Dark days for the press – my advice to a middle-aged reporter

A good friend and former colleague — a person I actually worked with on our high school newspaper in the late 70s, then again at a real daily newspaper, a PC trade magazine, and then a national business magazine — in short, a lifelong friend and cohort, has been asking the question that I suspect most middle-aged journalists are asking these days: “What’s next?”

This question is not academic but being driven by a very real fear for the future of the craft.

David Carr’s excellent NYT column about his blog, his 24-hour relationship with his readers (I will not subject you to the tragedy of the NYT cost-wall — way to make yourself irrelevant Mr. Sulzberger), the rise of page views as a validation of a writer’s worth … the NPR report last night that the Tribune company is receiving anemic bids for its business … Time-Warner’s axing of 300 people from its magazine group yesterday … Ziff Davis getting bids today for its break-up ….

I went into journalism in 1980 as an interim job as I considered going to law school (I wanted to study admiralty law), medical school (surgery, I worked as an OR orderly for a few months), the military (I took the entrance exams for the Army before I graduated from college, but due to poor eyesight was given some unappealing options). I ended up getting sucked into the profession during a period when journalism was very competitive and overcrowded with other idealists inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, the Gonzo Journalism of Hunter Thompson, and the investigative journalism that seemed to be changing the world.

I miss being a reporter. It is an awesome job.
I entered a world where Objectivity was stressed at all costs and there was a real sense in the newsroom that there was a higher calling to the profession that made journalism feel like it was a career that would live on for a long, long time. If I had remained in the newsroom I think I would be suffering many sleepless nights these days. I’m glad I got out when I did in 1994.

What’s a reporter or editor to do? I know a leading editorial headhunter in the Boston area who is awash with panicked resumes, who sees, first-hand, the hell of modern journalism. Those resumes are coming from my former peers — the senior editors and reporters who should be in the golden phase of their careers, but instead are flipping out looking for gigs that just don’t exist anymore.

1. First, game is over for print based products. Get over it. If your present publication is beset with cost reductions and you know the ax is coming, don’t think you can find another newsroom. You won’t.

2. Get with David Carr and hundred of other reporters and launch a blog. Screw your boss. Just launch one. Do it under a pen name, but start blogging.

3. Get ready to talk to the readers. The old ivory tower days of letting the readers in through the tiny aperture of the letters to the editor are long gone. If you can’t slug it out with the readers in a flame war then get out of the business. The guy who wrote last week that he doesn’t want to talk to the readers? Fine — but the big talent going forward isn’t your ability to get a source to talk, but how you talk to your audience. If you can’t defend yourself, then get ready for a royal flaming.

4. Think about a career change. Don’t look to your publication’s online group. If you aren’t there now, or haven’t been there over the last ten years, I can assure you they don’t want you. The old Digital Native/Digital Immigrant meme is real. You may be an old dog, don’t expect the puppies to have the patience to teach you how to be a new one. If you don’t intuitively understand the ecosystem of blogistan, the importance of YouTube and its effect on the broadcast model, if the true significance of Tivo baffles you … then don’t think you can transfer your old who-what-where-when school of reporting to the new world. It’s more complex than that.

Good luck. My heart goes out to you, but the game is over.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Dark days for the press – my advice to a middle-aged reporter”

  1. Excellent post, Dave. I agree completely.
    Blogging has surprised me. not only do I keep my old favoite beat, but I also get to write about things that fascinate me.
    Besides ,who would have thoughty that I”d ever become a trusted editorial source on gopher control , .22 sub sonic conical ball ammunition or rat shot?
    Blogging has freed me to open the valve on my creative juices and become more critical in my views of things I really care about

    great post!

    Jim

  2. I look around at newsrooms and see lots of open seats, then read the layoff notices that appear like clockwork on Romenesko. There’s only so much “doing more with less” that can be done until it simply becomes a matter of just plain “doing less with less.”

    The NYT is using WordPressMU on mysql, a huge leap forward for open source. And the blogs seem to actually make sense, as though they finally get it. But where from here…and can a blog actually provide dollars that make up for the anemic print performance?

    Yes, journalists must move to blogs, but the problem is, most of us then end up giving away for free that which we used to get paid for, continuing the devaluation of journalism.

  3. 1 and 4 are so extreme they are simply false.

    Couched in less definitive terms I could acknowledge some kernels of truth but …

    RE 1, daily metro newspapers are not the whole game, nor are printed national newsmags. Alt weeklies and business journals happen to be growing, as do certain magazine categories (the Economist alone has quadrupled its circ in the last 20 years — for other growth skim through the results of this search http://weblogs.jomc.unc.edu/talkingbiznews/index.php?s=circulation magazines&Submit=Search )

    RE 4, I’d love it to be true as someone whose first full time journism job was reporting for a daily/real time financial news site, but it’s just not. Nick Denton, the Hearst of blog publishing, recently famously put out a call for old school journalism hands for his Valleywag site after young ‘Web native’ bloggers just weren’t cutting the mustard.

    Honestly, it’s not that hard to learn some HTML and how to use a blog tool like MovableType. The intense competition and scrutiny of Web publishing, however, demands a depth of field knowledge and sharp critical mind that just can’t be taught that quickly.

  4. Ryan — don’t see how you can argue that print is stable at this point in time. The old cry of “when I can take it to the bathroom” will continue to invoked, and old dinosaurs like me will still toddle out to the end of the driveway every morning to get our news in the blue plastic bag. But to say print is doomed is neither extreme nor premature. I’ve bitten my tongue since 1993 on such a statement because it would be like screaming fire in the proverbial theater, but I suggest you check in with any random 45 year-old on the masthead of anything from Formica Week to the New York Times and ask them how secure they feel about the next twenty years of their career.

    On your fourth point, I don’t get your objection. Your first reporting gig was on a “site” right? Nick doesn’t support a print org and doesn’t have expressions of interest from that side. That he hires strong journalists and doesn’t have any qualms about dropping non-performers is a testament to the strength of his products. Heck, he’s totally revived Valleywag nearly single-handedly — but he’s another ex-print guy who made the transformation ten years ago. Not a frog in the print pan wondering why he’s feeling a little warm around the edges.

  5. Hey David, on Four my point is that just because you haven’t written or been interested in writing for or even spent much time ON the Web for the past four years does NOT mean you can’t jump to a smart online news op, even one connected to a newspaper.

    As for stability and emotions in newsrooms (yes Cahill I’m acquainted just slightly having worked in three newspaper ones (plus a magazine and website) in the Bay Area with friends in several more), it’s not there in online either, and the same irrational feeling of panic swept the online in 2001. Emotions =! facts and the facts show some print pubs are growing circ.

    Print’s advantages are significant and will only go away when they can be duplicated by electronic devices, at which point the distinction between the two will be pretty useless.

    Of course change is underway and significant, and huge gains to be reaped by publications meant for PC/PDA consumption, but I think you overreached in a couple of those points. Just my opinion.

  6. I’d love to see when I said print is stable or print journalists feeling safe and cozy. Or when I said certain newspapers wouldn’t go out of business or be reduced to sad shells. Never said any of those things.

    What I said is that the sky is not falling — print is not a dead end game or dying. Change happens, it’s actually healthy. Most industries are *used* to a lack of stability.

    I guess it’s easy for me to say this because I don’t have a pension to worry about. I’m not mid-career. I’m not heavily invested in any one type of media, any one place.

    I knew my Web editors were wrong to scoff at print in 99 just because dot-com was booming, I knew my print editors were wrong to scoff at the Web in 01 just because of the dot-com bust, and I know extreme statements like “print is dying” are wrong today in 07 just because Google is minting money and circ is declining.

    This is the shakeout of an ossified industry used to fat and easy monopolies. An industry that actually *complains* about craigslist.

    The upshot will be higher quality, tighter execution, better differentiation.

    There was a lot I liked in your post but the notes of panic and doom I disagree with, strenously, and yes I politely submit I know what I’m talking about, but feel free to ignore me.

  7. Print is not stable. Nor is it dead. What we’re seeing is the early stage of a painful, bloody transition from mass communications to niche media. Custom magazines will take off, local papers will continue to find an audience for local news that you can’t get on the Web (at least not yet). You don’t want print driving your business, but it will continue to play a role, once publishers shed all the excess and redundancies that have built up over the last 20 years.

  8. Cahill, you’re joking right? I assume you were around in 2001. Online portals/publishing/ad plays easily lost 50 percent of value. Look at Yahoo’s stock price. Look at, I don’t know, Looksmart. Salon. CNET. Some made it and thrived, some limped, some died. It will be the same with print publishing.

  9. It was said a few years ago by someone (darned memory) that “it’s not a question of whether the newspapers will be profitable, it’s a matter of how large a truck will be needed to carry the profits to the bank.”

    Yes, in 2001 a lot of dotbombs went down. They were typically companies that were under 5 years old. Startups, not companies measure their age in decades.

    I’m not saying they go away. I am saying the business is fundamentally changing. See the LA Times news release today – web first for news, combining the editorial and web staff. Or the Boston Globe, who today shut down 3 overseas bureaus.

    If I were a student looking for a career, the newspapers wouldn’t be the place today.

  10. A reader recently flamed me and my Movers & Shakers blog on CIO.com, and I just finished writing a response to it. I felt, as a blogger, a duty to post a response to the flame, to show that I’m engaged with my readers, but I really don’t want to get into a pissing match, so I took the “Kill Them with Kindness” (or in my case, earnestness) approach. Anyone got any suggestions for responding to flames without 1) sounding defensive and 2) starting a pissing match? Here’s a link to the blog entry/flame in question, if anyone’s interested: http://advice.cio.com/meridith_levinson/robert_keefe_joins_mueller_water_products_as_cio

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