It’s springtime for American journalism—maybe

Jack Shafer says Donald Trump has freed us all to do the necessary work outside the bubble of Washington and the White House briefing room, which may be rendered useless very soon anyway:

“As Trump shuts down White House access to reporters, they will infest the departments and agencies around town that the president has peeved. The intelligence establishment, which Trump has deprecated over the issue of Russian hacking, owes him no favors and less respect. It will be in their institutional interest to leak damaging material on Trump. The same applies to other bureaucracies. Will a life-long EPA employ take retirement knowing he won’t be replaced, or if he is, by somebody who will take policy in a direction he deplores? Such an employee could be a fine source. Trump, remember, will only be president, not emperor, and as such subject to all the passive-aggressive magic a bureaucracy can produce. Ditto the Pentagon, the State Department, the FBI, and even conventionally newsless outposts like Transportation and Labor.”

Furthermore, his paper and now digital trail of business deal wreckage is a global opportunity to really go for the jugular, since Trump is treating the media as an opposition party, and the media is vowing to oppose him:

“But he remains unpopular with at least half of the nation, and they constitute an eager audience for critical reporting. Somebody could remind Gingrich that it’s much harder to shut down readers and viewers than it is a segment of the media. The harder Trump rides the press—and he gives no sign of dismounting—the higher he elevates reporters in the estimation of many voters.”

The media wars have only just begun, and it will continue to be waged in the cocoons circles of the media and political establishments.

At the very least, this is is sobering opportunity for local journalists in troubled communities to further examine why so many voted for a man many believe is so ill-suited and ill-tempered to be Commander-in-Chief, and what he can really do to help reverse the decay around them.

That opportunity, to do that kind of journalism, has always been there. It’s doubtful the national media will do anything more than parachute into the Rust Belt, Deep South and other “red” areas of America, which is becoming redder with each passing election.

 

How Trump trumped the establishment media culture

Amid all the media fawning over Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump screed at the Golden Globe Awards, media writer Michael Wolff was preparing the finishing touches on a new column at Newsweek that the likes of Streep will likely loathe.

But as he has shown since Trump’s victory in the presidential race in November, Wolff has captured the essence of what’s been behind this unlikely campaign, and as it continues to escape the media establishment:

The ongoing expressions of shock on the part of the cultural establishment—expressed on a daily basis by The New Yorker, New York magazine and The New York Times, anything, apparently, with New York in its title—reflect their fears that the development of a more careful, regulated and corrected world is about to be undone. That the unapologetic white male has returned. You could hardly find a more threatening and throwback version of that than Trump—a rich, voluble, egomaniacal, middle-aged pussy hound. To write him you would need some combination of authors like Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Harry Crews and Gore Vidal, all notably out of step with current cultural norms.

And this:

“Media fragmentation has created all sorts of thriving niches that accommodate the views of eager consumers, lessening the need to speak to a broader, more difficult-to-reach audience—the once-great mass market.”

And one more:

“Trump’s attacks on the media served to say that his language, his expressiveness, his ability to connect with the audience was more potent than the media’s. (In an interview with Trump shortly after his nomination was secure, he told me he was sure of victory when for the first primary debate, the usual audience increased almost tenfold because of his presence: ‘I’m more entertaining than the media.’) The media, in thrall to the culture establishment—and signed on to its cultural rules and concerns (hence its Pussygate shock)—was inauthentic and he was the real thing.”

Some other excellent riffs by Wolff along similar media-themed lines here and here (Hollywood Reporter), the fake news about “fake news” (USA Today) and another Hollywood Reporter gem, an interview with Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Whatever you think of Trump—and I don’t think much of him at all—what’s been truly astonishing is to see how the establishment media continues to misunderstand and misinterpret what’s truly behind his political rise.

If you want to see Trump serve no more than one term—and I consider myself in that group—then read, absorb and understand Wolff’s sharp insights.

But if you prefer to have Trump become a two-term president, then by all means keep blindly applauding the Meryl Streeps of the world.

 

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 Vox.com, 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.

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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.