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.