Monthly Archives: September 2016

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.

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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.”