Tag Archives: newspapers

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.

Assorted journalism links for May 27

Lots of good links from around the journosphere that I’ve found especially helpful, intriguing or worth paying attention to for other reasons:

A writer’s search for journalism in the age of branding — Maureen Tkacik is a young journalist, but her battered, whirlwind experiences make her sound like my jaded generation of printies. She does wish we would dispense with some outdated notions about holding ourselves outside of a story.

For me, an enduring frustration of traditional journalism is that what training you do get centers on the imperative to discount and dismiss your own experiences in pursuit of some objective ideal, even as journalism simultaneously exposes you to an unusually large variety of experiences. The idea that it might be a good thing to attempt to apply insights gleaned from those experiences to future stories—let alone synthesize it all into any sort of coherent narrative—rarely comes up, unless you’re a columnist. This can be an especially torturous dilemma during the inevitable low point at which the journalist—this one, anyway—comes to believe that the only feasible course of action (given the state of journalism) is to secure a six-figure book deal, and commences filling her off-hours in a feeble attempt to ‘write what you know.’ I know a lot of things, taunts the endless negative feedback loop, but none of them is how to make six figures.”

More than a few readers, by the way, suspect Tkacik isn’t as serious about her ideas for journalism as she is building her own brand. Perhaps it’s a little of both.

(h/t Kyle Whelliston)

• Death of a newspaper career — Oregon print journalist Adam Sparks stopped taking the newspaper after returning from vacation, and eventually he stopped going into his old office at the Register-Guard in Eugene — by choice:

“It’s scary to lose your job and have your livelihood taken away, and, I’m not gonna lie, it’s a bit terrifying to be stepping away voluntarily without a landing place lined up. I’ve had my career goals in place since high school, and it’s unsettling that, after all this time, I have no specific aspirations. I’ve got a lot of ideas, and have already encountered a few possibilities, but this is still a giant leap into the unknown, without a parachute or a safety net.

“There’s a reason it’s called a ‘comfort zone,’ and a reason most people don’t seek to leave it.”

Sparks has started his own news site, and is seeking freelance work. Welcome to the diaspora.

3 Underrated but essential skills for journalists — Mark Luckie of the fine 10,000 Words blog says they’re math, design and interpersonal skills, the often-caricatured unHoly Trinity of  the ink-stained wretches. I could definitely improve in all three, but the “people-person” reference didn’t help articulate his final point. Any good grizzled editor would strike that as a lame and vague reference and ask, not entirely sarcastically: “What does that mean?”

I think the point  is to better serve readers. You do that by having conversation and exchanging ideas, typically now via blogs and social media. As for “the ability to communicate with a total stranger,” this is not a new skill. It is about building relationships, as that cliché goes, and it is the essence of good reporting and source-building, no matter the platform. Traditional journalists who successfully have done that in print and “old media” — with sources, officials and readers — are doing it in the digital realm.

An investor’s tips for budding news entrepreneurs — On the heels of the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp comes some smart advice from early-stage investor Robert Arholt. I especially like his remarks on the advantages of bootstrappers who want to stay independent:

“They continue to hold their destiny in their own hands. Having investors means bringing in not only capital, but additional perspectives and goals.”

Journalism/Media/Web links for April 27

8 Ways for Entrepreneurial Journalists to Think Like Business People:

“Many, many businesses have failed where the income statement showed things were great, but they didn’t have cash. Cash flow is ‘the lifeblood of your business.’ ”

Bias Or Balance: Media Wrestle With Faltering Trust:

“Five or 10 years ago, the conversation about trust and the media would have triggered different results. But people no longer volunteer so many complaints about reporters making up stories, as they did in the wake of the scandals involving Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today. And concern over how stories are slanted no longer comes just from conservatives. It comes from all quarters.”

72 Marietta — I Still Love You:

The Journal and Constitution hated each other then — a deep, healthy hatred that was a beautiful thing. The first time in history when the Constitution out-circulated the Journal was on Aug. 17, 1977, when the morning rag reported Elvis Presley’s death. I never forgave Elvis for dying on Constitution time.”

Terry Gross: What I Read:

“I really don’t keep up with bloggers. I suppose I should feel guilty about that but my goal in life is to get away from the computer. Time spent reading blogs takes away from the time I should be spending preparing for guests. It’s hard when you’re doing a show like Fresh Air and you’re talking to musicians, theater people, actors and experts on every subject. You have to make peace with the fact that you can’t keep up with everything. It’s more information than you can possibly absorb.”

Think Again: The Internet:

“Today’s Internet is a world where homophobic activists in Serbia are turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights, and where social conservatives in Saudi Arabia are setting up online equivalents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. So much for the ‘freedom to connect’ lauded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-ballyhooed speech on the Internet and human rights. Sadly enough, a networked world is not inherently a more just world.”

Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information:

“The new connections features benefit Facebook and its business partners, with little benefit to you. But what are you going to do about it? Facebook has consistently ignored demands from its users to create an easy ‘exit plan’ for migrating their personal data to another social networking website, even as it has continued — one small privacy policy update after another — to reduce its users’ control over their information.”

Thoughts from the media bootstrapping frontier

The new sports site launch I’ve been working on has been delayed and has garnered most of my time in recent weeks, but I am hopeful it will be up and running in the very near future.

I’ve been very busy from the content creation and strategy angle, blending together with newspaper-style reporting, blogging, the employment of social media and multimedia components and SEO. I’ve also been working on e-mail marketing and busieness model ideas, and planning out the next phases of where we want to go after the launch.

Now it’s down to a Web developer and my business partner giving it the look and functionality we’ve been planning for months.

Taking such a long break from posting here is not what I anticipated, but I’ve been finding some good links to keep me focused on my primary task, and I thought I’d share them here while I’ve got a brief break in my schedule:

Liberate Your Life: Put Yourself on Auto-Response:

“Putting yourself on auto-response means silencing your practical mind, in the face of the seemingly unpractical and ridiculous ideas. Faced with liberating your life, instead of thinking ‘I don’t know where to start,’ your auto-response becomes ‘I’ll figure it out.’ ”

I haven’t worried about plunging into something — the deep end — for a couple of years. But it’s especially important to think this way when you’re outside of an institution that is the embodiment of reticence and caution.

Every day as I work on my project, I tell myself over and over, “Nobody’s doing anything quite like this.” There is no other template except to carry on.

random thoughts on being an entrepreneur:

“Once you become an entrepreneur, you find the company of non-entrepreneurs a lot harder to be around. You’ve seen things they haven’t; the wavelengths alter, it’s that simple.”

I’m not quite there — not yet. I still think of myself as a “bootstrapper,” but the entrepreneurial mindset is starting to take hold. Surrounding myself with self-directed people has been indispensable for me as I slog along, getting the concept for this site into the shape we have in mind.

(via Darren Rowse)

New media? I’ve worked 38 years in the newspaper business:

“I am not a new-media person dumping on old media. I am an old-media person who wants to look at the present and the future through clear eyes, not through a lens of nostalgia.”

This was written by veteran newspaper editor Steve Buttry right before he left newspapers to plunge into the world of online journalism. Upon his move, Buttry’s wife, a journalist in her own right, penned this exquisite tribute to him, including this painful summation of a stagnant industry that has created a large and growing diaspora:

“Did it ever occur to you that even the most deathless love could wear out?”

“The people who run newspapers and those who work for them are engaged in useless foreplay. They cling tightly, trying again and again to make the way they’ve always done it still work, but the passion is gone. They talk change: tearing down silos, building audience and monetizing content. But talk is their only capability. They eye non-profit status with government subsidies like it’s Viagra for print. They tussle through regrouping, ‘right-sizing,’ and stripping down to ‘lean and mean.’ They reorganize, then reorganize again, then grope their way back to same old position that no longer works. The wretched gyrations are hideously frustrating for the poor souls involved, and sadly fruitless. They give birth to nothing new. The newspaper business is an aging, impotent beast, bringing down a lot of good journalists who are tangled in its foundering arms.”

It’s been a year and a half since I left my newspaper, and those words and phrases are still chilling to hear. “Resizing” was the term that accompanied my buyout offer, and it left me numb.

This piece caught me off-guard emotionally, because I don’t dwell on these thoughts and experiences all that much any more. They serve as a reminder of why I wanted to forge a new identity for myself as a journalist. It’s being carved out, gradually but surely, with nothing but renewed passion as my guide.

10 good links about journalism’s past, present and future

There’s no intentional attempt at symmetry here, but in my Delicious collection I’ve noticed an almost equal number of journalism-related links lately that either 1) weep for the state of newspapers and cross their fingers at how they might survive, or 2) say goodbye to all that and march defiantly into the future.

Perhaps it sums up some of the conflicting feelings I have for my craft, although I largely come down on the side of the latter. Thought I’d share these links here, and offer some comments as a full calendar year outside the confines of a newsroom comes to a close for me.

If I sound a bit too sardonic, my apologies. While I’ve shed most of my mournfulness about what’s happened to newspapers, I think helps to be mindful of what’s being lost. Building something better is impossible without that understanding.

Looking back, and hoping:

Twilight of the American newspaper (Harper’s) — I’ve been wanting to cut down on linking to obituaries like this one. But journalist and PBS NewsHour contributor Richard Rodriguez’ elegy for the San Francisco Chronicle he grew up reading is well-written and laced with the kind of emotion that only a devoted reader can summon. There’s some terrific history here of that city’s papers and what they meant for the generations who read them.

The print catharsis will continue in 2010, so it’s only proper to mourn, at least for a short while, whether you agree with Rodriguez or not:

“We will end up with one and a half cities in America — Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals.’ We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died.”

(via Doug Fisher)

What Are You Willing to Give Up from Journalism? (Time, via Mich Sineath) — James Poniewozik asks newspaper readers — as if they haven’t sacrificed enough — what else they wouldn’t mind doing without as newsroom staffs get smaller.

• When Will a Web Editor Lead a Major Newsroom? (the soon-to-be-shuttered Editor & Publisher, ironically enough) — I believe this is a rhetorical question.

• Putting bite back in newspapers (Reflections of a Newsosaur) — More salient advice for traditional journalists that will go unheeded in neutered newsrooms.

• On leaving the newsroom (Tina Kelly Poetry) — A departing New York Times staffer reflects about being part of a journalistic tribe that has had “an honored front row seat in life.” Indeed.

Moving on, and looking forward:

• With or without publishers, local online continues to grow: (Journalism 2.0) — “If you’re a forward-thinker and an optimist, it’s exciting.” Some of us are, but far too many are not.

• Next year’s news about the news: What we’ll be fighting about in 2010 (Nieman Journalism Lab) — How about dispensing with the phrase “news ecosystem” for starters?

• 8 Must-Have Traits of Tomorrow’s Journalist (Mashable) — Business and entrepreneurial skills, above all, for fairly obvious reasons.

10 tips for would-be online journalism entrepreneurs (news: rewired) — “Don’t assume anything you do will be unique.” The key to all the others.

The future is nearer than you think (Xark) — “While I wish the future’s self-employed small-business journalists well, here’s a warning: Watch out for that next wave of disruptive development, because it’s likely to wash your job — and your mortgage — out to sea.”

Best wishes to a young former journalist

“Loss and destruction has been almost all that I’ve ever known in journalism. . . For now, journalism is just beginning its trek underground, searching for a ray of light and fresh air. I needed a break from that long, dark trek. Will I ever return? I don’t know. I’ve stopped worrying about what the future will hold for me.”

Patrick Thornton, the “Journalism Iconoclast,” is bidding farewell to the profession of journalism after only three years. The reasons are understandable — he’s gotten a job with a conservation social network, and congratulations are in order. Given the poor job prospects in so many fields, he’s wise to take what he can get and not to look back.

But I’d like to offer some perspective from an old print hack in response to the angst expressed by someone so young:

• “Loss and destruction” were staples of this business even in better times. Poorly managed newspapers got away with this for decades because their advertising-based business model was still intact. Far too often, I watched many colleagues walk out the door when we were still young, frustrated they could not make a living (I will not tell you how embarrassingly low my salaries were for the first decade or so of my career).

Some had their instincts and drive thwarted by newsroom bureaucrats who hadn’t pounded the pavement in years. These idealistic reporters intent on “making the world a better place” came to hate journalism during the heyday of print and network TV news, distraught that their employers were raking in profits and had the resources to do better.

•  There have never been any guarantees that I would avoid a similar fate. It wasn’t until I was 15 years into my career that I could finally say I had known “prosperity in journalism,” after toiling at weeklies and small dailies. I’ve worked for a newspaper that no longer exists, and in between jobs I strung together non-journalistic part-time work and freelanced to pay the bills. When I had enough extra money to max out on my 401(k) contributions, I thought I had hit the jackpot. That period hadn’t lasted very long when I took my newspaper buyout last year.

I don’t begrudge anyone’s decision to find work that’s more stable and will offer peace of mind. And I’m sad that some aspiring young journalists are facing horrendous career odds during this chaotic time. However, I know many former journalists who have made similar choices over the years, often reluctantly and with great anguish. This reality existed long before the bottom dropped out of the newspaper industry. Just not on this scale.

I’m not sure what Thornton was expecting three years ago, but I wish him the best in his new endeavors.

He just wasn’t in the business long enough to know how badly it can break your heart.