There is no safe terrain for journalists

The continuing decline of big-city newspapers like the Denver Post, profiled here in the Denver magazine 5230 by former Postie Robert Sanchez, is heartbreaking. Buyouts have gutted coverage of local news, and a remote, out-of-touch owner doesn’t help.

A newsroom that once had 350 is down to around 100. The remains are scant: One reporter covering education in a growing metropolitan area and another to track health care in all of Colorado; five business reporters in the economic and financial hub of the Rocky Mountain region; a young  web staffer who files an average of 100 stories a month, and in the rush of a frantic job sends an e-mail to a colleague, forgetting she had taken a buyout.

This is not a new story, and as one newsroom survivor interviewed in the story wonders: Where does this all end?

Well, it ends when your job ends—when you’re the one escorted from the building with security, only moments after hastily being told to clear your desk—or when the newspaper closes down, as did the Post‘s archrival, the Rocky Mountain News, a few years ago.

Yet those who are trying to carve out a journalism career on the all-digital side are struggling as well, according to this from Columbia Journalism Review. After being booted out of both the newspaper business and a digital media entity, I was nodding my head at so much of this, especially the prospects for the “digital native” generation that faces increasingly long odds of having a long career in the profession.

Fewer journalists are working now at newspapers than in online-only ventures, but Alex T. Williams reinforces what many of us have known for some time:

“With fewer journalists working today, reporters are becoming increasingly concentrated in coastal cities, investigative journalism and local statehouse reporting is declining, and the ratio of journalists to public relations specialists is widening.”

I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve applied for online-oriented positions that fit my skills perfectly, for journalism work that could be done anywhere, only to find out that I’d have to relocate to New York, or D.C., or Silicon Valley or L.A., outrageously expensive places even for veteran journalists who’ve made some money.

For young people with college debt, low wages and grinding hamster-wheel job duties, the future doesn’t seem bright at all, at least in terms of outlasting this transformation, whether it’s with a legacy organization or a digital start-up.

This shakeout will probably continue past my working days. But who will be the reporters covering schools and health care in flyover country, statehouses in the South and economic development in the Rust Belt?

Will there be any?

That is the long-term devastation that many have feared, and which seems to be more clearly coming to pass.

On creating a new working way of life

(This post was originally published on Medium. You can follow me there by clicking here.)

Shortly before Labor Day 2008, I was suddenly out of work. For the last time, with security guards by my side, I walked out the front door of a major city newspaper that had been my career aspiration. For most of the nearly two decades I worked there, it was indeed a dream job.

I was among several dozen of my colleagues who accepted a buyout as the company, like many others running newspapers, as the newsroom was “resized,” in management-speak. In my buyout group, it was announced that our combined experience was close to 1,000 years. At a farewell party the week of our departure, people gasped at the thought of all that institutional knowledge being swept away, like idle swimmers caught in stormy winds off a shoreline.

Yet I left behind the collapsing newspaper industry confident that as I approached middle age, with several years of online newsroom experience, I had the skills and the chops to thrive in “the digital age.” I happily embraced the move to web journalism that recharged my career, and felt I was at the top of my game professionally.

A couple of weeks after I left the newspaper, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, triggering the Wall Street crisis that had been brewing for months. I hadn’t been paying much attention to all this, caught up in the stress of trying to hang on at a struggling newspaper.

But it wasn’t only the recession that followed, taking hundreds of thousands of middle-class, mid-career and white collar careers with it, that proved to be the most challenging prospect for me as I looked for work.

While I had thought that I may have to leave journalism behind, I wasn’t prepared for the psychic reality of that scenario as I applied for jobs with the word “content” in them. This wasn’t the work I had known.

As the fallout in the newspaper industry continued, was this the closest I would come to using my skills and energies? Other journalists I knew eased into public relations, copywriting, content marketing and similar jobs. While these are honorable professions that pay a hell of a lot better than journalism, they weren’t what I have ever had in mind.

After several months of freelancing, and helping a friend lay out plans for a website, I was hired by AOL to serve as an editor for its Patch network of local news sites. I loved the work of doing community news as I had at the start of my career, and doing it in the place where I grew up. People in the community were appreciative; despite the long odds of this venture becoming profitable it might have been the most gratifying job of my career.

But after hundreds of millions in losses, Patch was sold in early 2014, contingent on massive staff reductions. I was affected by that, and several more months of freelance drifting ensued before I began serving as a contract web writer at a public radio station.

That position lasted only a few months, and for the third time in eight years, I was faced with job-hunting and freelancing, trying to scratch out a living and figure out what’s next. My friend had launched his website, and has paid me to write for it. I am so grateful for him and family members who’ve been by my side all the way. I know my story is hardly unique.

What I also didn’t anticipate is the massive generational change that has come to the media and other industries. It’s exasperating to see job notices coded for “early career professionals.” You’ve got everything they’re looking for and more, but do not get an interview or even a notice that someone else has been hired.

In a media field that has always trended young, this is getting even more pronounced. Likewise in the male-dominated sports media subset where I have worked for most of my career, and where female visibility is largely limited to perky sideline reporters and snarky, sassy bloggers.

I admit I sound like the middle-aged woman I am, and I can’t hide the despair I’ve felt, especially after being laid off from AOL. While I have prided myself on being adaptable and resilient, my faith in myself and my abilities is being tested like never before. It’s been hard for me to accept, as a noted (and middle-aged) sports columnist has written of our line of work, that “experience is completely devalued.”

I’m trying to find a place where that isn’t the case, where the full range of my experience and talents can be utilized, preferably in doing the news.

A retired newspaper editor I follow on social media was asked by a student he teaches at a university how he handled layoffs.

He wrote poignantly on his blog how difficult this had been for him, to carry out what amounted to execution orders he disagreed with, from managers at an out-of-town corporation. He thought he had failed his staff, even though this wasn’t his doing.

Tears were streaming down my face as I read this; having been on the other side of the table more than once, it dawned on my what was being lost here, besides livelihoods. As I wrote in the comments section, this wasn’t a career, but a way of life.

I have retooled and rethought so much of what I thought about my own profession to position myself for current and future opportunities, but I’m thinking now that the best opportunity may be what I create for myself.

After years as a traveling reporter and community editor, office and cubicle life is not my natural habitat. Schmoozing at networking events and hiding my age on my resume is alien to the bone. I’m not a careerist; I just want to do the work I have done all my life, and that I have done well.

I’ve gone around the U.S. and the world covering sporting and other events during the days of newspaper expense accounts, and wouldn’t trade that for anything But it all seems so fleeting now.

I crave being a homebody, being part of my community. It’s suburban Sunbelt sprawl, to be sure, but it’s home, and that’s all that matters. Everyone else in my family lives on the Gulf Coast (should I take a hint and follow them?), and I want to reconnect with the kind of people I grew up with, and who nurtured me as a youngster.

The editor and publisher of a successful local news site in a rust belt town advocates what he calls “localism,” and has carved out a philosophy that has me thinking constantly of trying my hand at this, at taking what I learned from my Patch stint and doing it better.

More than anything, it’s about doing the work, it’s about doing the news. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, from the first time I stepped in the newspaper room as a high school freshman. Based on my previous work, I know there’s a community need for solid, authentic, local journalism, not just where I live, but everywhere.

Turning this into a livelihood is the biggest challenge, to be sure. But I’m a news “lifer,” and for far too long I have been paralyzed by the fear of failing.

Even as my financial and emotional resources are stretched thin, creating the working life that I truly want, and that I think I can get people to pay for, remains a worthwhile, if humbling, experience.

An elegy for reading newspapers

At Politico, longtime American media writer Jack Shafer insists that print news still rules, and I do appreciate the sentiment up to a point. While rifling through the pages remains a pleasant tactile experience, for me the actual reading process is more troublesome, largely due to my aging eyes. I’m not distracted by the impulses of the screen when I read through some newspapers (and proofread this very newsletter) on my iPad. The backlit feature and adjustable fonts are ideal for geezers who don’t want to kick the newspaper habit altogether.

I do applaud Shafer for pointing out what’s become gruesomely obvious to many of us, 25 years after the advent of the public World Wide Web: Far too much of web design, especially for news sites, has gotten worse, to the point of being horrendous:

“Do what newspaper design has long done—direct the reader to that which is vital, tease him with that which is entertaining and frivolous, and give him a sense of a journey completed by the time he hits the last pages.”

Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy, who wrote a 2013 book about emerging online local news efforts on the East Coast, also appreciates the newspaper elegies. In some updated thoughts to “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age,” he writes that while “print still pays the bills” it cannot possibly survive, not as we who have grown up with (and worked for) papers have known them:

“ . . . the future may belong to grassroots projects, both nonprofit and for-profit, that can raise money locally and live off the land in a way that large-scale publishers simply can’t—or won’t.”

Why journalism keeps breaking my heart

The news this week that a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist had left the industry for a job that could better pay the bills certainly caught my attention, although the path Rob Kuznia made from The Daily Breeze in southern California to the public relations field is a very familiar one.

So I didn’t think much more about it; this has happened so many times and will continue, to many people I know. Even by going into non-profit PR for a Holocaust-related organization in higher education Kuznia boosted his income by 25 percent over his newspaper salary.

What brought me to gut-wrenching tears by the end of the week was all the piling on in many of the same news media corners that have been shedding staff for years. That, too, shows no signs of letting down, although there aren’t many more people to cut.

This in The Washington Post illustrates the journalism-to-PR ratio that has become alarming, and the concentration of journalists in New York, D.C. and Los Angeles.

While those are sobering numbers, Felix Salmon of Fusion was just maddening, as he likes to be, in declaring there likely will be no such thing as a digital journalism career. His usual dismissiveness really angered me when he cranked out this paragraph, clearly designed for his site’s millennial audience:

When you see a company like Vox Media investing millions of dollars in, the youth of the founders is a feature, not a bug. When you see companies like Gawker Media or BuzzFeed building newsrooms of young people, that’s partly because young people are cheaper and hungrier, but it’s also because they’re better at doing these very new things than their more experienced colleagues might be.

Permission to commit age discrimination is how I interpreted the end of that remark, which is categorically untrue. Salmon later touts “old fashioned specific expertise” as being necessary for success in journalism in the future.

You know, what those cranky old farts being tossed out into the street were pretty good at, but that is increasingly being devalued in the digital age. The kind of expertise that millennials are not being taught, at least not as stringently as my generation was.

It’s not their fault; it’s the environment they’re in, in which mentoring and cultivating things like sources, news judgment and craft are seen as luxuries, not essentials of the profession.

Kuznia, 38, appears to be an exception, but he’s had to leave what he loved behind, as so many of us have, either by force of layoffs or by the reality of a grim future if they stayed.

On Friday, I almost lost it at work when I read this post from former Greensboro News & Record editor John Robinson about 2007 layoffs he had to impose. After the ugly business had been done, there was this:

I wept when I got home. Wept from guilt, from regret, from stress. Wept because I knew this was the beginning of the end for me and the paper.

In the ensuing days, it was clear that a bond between the company and the employee was broken. The deal had been this:

They would work hard, do good work, miss family dinners, have coworkers critique their work, hear from readers that they were stupid and biased and worse.

We would give them a place to do what they loved, a paycheck and job security. We could no longer provide the security.

After that day, that covenant wasn’t ever fully restored.

The following year, I took a buyout from my former newspaper, and last year, I was laid off from a job editing a community news site. Two dislocations in less than seven years have taken a toll, but I still can’t imagine doing any other kind of work.

In addition to occasional sports freelancing, I’m also contract web producer at a public radio station, work that I enjoy and that keeps me in the business.

It’s a business that grows ever more fragile, and I may have to face the same crossroads as Kuznia. It’s the kind of decision I’ve desperately tried to avoid having to make. But at 54, I realize I’ve beaten the odds a lot longer than some of my peers.

What’s been more agonizing than the loss of jobs — which has been bad enough —  has been to watch a decent way of life virtually disappear before your eyes.

Covering school boards, zoning cases, high school football games, chamber of commerce luncheons and community theatre wasn’t work that was ever going to make anyone but publishers and high-ranking editors rich.

But the work was never boring, and most days being a journalist never felt like having a job. It was so much more than that, despite the low pay, long hours and ultimately for those of my age, rotten prospects to retire in relative comfort and security.

I remain bullish on the creative possibilities of digital journalism, but the financial component remains elusive. Journalists of my generation probably cannot afford to hold out for a new “golden age” to realize itself.

But while I don’t want to have to step away from something that’s been in my blood since I was a high school freshman, I have to admit I have been thinking long and hard lately about making a clean break. And not for the first time.

This week’s events rekindled that reality with a sledgehammer.

Nous ne sommes pas Charlie Hebdo

The media solidarity for the victims of Wednesday’s massacre at the offices of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is at the very least fraught with some obliviousness.

The cartoons mocking Muslims and the prophet Mohammed prompted two French-born Muslims to commit the bloodbath that killed 10 staffers, a police officer and a bodyguard. These caricatures were meant to be exceedingly offensive, and the publication’s leadership vowed to carry on after the offices were firebombed in 2011.


Much of what I’ve seen of Charlie Hebdo cartoons are in what I consider poor taste. In quite a few covers, the icons of multiple religions, including Christianity, are depicted as taking it in the behind, or shown in degrading post-coital positions.

This is not the satire of The Onion or the snark of Gawker, with their aura of cynical detachment and hip disillusion. Nor is this the satire of Jon Stewart, the poster boy of American liberals who think of themselves as sophisticates of the pop culture send-up.

The willfully pugnacious Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of searing French satire unfamiliar on these shores, “best seen as an anarchic publication, willing to tackle anything taboo.”

We in the West tout our love of a free press. But more mainstream outlets, in Europe and North America, refused to print the offensive cartoons to illustrate why some Muslim terrorists acted with rage. Some journalists even defended these actions with greater cowardice than not showing the cartoons. Others complained that Charlie Hebdo peddled racist ideas, and that there’s no defense for that.

In The New York Times, David Brooks argues that a student publication that dared to print Charlie Hebdo-style fare wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds” at any American university, where speech codes are enforced with an iron fist.

Think about that for a minute: Two of the most liberal institutions in America, designed to promote free inquiry and expression, are among the most censorious entities we have. The gunmen who assassinated journalists in the broad daylight, in one of the most cultured, open cities of the world, thought Charlie Hebdo was full of hate speech, then undertook a brutal rite of censorship they made sure would never be forgotten.

No, we are not Charlie Hebdo, and the real effect of this terrorist act will be to move further away from what the magazine’s publisher, editor and cartoonists deeply embodied, as vulgar and offensive as their work often was. French novelist Michel Houellebecq, a master provocateur whose new book is about his country being ruled by a Muslim, immediately suspended a promotional campaign.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo lived dangerously with the full knowledge that their next issue, their next cartoon that blasphemed Muslim faith and culture, could be their last.

And so it was, for 10 of them.

In 2006, Charlie Hebdo opened its doors to an editorial meeting. Some of those killed are featured in this video, which was updated after the shooting. It’s in French with English subtitles, and is absolutely haunting.

The next time you laugh at what you think is provocative satire, keep in mind what the cost for the truly subversive variety can be. It was measured in an awful lot of blood this week.

Hoping for better Web civility in 2015

In looking through some collected links from the last year, I found that this one, dating back from February and posted on the Harvard Kennedy public policy journal website, sums up so much of what I’ve been thinking lately about the digital world.

Australian graduate psychology student Claire Lehmann bemoans the culture of easy outrage on the Web, and how this supposedly ideal collaborative realm has become a forum to deepen already sharp ideological differences:

“In an era in which social media provides the fuel for partisanship, online platforms are monetizing the flames. But they are also burning the bridges between us. We seem to have fewer shared goals. Our most pressing moral challenges are ones which require creative, long-term solutions of cooperation and commitment. Globally and locally, we face environmental calamities, rising economic inequality, and ageing populations. The need for bipartisan solutions has never been stronger.

“Reinforcing bitterness between groups of people by invoking indignant outrage may be a good business strategy for online news outlets, but it is terrible for encouraging the social cohesion required to address problems facing our society . To foster cross-pollination of ideas, we need both to be aware and to listen. We should endeavor to avoid joining online digital mobs where we might throw verbal stones at anyone who may disagree with us. Ideally, we would consume a balance of information that both comforts us by adhering to our world-view and challenges us by expanding it.”

This is not a new concern, but I haven’t read a better expression of what for many, myself included, have found to be a frustrating, dispiriting development.

After nearly seven years of actively using social media, I dropped off significantly in my participation in the past year. The ability to quickly connect, converse and share information with people I find interesting and engaging was diminished by others seeking to demonize those with differing points of view, or who link to the “wrong” thing.

Perhaps I need to alter whom I follow — there are far too many people I follow who post frequently, and at times nastily, about politics. That’s not why I follow them, even if I may agree with them. It’s cable news come to my timeline, and it’s an unwanted intrusion.

Depending on the issue — and especially if it involves race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and political philosophy — one is essentially drummed into silence if the social media mobs declare a certain view to be incorrect. The cultural topics that help define who we are as humans have become bristling ideological and political vehicles, instead of entry points for understanding through respectful argument.

One of the pleasures of adopting to digital media has been the ease of hashing out points on which we may not agree. I’ve been a guest on the sports-and-culture podcast of writer Michael Tillery, whose program is housed on the RAPStation website. I don’t care for rap at all and Michael and I disagree on some of the things we talk about, and Tweet at one another. But I appreciate the chance to think out loud and not be flogged out of reflex.

There’s nothing like a vigorous, but civil debate. While social media, especially Twitter, isn’t perfect for this, some enlightening discussion has been possible. I’ve enjoyed it, in spite of its limitations.

But if mobsters want to disrupt that dialogue — and it’s troubling how many of them call themselves journalists, writers, artists, academics and intellectuals — it’s far easier to do that, and rudely troll someone they don’t follow, or who doesn’t follow them.

So whenever big news came down — a Supreme Court ruling, the Ferguson demonstrations, a mass shooting or allegations of a gang rape — I logged out. I suspect I wasn’t alone.

It’s just not worth it to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion of hot-button issues, at least openly on social media. I’m not afraid of having my own views challenged; if anything I want to learn what I don’t know, or what my blind spots are.

But it’s best doing so in other venues, including blogs and podcasts and offline conversation. Despite its many positives, social media is no match for old-fashioned face-to-face talk, or a phone call, or a thorough vetting through the written word.

Besides, I’m not any good at responding to the mobs. I don’t have the jugular for it. I admire those who do, such as blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan. He recently pegged a fierce defense of his tenure as editor of The New Republic, and its contrarianism that offends many liberals, following an attack from leading black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

While Coates seems eager to banish even discourse about views he doesn’t like, Sullivan loves the free-range, interactive exchange of ideas that the Web makes possible. On his blog, The Dish, he exemplifies it like few others

“The role of journalism is not to police the culture but to engage in it.”

Sullivan’s Enlightenment-oriented desire to let all views be aired, and then see where the debate goes, is being eclipsed by an authoritarian sensibility that’s getting stronger in the digital world, and on social media in particular.

This growing force of the culture police wants nothing to do with engagement. They are on the left and the right, and this leaves the rest of us feeling as we do about politics — left out of the conversation, browbeaten into withholding our views. Especially if they are more nuanced and complicated than the mob can handle.

Like Lehmann, I fret that the mainstream media will continue to traffick in such divisive fare, and that the onslaught will be far more overwhelming than anything we saw in 2014. That’s saying something.

Crying Wolff about the state of digital media

It’s not news that Michael Wolff is sour on digital media, and has been for quite a while, and this recent Q and A with Digiday makes it clear his mood is as dour as it’s ever been:

“TV was the wasteland. Now digital media is the wasteland. There’s nothing there. A deluge of crap. TV has gone in the other direction and produced these things everybody watches and talks about and become important signposts of the culture. So TV is upscale, and digital is downscale media.”

What’s more, he says that what successful web plays like Vice are really angling for is some kind of TV gig. But he’s off the mark in claiming that “digital media has killed music, has killed newspapers.” No, those industries cemented their own demise long before Napster and Matt Drudge, et al, came along. Not that Wolff cares about being right, even after being reminded that he once predicted the end of BuzzFeed. Classic reply:

“What the hell, that’s karma.”