Broken Careers: Surviving in journalism in the Internet age, part 1 of a 5-part series

Posted By Spring Eselgroth

By Warren Watson

(Warren Watson, SABEW executive director, has studied journalists with broken careers.  Those are the people who have been adversely affected by technology, downsizing and career trauma in a rapidly evolving business.  This is the first of five parts.)

Los Angeles 2000.

I had a lot on my mind that early morning in March as I reached outside the hotel room door to find my copy of the Los Angeles Times.  Those were back in the days where virtually every hotel room in America had a copy of the local paper.

Bill Winter and I were in L.A. to begin the biggest journalism education project of my life – or at least in my year as the new director of special programs for the Virginia-based American Press Institute.  We were about to begin the first of a dozen workshops to teach news values and news topics for the more than 200 advertising and circulation sales staffs of the Times.

This was a big deal for us at API.  The Times was an important client, one of our most loyal.  The work we would be doing on the business side of the Times would help knit the company back together after the disastrous Staples Center ethical crisis.  It would also serve us well. During the dot-com crisis our seminars had taken a hit.  In a series of deep blows, the Great Recession and 9-11 would later kill API.

But this was earlier, and this outside initiative in Los Angeles was to counteract the fact that fewer companies were seeking outside training and sending staff to our suburban hub in Reston, created in 1946 to educate the journalism business.

I scooped up the paper, flinging it on the bed. I looked over at the lead headline, and instinctively knew there would be no seminar that day.

“TIMES SOLD TO TRIBUNE COMPANY”

I called Bill, whose room was down the hall.   He thought my news was some kind of bad joke.  Of course, it was not.

*********************

The economics of journalism changed drastically in the 15 years that followed Bill and Warren’s Excellent Adventure.

Much had to do with the advent of the Internet and changing habits of readers and consumers.  The merger of the Times Mirror and Tribune Companies was part of all that.

For years, folks got their news from a combination of newspapers and television. In the mid-1990s the Internet began to siphon off those consumers.  Gradually, advertisers followed, particularly after Internet delivery became high speed with fiber optics and other enhancements.

Steve Shepard, the former editor of Business Week and later the founding dean of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, called the Internet “a gathering force for a category 5 storm for journalism.”

Exacerbated by the worst recession since the Great Depression of 1929, print advertising revenue declined by half between 2005 and 2010.  That represented a loss of $25 billion for newspaper companies.  Worse still, advertising online was a pittance compared to lineage lost in print.  For every dollar gained in digital advertising $10 was lost in print.

Many careers have been derailed through all of this. Journalists have been spit out of companies.  Careers and dreams have been dashed. Some have survived nicely.  Many have not.

  • Lowry Allen, for years a copy editor at the Houston Chronicle, labors today in Texas, at Trader Joe’s, wondering if he will ever have the opportunity – and confidence – to try journalism again. Not doing well.
  • Russ Kendall makes specialty pizzas in Washington state.  He learned that on his own when his photo opportunities dried up. Doing something different.
  • Carole Leigh Hutton is no longer an editor but runs the United Way in Silicon Valley.  Doing nicely, thank you.

And I have survived journalism’s rocky road, its digital divide, by being flexible and using every ounce of resilience I could muster.

Journalism is all I ever wanted to do.  I used a No. 2 pencil to write imaginary sports stories on loose-leaf paper when I was 9.  I became editor of my high school newspaper and yearbook at 17.  I was swept in to the business at journalism’s creative peak inspired by Woodward and Bernstein in 1972-73.  But like all of us, I am still scratching my head and trying to discern my career’s ultimate direction in the Internet age.

But it’s been a great ride. Journalism has taken me to the great pyramids of Egypt, to the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo, to the ancient market on the shores of the Persian Gulf in Dubai.  I’ve been at the foot the great cathedrals in France, Roman aqueducts in Spain and the continuously erupting volcano in Hawaii. I’ve worked in dozens of states, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta and Montreal.   I’ve been a reporter, a copy editor, a designer and art director.  I’ve worked in newsrooms as small as the Rochester Courier (circ. 3,000) and as large as major metros in Tampa/ St. Pete and Cleveland.

I’ve been an executive for five organizations. Been canned once, riffed twice.  Six newspapers for which I worked are no longer in business.  I was dumped on the street when my newspaper in Cleveland closed less than six weeks after I arrived. When I lost my grant-funded position leading a First Amendment institute at Ball State University, I was embittered. It took me eight months and 11 interviews in seven states to find work at 58.   I counted myself lucky as the business kicked me clear across the country to survive.

I feared at the height of the great recession in 2009 that I would never get a job again.

But I survived unemployment and financial setbacks.  Today, as executive director, I lead SABEW, the nation’s 51-year-old organization of business and financial journalists, conceiving and executing education programs from its Phoenix headquarters. At 63, after 40 years in the journalism business, I have no plans to retire. I’m just having too much fun!

Here, I’m offering up some thoughts of what has worked (and what has not) for me with the hope of helping others – others with broken careers — move forward.

The numbers don’t lie.  There are a lot of people out there doing something else!

This series will explore what that something is – and how they’re coping in a career field that sometimes seems in drift.  You’ll read some of their stories here.

An explosion.

Since World War II, newspapers provided the foundation of a news and information explosion.

The journalism first filled the pages of major newspapers such as The New York Times and Chicago Tribune, and even smaller publications such as the weekly Rochester Courier and The Gloucester Daily Times.

Readers paying for the news looked at the newspaper as a glue to community and public life.  Businesses advertised on its pages, providing the revenue needed to put reporters in the field and editors to plan and safeguard its accuracy and completeness.

The newspaper fended off the technological advances of radio, then television.  Later, both mediums drew from newspapers to fill their airwaves with news and information.

Through most of the 20th Century, newspapers provided a career direction for generations.

Since the advent of the Internet, this has all changed.  The newspaper is in crisis due to deeply affecting and disruptive technologies.  To many, the newspaper has become an old-world afterthought, threatening its very survival.

Periodic economic recessions in 1981, 1991, 2000-01 and a kill-shot depression beginning in 2008 have fueled a runaway fire, threatening what is left.

The story of the rise of the Internet and its disruptive technologies has been told over and over.  This series, “Broken Careers,” examines the effects on people and positions being spit out in what was once one of the most respected fields in employment.

At first, in the 1980s, many newspapers themselves were threatened and died – the Cleveland Press, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Dallas Times Herald among many others as life habits changed and many eschewed the printed word.

Readers continued to erode, and even attempts to infuse the rejuvenating principles of Total Quality and business efficiencies into newspapers failed to stem the tide.

Newsrooms shrank. Coverage and service declined. That set the stage for the Internet revolution, which entirely capsized the industry’s business model.

Staffs holding on have treaded water.   Now, they are being swept away by a full wave of change.  In fact, many companies are now eliminating entire photo departments. IPhones can replace photojournalists so the story goes.

But many journalists continue to tough it out, work harder and with less support.  Many have taken their journalistic skills to public relations and related fields.   Some now support themselves through freelance work.  Many have moved on entirely, taking on passions that have nothing to do with what once was a career choice filled with purpose and joy.

I’m one of those. I stepped into the career upon the inspiration of Bod Woodward and Carl Bernstein and a story called Watergate.

I have hung on for 40 years, zig-zagging and adjusting my skill sets to the needs of the moment.  I have been thrown out of jobs three times, but have come back for more.

This is the story of Mainer Gerry Boyle, once a reporter and editor, and budding novelist, who finally had enough when a cost-cutting publisher denied him an unpaid leave.  With journalism behind him, he has now written 13 books.

This the story of John McIntyre a respected guardian of language, who was laid off at H.L. Mencken’s Baltimore Sun and thought he would never work again until brought back at 58 at two-thirds the pay with twice the work. He counts himself as “luck.”

This is the story of Russ Kendall, a photojournalist who finally gave up after four pay cuts and two furloughs and now crafts artisan pizza at festivals and farmers’ markets in western Washington.  His says his career “Plan B” is now his “Plan A.”

This is also the story of Houston’s Lowry Allen, who took a buyout from his job as a copy editor when intimidated by technology. Shaken by the changes in journalism, he has lost his confidence and works at Trader’s Joe’s for $11.55 an hour.

(Warren is SABEW executive director and a 40-year journalist.)

 

A recent Poynter chat on “What Happens when a Journalism Career Breaks?”

 

Next: Some in journalism who weathered crisis and survived

The series:

Part 2 – Broken Careers: Some in journalism weathered crisis and ultimately survived

Part 3 – Broken Careers: They moved on from journalism to survive

Part 4 –Broken Careers: How to avoid the frustration factory

Part 5 – Broken Careers: Journalists will move forward – in their own little worlds!

 

 

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