge.your question premise is this, how if i am a subcontracting journalist do i do this. the gig analogy is on the money. there are hundreds and hundreds of web sites now looking for content,not one does it all. get real good at one overall topic, sell different stories across the board about it. the web site will tell you what they’ll pay and what they want. like the old timer editors. as content providers ap,reuters start
to clamp down on folks that essentially pirate their stuff, the empty space needs to be filled….by you. make sure you know how to do a ten second video clip, audio clip, and text for any story. they’ll tell you the mix they want. the newspapers going broke is a natural happening, old dogs die off right? your the new dogs, its a new way, stop thinking newspaper,start thinking gigs!
dont give up and dont give in.
bob brouse
water.ca