Kissing the Newsroom Goodbye  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 1995

Kissing the Newsroom Goodbye   

Leaving the newspaper business to make more money is a time-honored tradition. But today new factors – a sense of shrinking opportunities prime among them – are contributing to the exodus.

By Pete Danko & Sheryl Oring
Pete Danko is an editor at the San Francisco Examiner.      Sheryl Oring is an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.     


Horace Greeley made the point in the 19th century. "Journalism will kill you," he said, "but it will keep you alive while you're at it." Legions of the dedicated and ink-stained have put forth variations on that theme in the century since, painting a picture of an industry that asked much but delivered more, perhaps not often in coin, but always in the grist of life.

The romance and apparent glamour of the newspaper profession still attract talented, energetic people. But interviews with more than two dozen former reporters and editors reveal a growing sense that newspapers' strengths – the freedom they offer to shape one's job while influencing events and even improving lives, the excitement of being in the middle of the news – often no longer outweigh their weaknesses.

Poor pay and long hours have always been facts of life for many journalists, but new concerns stem from the newspaper industry's pronounced struggles in the past decade.

"People who got into journalism in the '60s and '70s were advancing quickly. Now, it's difficult for young people to advance very rapidly," says David Weaver, who teaches journalism at Indiana University and is coauthor of "U.S. Journalists at Work, 1971-1992."

This has been happening, Weaver says, because "there hasn't been appreciable job growth in the '80s and there have been loads of people graduating from journalism schools."

With colleague G. Cleveland Wilhoit, Weaver studied job satisfaction among journalists and found a steep decline over the past several decades. In 1971, for example, 49 percent of journalists surveyed were highly satisfied or very satisfied. In 1982 that figure dropped to 40 percent, and by 1992 just 27 percent of journalists said they were highly satisfied with their jobs. By contrast, studies of job satisfaction in other fields found that 43 percent to 44 percent were "very satisfied."

ÃThat's a sharp drop in 20 years," Weaver says. In 1992 the three main reasons journalists gave for being unhappy were management policies, low salaries and inadequate opportunities to advance.

This spring the Newspaper Association of America released a study in which more than 2,600 former employees of more than 300 U.S. newspapers were surveyed. "We wanted to take a look at where people go when they leave newspapers," says Toni Laws, an NAA senior vice president who oversaw the study. "What are the factors that contribute to people deciding to leave the business? What are the issues that we need to be aware of as an industry competing for talent?"

What the NAA found was that, beyond the usual complaints of high stress and long hours, more and more people were leaving because of low morale, a lack of advancement opportunities and perceived inequities in pay and promotions.

"My feeling was that as new technology affects newspapers, changing the way they acquire, package, produce and deliver news, newspapers are going to be competing with a much broader and deeper list of businesses for their employees," says Laws. "In this fast-changing environment, I thought it was important that we take a more sophisticated look at how we identify, obtain and retain talent."

Not everyone is swayed by such studies. Gil Spencer, who in 1993 retired from the newspaper business after 46 years that included stints as editor of the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Trentonian and the Denver Post, thinks those who are meant to be in newspapers stay no matter what the economic climate.

"You could do a study like that anywhere, in any business, because there's always going to be a group of people that think they're not being treated right, or things aren't fair," he says. "Reporters are the best in terms of bitching. They have sharp minds and they're interested in the business so they yap and scream. Of those people who left, find out how good they were."

Former Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Cieply says the stock market collapse of October 1987, which set off a wave of cost-cutting at newspapers, was one incident that eventually contributed to his decision to leave journalism to work in the movie industry. Once dominated by families and individuals but now run by large, publicly traded conglomerates, newspapers found themselves confronting the downsizing pressures experienced by other segments of corporate America. The advertising depression that followed turned the screws even tighter.

After working at Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, Cieply moved to the Times in 1987, where he covered the movie business for about two years. Later he wrote about personalities for the business section. "I was devoted to my job," Cieply says. "It was exciting, it was challenging, there seemed to be a huge world of possibility."

In the '70s and much of the '80s, the Times was a growing enterprise, pushing out from Los Angeles north into Ventura County, south into Orange and San Diego counties, and planning a new edition for the burgeoning "Inland Empire," the suburban counties of Riverside and San Bernardino. By 1990, however, the paper was looking for ways to slash costs. An extensive buyout program aimed at older employees left the staff thinner and demoralized, Cieply says.

"There had been a period in your 20s or 30s where the industry was growing and the world was your oyster," says Cieply, now 44 and running his own production company, Byline Films. "Out of the 100 best reporters I knew, 85 of them were feeling extremely squeezed in terms of their prospects."

Tighter budgets made it difficult to do the job the way veteran reporters at the paper had grown accustomed to.

"In a larger sense you had these compressed expectations for a whole generation of people who thought they were going to go as far as their talent and drive would take them..," Cieply says. "When you look around and see your own business turning around, to the point where all of their thinking is toward pushing your generation out and not willing to support you at the level you believe you need to be supported at, that's very discouraging."

In the Northeast, reporter Brenda Elias watched papers close, lay off employees, eliminate beats. She also saw respected colleagues search in vain for new and better jobs.

After five years of covering government and higher education for papers in New England – most recently at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachussetts – Elias, now 31, was ready for a change. "If I was going to stay in journalism, I wanted to either be at a larger newspaper and/or be in an editing position," she says.

At the time, Elias says, it seemed like achieving those goals would simply take too long. "I did not mount any kind of job search when I felt I wanted a change," she says. "I think some of it was just because of the way the whole industry was, and I'd known other people who were looking for jobs and it was very, very difficult."

Instead, Elias entered law school at Suffolk University and graduated in May. She spent the summer of 1994 working in a district attorney's office, and hopes to find comparable work now. Elias says working in the DA's office "can be very exciting. It's a lot like being in a newspaper." And law also offers several other things she wants – the possibility for advancement without having to leave New England, along with the prospect of better pay.

Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner, believes industry changes that have put increasing pressure on journalists may be pushing more people out. "The industry in general is going through a difficult period because of financial pressures that have grown," he says. "There's no question about it. Profit margins have gone down, and the reactions to that have put pressure on newsroom resources and personnel. It would be great if media companies suddenly decided they were going to spend a lot of money keeping their editors and reporters happy. But that's not going to happen."

Recent studies, such as the NAA's and Wilhoit and Weaver's, have shed some light on the trend. Preliminary findings of the NAA study show that the top reasons cited for dissatisfaction with the industry were unfairness in promotions; lack of involvement ýn decisions; lack of opportunities for advancement; lack of concern for employee's personal success; lack of fairness in pay; inequitable treatment; and the perception that contributions weren't valued. Minorities were skeptical about newspapers' commitment to diversity, with Hispanics having the lowest confidence in management efforts.

While 25 percent of those surveyed stayed within the newspaper industry, 61 percent left the media industry altogether. Those who left the newspaper business, the study found, usually went to higher paying and higher profile jobs.

Toni Laws thinks that despite the trend toward downsizing at virtually all American businesses, these are issues the newspaper industry ought to be worried about. If the newspaper industry wants to attract the best and the brightest, she says, it has to be an attractive business to work in. In addition, she says newspapers need to "focus on the skills of managers and the workplace environment. Look at how adept managers and supervisors are at helping [staffers] to be successful..and maximize the contributions of people who report to them."

Many journalists who have left the industry struggled with the decision for months, sometimes years, before finally making the break.

Few newspaper journalists interviewed for this story say they left the business strictly because they could no longer handle the stress. For many, however, it was a contributing factor – and upon leaving, a number of those people gained insight into how much more civilized work can be in other industries.

Sue Shoemaker, a veteran reporter and editor of 22 years, didn't consider leaving newspapers until there was a strike at her paper, the San Francisco Examiner, in November 1994. Both she and her husband, an Examiner sports editor, were suddenly without any income. Shoemaker, now 45, moved on to Pacific Telesis, where she edits an in-house weekly for 80,000 present and former employees.

She contrasted life as an assistant metro editor with life at the phone company. "My desk at the Examiner was in such a totally central spot that if I wasn't sitting at it, somebody else was using it," Shoemaker says. "It was used all weekend. You'd come in in the morning and the keyboard would be gone. I didn't have one single personal thing on that desk... It faced the wall. In the seven years I was at the Examiner I don't think I ever faced a window, except during a stint when I was working at night. And now, to be in a space where I have windows on two sides and they actually open – it's positively remarkable."

When Shoemaker moved into her phone company office there was a metal desk, which was deemed inappropriate for someone in her position. So the company swapped it for a wooden one.

"They treat you with such TLC here. It feels to me like they really care about you," Shoemaker says. "At the Examiner, you had to scrounge for everything. You had to scrounge for pens. Scissors were in such high premium that if you managed to get hold of one of those metal pair of scissors you had to hide it, because somebody would come along looking for scissors and take it out of your desk."

At Pacific Telesis, Shoemaker says, people kept coming by with offers of pens, pencil holders, bookends and "things I hadn't even thought of."

"I hit the total high point one day when I came back in and there was a new pair of scissors sitting on my desk and they were left-handed scissors. The woman who orders the stuff had noticed that I was left-handed. I thought, 'This is it – this now epitomizes the difference between these two places if after a week here somebody actually noticed that I'm left-handed and thought it'd be nice to deal with that.' That wouldn't happen in a billion years at the paper."

The hours are much more civilized at her new job, too. On a typical day at the Examiner, she tried to be out of the office by 5:40 p.m. to pick up her son from school. "I always was in a frenzy the last hour of my day," she recalls. "And I always felt guilty because there were things I couldn't get done." Now, Shoemaker says, "I'm drinking less coffee because I don't have to be in fifth gear all the time."

Susan Sullivan, a former Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter, has undergone a similar decompression since leaving newspapers. At the University of California at Riverside's news bureau, she writes for the campus magazine, publishes news releases and tr*cks down experts for inquiring journalists. Working at the university is much like her work as a reporter, says Sullivan, minus the headaches.

"I have a low-key boss who doesn't question my judgment," she says. "It's an 8:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday job. I noticed the other day that I'm not grinding my teeth when I sleep... The more I stayed in journalism, the larger the job seemed to get and the more it seemed to consume my life. I wanted to have a life outside of journalism."

As a reporter Sullivan felt she was always struggling to please her editors – and rarely succeeding. At the university she says "there's such a gracious outpouring of appreciation from management. It was astonishing. It's nice to work in an environment like that. Maybe newspapers think it's not important, but it is."

Nonetheless, Sullivan, who is 30, says she would consider returning to journalism if the right job opened up, mostly because she misses having a more direct impact on the community.

Low pay has been a perennial complaint in the newspaper business. In their 1992 study, Weaver and Wilhoit reported that in constant dollars, "the median journalist in the 1990s has about $4,000 less in purchasing power than did one making a median salary of only $11,133 three decades ago."

During her short tenure as a reporter in Amarillo, Texas, Jane Corley had "a ton of fun." She contributed to a series about racism in the small town of Hereford and won two Texas Associated Press Managing Editors awards for her work in Amarillo.

Despite her success and happiness, Corley, 38, grew "ambivalent about the money I could make in journalism. I was making less than $20,000 out of school and when I thought about it, I wasn't sure that this was a profession that would even afford me the opportunity to own my own home. To me, that didn't seem to be asking too much."

Now a lawyer, Corley says, "The money's better in law."

Joel Maybury also found that life in journalism was a constant financial struggle. Earlier this year, Maybury, 35, left his job as transportation writer at the Oakland Tribune to begin training as a foreign service officer, a decision that was also informed by his longtime interest in international affairs. Maybury was also starting a family and after nearly 15 years with several newspapers, he simply wanted to earn a little more.

"Back in 1981 and '82, I was making about $200 a week. By 1988 I was making just a little over $300 a week. And in 1990, with the transportation beat, I was making a little more – $550 a week. Five years after getting that promotion, I was still making $550 a week. I had a lot to offer these newspapers, and I think they knew I had talent, but they never came through with more money. I had to look at my own personal considerations. My wife and I had a child and the bills kept rising."

Weaver warns that "if journalists' salaries don't keep up with some of the other comparable fields like accountants or teachers, then journalism is not going to get the best and the brightest people. Even if they have a real interest in journalism they're going to do something else because they can't make enough money in it."

Bill Ketter, vice president and editor of the Quincy, Massachusetts, Patriot Ledger and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, agrees. "As the public evermore begins to expect greater expert reporting, more background and analysis, no matter [the newspaper's] size, if we're going to meet those expectations we're going to have to deal with these issues."

Newsroom diversity is an imýortant issue for many papers but some of the very people newspapers are trying to attract say they're frustrated. For Jon Funabiki and Charles C. Hardy, the shrinking industry and their sense that papers were not making real strides toward hiring and promoting a diverse workforce convinced them to get out.

Funabiki, 45, had a long history with daily papers in San Diego when he landed what many would consider a dream job. As Pacific Rim reporter with the San Diego Union, he visited most of the countries in East and Southeast Asia during the late 1980s. He wrote about economics, politics, culture and immigration, and did stories on topics that ranged from the factories of Japan to the rebel movement in the Philippines.

After more than five years on the beat, however, Funabiki felt he wasn't going anywhere. "I didn't feel I was going to be getting into a position of influence and responsibility and power," he says. "That's what happens to a lot of people in the business – they see the opportunities as growing narrower and narrower, rather than growing wider." Furthermore, Funabiki watched as other newspapers cut staffs. "That made me question future opportunities within the business as a rank-and-file journalist. I felt kind of hamstrung."

Those concerns, combined with Funabiki's commitment to promoting newsroom diversity, led him to a job as the first director of San Francisco State University's Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism. There he worked to improve the retention and graduation rates of minority journalism students and to address other issues of diversity in the media. He is now moving on to the Ford Foundation to work on the same issues.

At the San Francisco Examiner, Hardy, now 43, says there seemed to be a sort of quota for black reporters such as himself. "We had four African American reporters for the entire time I was there. One would leave, one would come – but we never had five. For a second we had a person in management, and then they were gone. You look at the masthead and you will not find people of color. It's just not happening. They can say there are many reasons this isn't happening, but in 1995 I find any reason they have unacceptable."

In his 14 years at the Examiner, Hardy covered education, politics, sports, did general assignment reporting, rewrite, covered two presidential elections and more.

"After a while if you're a reporter you're doing what you've been doing over and over again," Hardy says. "When you start to reach your early 40s you say, 'Hey, I don't want to be an old reporter.' Because in journalism these days you see how old people are treated – they're people you buy out and move to the night shift, even if they're talented."

In the past, there had been a more even distribution among age groups, according to Weaver, but that began changing in the '80s and by the early '90s, 74 percent were ages 25 to 44, leaving fewer veteran journalists in the industry. In 1971, for example, 11.3 percent of journalists were between 55 and 64; by 1992 just 6.6 percent fell into that category.

Having rejected the idea of relocating to find another job in journalism, Hardy says the only option was to leave the business. He is now a spokesman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland. "Being a lifelong journalist, going to the other side to do PR – being a flack – was about as bad as you could do," Hardy says. "But I found that what I'm doing is very hard and very challenging and it's quite honorable."

Bill Ketter says more strides have to be made in attracting and promoting minorities. The "feeling is that this is great to get in, but where's the opportunity to influence once in there?" he says. "We need to accelerate management training of minorities. They need role models..or the rank-and-file will say it's not worth the effort [to advance]."

Women also have complaints. When Susan Sullivan left the Riverside Press-Enterprise, she noted a dramatic decrease in the number of women at the paper. "Six or seven of the last eight people to leave were women. I've talked to the other women who've left, and we've noticed a certain sense in the newsroom, particularly under recent management, that women reporters don't seem to be taken quite as seriously."

Beyond that, Sullivan says she watched how women with children were treated and became convinced that it was not an ideal environment for working parents. "Working part time when you're a mother is virtually impossible at this paper," says Sullivan.

Maurine Beasley, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, believes that papers are still behind the times in addressing women's concerns. "With women, I think there is also some degree of feeling that they might find more favorable hours in other occupations," she says. "Also, the newspaper industry has been particularly slow to do anything about child care. It's one of the slowest industries in terms of setting up on-site child care or helping out. There have been a few efforts to job-share, but I don't think it's become much of a pattern at all. Plus they can often make more money in different professions."

Despite diversity efforts, the representation of women in journalism has barely risen in the past decade: It was 33.8 percent in 1982 and 34 percent in 1992. "The overall figure hasn't changed much," says Weaver, "because women are getting out of journalism more quickly than men."

As for advancement, Weaver points to the lack of job growth during the 80s and the increase in the number of people graduating from journalism schools. "A lot of them are women and minorities who are seeking to advance and can't," he says. "And it's very frustrating for people. The key jobs are held by people who are still quite a few years from retirement."

Newspaper executives say turnover has always been a fact of life. "There's always been a trickle of people who leave for more money, or people who've decided that they didn't have the passion for the business that they had when they entered it," says Mel Opotowsky, managing editor of the Riverside Press-Enterprise in California. "We'd lose good people to some very significant PR jobs – like going to work as a spokesman for Nelson Rockefeller, something on that level. These were people you really hated to see leave."

It's a fact of life that Gil Spencer was never happy with. "I've screamed and yelled at people who left to go to politics because I thought they were making a terrible mistake and giving away their independence," he says. "And I felt I was right in coming down hard on them, and most of them wanted to come back."

But the chance to shape and influence public debate and policy has long been one of the chief lures away from journalism. "I got into journalism because I was interested in advocacy," says 40-year-old Lissa Muscatine, who spent 12 years as a reporter and editor at the Washington Post, covering everything from the Maryland legislature to professional tennis and other sports. "I grew up in Berkeley in an activist family. I saw journalism as my way to influence the world, or at least some small part of it."

Today, Muscatine has an office in the White House, where she writes speeches for President Clinton. "I liked many aspects of journalism and learned from it and gained from it," Muscatine says. "Certainly I became a much better writer by being a journalist. But temperamentally, I was moving in a direction that I wanted to be more directly involved in making policy. I wanted to be a participant and not an observer."

Making it easier for her to leave newspapers was Muscatine's growing sense that "journalism had become for better or for worse a more homogenized, almost bureaucratic enterprise where pack journalism dictates what is reported. It was becoming harder to see the connection between what I was doing and some positive effect on the world."

Sarah Ames left the Oregonian in Portland to work for the governor. Ames started at the Oregonian after graduating from Yale in 1986. After a year-and-a-half covering state politics in Salem, she began covering city politics in Portland.

"I was covering Portland city government when the City Council was at a low point in terms of its ability to communicate and work as a group," she says. "A couple members were really out of their league, and I'd sit there in City Council meetings and think, 'Why are those guys sitting up there and I'm here telling people what they think when they're so inept in so many ways?' "

While Ames was on the beat, someone asked her whether she'd ever considered going to work for the state's new governor, Barbara Roberts. That suggestion, Ames says, "was one of those little seeds planted in the back of my head that just wouldn't go away."

Ames applied for a position on the governor's communications staff and about a month later was offered the job. "Getting to go to work for the governor was a pretty exciting opportunity for a 26-year-old," says Ames, who is now 31. "It would have taken a lot for them [the Oregonian] to keep me at that point."

Ames says one of the primary reasons she got into journalism was her determination to do something of value for her community. "I felt more comfortable with having an agenda, having a voice [after leaving journalism]. It was exciting sitting around the governor's office and making policy decisions in a group."

Like Muscatine, Paula Kriner, a reporter at the El Cajon Daily Californian, the Escondido Times-Advocate, the Riverside Press-Enterprise and ultimately the Orange County Register, had grown skeptical of the value of her work. Last summer, at age 38, Kriner left the Register to enter a master's program in public health.

"It's not the same business I got into 15 years ago," she says. "There was a sense of righting wrongs and representing the underdog and ferreting out fraud and other watchdog roles that newspapers play. I think the focus has gotten off that to a certain extent now."

Kriner, who is fluent in Spanish, had a longtime interest in health issues and became involved in a health clinic that provides care to people in a remote area of Mexico while she was a reporter in Riverside. "I went down to do a story, and after I'd taken the pictures and did my interview I set the camera down because the doctor needed help. I stepped in and held the flashlight."

From that start six years ago, Kriner has volunteered in about a half-dozen clinics each year, doing everything from interpreting to assisting doctors and dentists. "In many ways I felt much more fulfilled doing that than doing my job. I felt I was doing something that was a service."

The San Francisco Examinür's Phil Bronstein acknowledges that for some, journalism was not their first career choice. "Some people are determined and destined to try other things," he says. For others, "there's a degree of burnout that can occur... [And] if people want to make0more money, that's an understandable impulse."

Doug Wesley, a partner with the Hall-Wesley Group, a consulting firm specializing in retooling companies and their management structures, thinks that the undercurrent of job dissatisfaction in the newspaper business is a sign the industry is in trouble. Whenever he is asked by a newspaper to help restructure its management systems, he says, job dissatisfaction "is always part of the mix... I will not say that satisfaction is always a sign of health. But if there is deep dissatisfaction in people with their work and the company, that's a strong sign that's something's wrong with the way the company is organized."

He believes that newspapers have been the last to change in order to make themselves relevant to their readers, and that affects reporters and editors who lament that the paper can't be what it used to be. "People went into journalism expecting readers to be attracted to the old role of newspapers. They'd be satisfied with the costs – low pay and long hours – if the benefits were there... The problem is in the benefits, because they're not getting value out of their work."

Nancy Woodhull, who runs her own newspaper consulting business, has been in many U.S. newsrooms over the past four years, holding focus groups and talking to staff members about ways their papers connect with readers and workers. She's found that typical workdays for journalists are nine or 10 hours, and many put in 12-hour days several times a week.

Contributing to the long hours is the pressure throughout the industry to do more with less, which in turn contributes to frustration.

"The biggest trend I see is people who are at the assistant city editor or assistant news editor level who say 'I don't want to go any farther because it's not a pleasurable experience. It's difficult to manage people both below and above.' " Woodhull re*alls a woman department head at a midwestern newspaper who referred to the problem as "stereo shit – I get shit from above and shit from below."

Woodhull believes "one of the crucial problems the industry has is how to give people the incentive to want to move up and be in management... Unless we can groom a group of people who think it's great to run a newsroom, the quality of newspapers is going to suffer."

But Spencer believes those committed to the profession will stay in it. "A lot of people in newspapers today could tell you all the same things [cited in the NAA study]," he says. "But they can't leave."

And Toni Laws does see some positives in the NAA study. Although downsizing, cost cutting, and asking workers to do more with less have become facts of life in businesses across America, she is encouraged that the responses had little to do with economic realities. The top reasons cited in the study, she says, "are issues that supervisors and managers can do a great deal about... What does it take to succeed, what is the criteria when measuring and assessing folks?.. How do we address personal and professional growth needs?"

But Laws also believes failure to address these issues will make it more difficult for newspapers to attract and keep the kind of talented staffers they'll need to flourish in a much more competitive environment. She says that newspapers have to start thinking of their staffs the same way they think about more tangible investments, such as printing plants and equipment upgrades. "If you're constantly losing talent, which you've invested in in bringing them up to speed and in getting to know how the organization works, it's like leaving the window open in the winter," says Laws. "It's money. You're constantly losing money." l

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