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.