Is There Life After Newspapers?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2009

Is There Life After Newspapers?   

Thousands upon thousands of newspaper journalists have lost their jobs in recent years in endless rounds of layoffs and buyouts. What happens in the next act?

By Robert Hodierne
     

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Erica Smith has a job as a graphics designer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At least for now. There are few journalists in America who know as well as Smith how tenuous a steady newspaper job is these days. For the last year and a half, she has spent 10 or 12 hours a week at an old oak table in her sixth-floor loft with her Mac laptop, a bottle of Pepsi and her cat, tallying the fallen: 18 more jobs cut at the Tallahassee Democrat, 15 at the Desert Sun , 13 at the Jackson Sun. And the list goes on and on. Eight at the Visalia Times-Delta, 12 at the Statesman Journal , 125 at the Virginian-Pilot, 60 at the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Smith tallied 15,554 newspaper job cuts for 2008, and she was still updating in January. Her research is artfully rendered on a Web page called "paper cuts" and appears to be the only such comprehensive list.

"I started out because I was curious about the number of cuts. Now it's because I have too many friends who've been laid off," says Smith, 32, who got into the newspaper business right after graduating from Northwest Missouri State University.

Her tally, which she builds from news releases, wire reports, blogs and tips from colleagues, includes all newspaper jobs, not just those in the newsroom. But she estimates half of those 15,000 cuts were journalists. And that means the newsroom population of American papers shrank by about 15 percent last year, down from 52,000 at the start of the year. That's three times larger than the single greatest annual newsroom employment decrease since 1978, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors began making estimates of the editorial workforce.

But it's worse than that. Smith cautions that her count actually understates the total because many newspapers don't announce layoffs. What's more, her total does not include jobs lost through attrition.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' count for all newspaper jobs from reporter to delivery truck driver shows the payroll shrinking from 336,000 at the start of the year to 313,600 through October, a drop of 22,400 positions.

Smith, a cheerful woman who laughs easily, finds this all a bit depressing. "I can only update so many at a time without wanting to jump off the ninth floor of the building I live in," she says, with not a trace of a laugh. The 2,000 layoffs that Gannett announced during the holiday season did nothing to improve her mood and kept her swamped for a week.

All of which raises a question: What happens to all of those laid-off and bought-out journalists? Is there life after newspapers? To find out, I posted a questionnaire about the fate of those who have lost their newspaper jobs.

A word of caution here: This was not a scientific poll, because there is no comprehensive list of those who've been laid off from which to draw a random sample. Instead, AJR posted a link to the questionnaire on its homepage. I advertised on Journalismjobs.com and posted word on every online venue I could find aimed at journalists, including Jim Romenesko's popular Web site.

In the end, 595 people who say they left newspaper editorial jobs in the last decade under circumstances that were not totally voluntary filled out the questionnaire. Since this wasn't a random sample but rather a self-selected group, there's no way to know whether this group accurately represents the entire universe of people who have been forced out of news-papering. But it offers some interesting insights.

Many of the respondents have found new jobs. It's too early to tell about those who lost their jobs within the past year, but for those who did so between 1999 and 2007:

Just under 36 percent said they found a new job in less than three months. Add those who say they freelance full time, and the total jumps to 53 percent.

Less than 10 percent say it took them longer than a year.

Only a handful 6 percent found other newspaper jobs. The rest are doing everything from public relations to teaching to driving a bus and clerking in a liquor store.

While they've found work, many of the people with new jobs are making less money. The midpoint salary range for their old jobs was $50,000 to $59,000. Those who listed salaries for their new jobs were a full salary band lower $40,000 to $49,000.

Of the people who volunteered their old newspaper salary, only 2 percent made less than $20,000 a year. Of the people who gave me their new salaries, that number shot up to 17 percent. The age of those at the bottom of the salary scale has changed surprisingly as well. The median age of those who made less than $20,000 at their old newspaper job was 24. The median age of those now making less than $20,000 is 48.

Here's another surprise: While the overwhelming majority 85 percent say they miss working at a paper, they are often happier in their new jobs. Sixty-two percent tell us they had been satisfied in their old newspaper jobs; 78 percent report being satisfied in their new jobs. (The bus driver and liquor store clerk are not finding much job satisfaction, however.)

So it's safe to say there is life after newspapers. But it's not always the life the journalists had expected.

Take, for instance, Theresa Conroy.

Conroy, 46, wanted to be a reporter from the get-go. "At 12 years old I can remember saying to my mother that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter," she says. "I was nosy, and I always wanted to know everything first."

Conroy estimates that 90 percent of the journalists of her generation felt the same way she did about the field: "I don't think I ever considered anything else."

For the last five years of her career, Conroy covered cops and criminal courts for the Philadelphia Daily News, inevitably described as a scrappy tabloid living in the shadow of its larger sibling, the Inquirer. In all, she worked 12 years at the Daily News. A former Knight Ridder paper, the Daily News, along with the Inquirer, was purchased by a group of local investors in 2006.

Conroy says her stint at the paper was great fun the colorful characters, the scoops, the deadline pressure, the colleagues. But toward the end, with a shrinking staff and a shrinking paper, "most of the time we felt beaten down," she says.

"I was profoundly heartbroken by journalism," she says. "It became less and less, and I started to love it less and less."

To deal with the stress in her life and to help her quit smoking, Conroy took up yoga. She became a part-time yoga instructor, shaking the "stink off" from her grim day job by teaching clients how to relax.

In January 2007, Conroy volunteered to be laid off; she took the 31 weeks of pay and walked away. For the past nine months she's had her own yoga studio in Philadelphia's Roxborough section called Yoga on the Ridge, and she's "doing pretty well." She says the satisfaction she got from breaking a big story isn't nearly as great as the satisfaction she gets now helping an elderly patient with Parkinson's disease do something simple, like stand up.

But, she adds, "I can't quite shake the crime reporter persona. I may be the only yoga teacher who says 'fuck' in class."

As for journalism, she says, "I have to say, overwhelmingly and surprisingly, I don't miss it... I'm very happy at what I'm doing."

But for every Conroy, who doesn't miss it and has found meaningful work, there is a Joseph Demma. Demma, 65, is purely old school in the tough-talking, hard-living New York tradition.

"I first wanted to be a reporter in high school," he says. "I watched a TV show called 'Night Beat.' There was a reporter who'd sit over his typewriter with a fedora hat and a cigarette in his mouth, and he'd go around helping people by writing about them."

Demma started as a copy boy at Newsday in 1965. He had a good run. He ended up working on the investigative team run by the legendary Bob Greene, who gave the young Demma this advice as he went on his first out-of-town trip for Newsday: "You're going to be judged by how much money you spend." It was the good old days. Greene wasn't telling Demma to scrimp.

As an investigative reporter and later editor, he had a hand in three Pulitzer Prize-winning projects. But hard living caught up with him, and in 1998 he left Newsday and went to Reno, Nevada, which is not at the top of everyone's list of places to go to straighten out your life. But he did. In Reno he taught at the University of Nevada and did freelance reporting and investigating. After stints in California at papers in Modesto and Sacramento, he moved to Florida to be near his elderly mother. In 2004 he took over as investigative editor of the Tribune Co.-owned South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. "FEMA, Legacy of Waste," a series he oversaw, was a Pulitzer finalist in 2006.

Then on July 18, 2008, the day before he was to start vacation, Demma was laid off. Seven weeks' pay, health insurance until October, and that was it. He's been without full-time work ever since.

"It's tough to get a job when you're 65," he says. "And there are fewer and fewer jobs out there."

When he's not riding his silver Yamaha V-Star Silverado motorcycle, he does some part-time investigative work for lawyers. But he'd really like to get some newspaper work; three days a week on a copy desk would be fine. Otherwise, he says, "I may have to become a greeter at Wal-Mart."

But he has no desire to go back to newspapering full time. "If you were to ask me to go back into that pit again, I'd say, 'No thanks,'" he says. "I thank God I'm not 40 years old with two kids in high school that I have to put through college."

On the brighter side, a year ago his heart was in such rotten shape doctors had to put in a stent. Now, he says, "My health has never been better. My blood pressure is down 25 points. I exercise."

Generally, journalists Demma's age have a harder time finding work than their younger colleagues. For those laid off between 1999 and 2007 who responded to the questionnaire, journalists who needed more than a year to find a job averaged 51 years old. Those who found work in less than three months averaged 46.

But try telling that to Chris Jackson.

Jackson, 30, graduated in 2000 from the University of Arizona as a journalism major. After a stint at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, he took a job at the Daily Breeze in Torrance, California. Jackson remembers that February 28, 2008, was an especially busy day, so he was surprised to be called to the paper's human resources office. There he found his editor and the head of HR for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, which includes the Daily Breeze.

"'We're sorry,' they told me," Jackson recalls. He was one of six let go that day, the Leap Year Six, they call themselves. He was given four weeks' pay and health insurance for three months. Jackson went back to work and finished his shift.

When he didn't find work right away, Jackson had to move back in with his parents in Albuquerque. He has applied for sports information jobs at several universities. One person he interviewed with told him, "Frankly, I don't think newspaper people have the skills to do what we do."

Jackson has applied to be a substitute teacher while he figures out "what I want to do."

Another young casualty of the collapse of the American newspaper business is A. Dominic Efferson, 29, a 2007 graduate of Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. He majored in visual journalism, "the journalism of the future," Efferson says.

In January 2008, he got a job at California's Eureka Reporter, an upstart daily in a town that already had a daily. For a time, the town of about 26,000 was on the short list of places with two daily newspapers. But it wasn't to last. In November, the paper closed, throwing Efferson and 20 other journalists out of work.

"It had its ups and downs, but I totally loved it," Efferson says. But now he's "kicking the idea around whether I need to be in a newsroom right now. I've been kicking the idea around of joining the Peace Corps.

"I guess," he concludes, "it was the wrong time to get into the newspaper industry."

Sometimes companies that lay people off provide the services of an outplacement firm to help the newly jobless find new work. John Challenger is chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the oldest outplacement company in the country.

"Everyone hopes there's an agent out there who will find a job for them," Challenger says. "One of the first key hurdles to get over is there is no agent who'll find them a job. They have to find it themselves... The world doesn't call you, you've got to call it."

Not surprisingly, Challenger points journalists toward jobs that require strong writing skills. "Journalists are good at writing," he says. "That might mean writing books, it might mean writing for company publications of one kind or another, it might be communications more broadly marketing communications." He also thinks journalists are "generally more intellectual" than most people. That's on the plus side. The downside Challenger sees in journalists is "a lot of time journalists are more internally focused." He tells clients to "connect with lots and lots of your brethren, because the best way to find a new position is to follow your compatriots to their places." And get out in the community. "Go to lunches," he says.

Challenger advises out-of-work newspaper people to "get a fast start. Don't think about it too long. A lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about what they want to do next instead of getting started. They're waiting for an epiphany about what to do next."

And he says he tells journalists weighing a new career to think hard about that. "I want him or her to think whether he really was sick and tired of journalism," he says. "If they get into a new field, they're competing against 22-year-olds."

But when they do change fields, some find it a good thing. "Sometimes you've been wishing to do something new for a long time, and the status quo is hard to break out of," he says. "It can be a release, liberation."

In the survey I asked the former newspaper staffers if being laid off was an opportunity they'd been looking for. About 40 percent said that wasn't true at all, but for the rest, it was either absolutely true or had at least some ring of truth.

For 18 years, Joe Grimm was the recruiter for the Detroit Free Press. Talk about a job with a limited future these days. Grimm, 54, accepted a buyout last July and left the paper the following month. With his two boys grown, Grimm says, "I had the luxury of making less money."

Grimm says journalists must "become much better entrepreneurs."

As he has.

Grimm supports himself working as a visiting editor in residence at Michigan State University; editing at a Web site for Native Americans (reznetnews.org); editing teaching guides for the Wall Street Journal classroom edition; and writing the "Ask the Recruiter" column on the Poynter site. He put together a collection of those columns in a self-published book.

His advice to people who still have newspaper jobs: "I would use my working hours to prepare myself" for the uncertain future that lies ahead. And, he suggests, devote nights and weekends to learning new skills database management, say, or PhotoShop.

Like Challenger, he sees writing as one of the strengths journalists bring to their next life. But he also says they're good at "analyzing and synthesizing and making pretty quick decisions about what can and should be done." He says he knows former journalists who now work for foundations to help establish whether their money is being well spent.

But at some point, Grimm says, you have to have a pretty serious conversation with yourself. "What is it you like to do? What are you best at?" One top editor he knows "finally did something really different. He bought a franchise for an after-school golf program. He really loved golf."

Sam Amico wasn't forced out of his newspaper job at Ohio's Sandusky Register. He decided on his own that it was time to make a move. "In February, I turned 40, and I just didn't feel I had a future in newspapers," he says. "I saw what was going on around me, seeing friends taking buyouts or flat-out laid off."

He did what advice columns are always telling people to do: Find your passion and turn it into a job. In his case, the passion was the National Basketball Association. In 2001, while working as sports editor at Wheeling, West Virginia's Intelligencer, he started a weekly, electronic NBA newsletter that he e-mailed to friends and contacts in the NBA.

"I'd come home after work each Tuesday and write it, and it'd be in people's mailboxes Wednesday," he says. The newsletter caught on. People started posting it on their blogs and passing it around. By 2005, he says, "I had so much information I thought I could do a Web site and write every day." He also had enough credibility with the NBA that he has credentials to cover all its games.

About that time he divorced and moved to Sandusky to stay near his four-year-old son. He voluntarily went from full time to part time at the Register and then quit altogether in May 2008 to see if he could make a living off his site, probasketballnews.com.

He says advertising income from the site, which he built himself, "is very inconsistent," but he's making a living he describes as "decent." And though he loves what he's doing, like a lot of former newspaper people he misses the newsroom, the "smell of the ink and the paper. I felt more comfortable there than in my daily life."

Jay Westcott, 36, came to journalism a little later than most. He did a hitch in the Navy, then sold cars for awhile. But photography was his love. He worked his way through the Corcoran College of Art and Design by working on the picture desk at the Washington Post and later as a staff photographer at the Washington Examiner. He was "churning out" three photo assignments a day. "You're not going to get the best work that way," he says. "I felt like I was stalling in my career a bit."

On January 25, 2007, he was laid off. He went to work almost immediately for the International Medical News Group but kept getting calls for freelance work. "You need to know what you like to do, what you want to do, and own it," he says. For him that was editorial portraiture. In August 2007, he quit his job and started freelancing full time.

"Sometimes it's stressful, waiting for the checks to come in," he says, echoing the lament of freelancers everywhere. But he's getting a steady stream of assignments. He shoots an average of six days a month for Washingtonian magazine. In July, he had 22 shooting days altogether.

"For the most part I'm much happier," he says. "Honestly, looking back, [getting laid off] was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Joanne Cleaver, 50, spent the first 23 years of her career freelancing as a business writer in Chicago. During that time she did research for Working Woman magazine on the top 25 companies for women executives. But she felt she needed to work as an editor at a newspaper. In 2004, she and her family moved to Milwaukee, where she became a deputy business editor of the Journal Sentinel.

When she accepted a buyout, leaving the paper in August 2008, she says, "I was really well positioned... I never let go of my freelancing." Her advice to others still working at papers is a variation on Grimm's: "Trade on the position and title while you have it."

While Cleaver, Grimm, Amico and Westcott are all still in journalism after leaving newspapers, Patrick O'Driscoll and Mike Peluso took another popular escape route. They went into media relations. Both are happier men for it, and not because they're making a pile of money. They were both better paid in their newspaper jobs.

O'Driscoll, 56, had the kind of career young journalists dream about. After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1975, he went to work for Gannett's Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal. In 1983, Gannett was plucking reporters from its smaller papers across the country to staff its high-profile start-up, USA Today. O'Driscoll was one of them. "It was a pretty good gig," he recalls. "Quite a lot of travel."

The six-month temporary assignment at USA Today lasted six years, but O'Driscoll missed the West and the mountains. In 1989, he became the roaming Western regional reporter for the Denver Post. "They gave me $500 more a year and a company car," he says.

Eight years later he was back with USA Today, opening the paper's Denver bureau. He covered the Columbine school shooting, the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation, the Kobe Bryant saga, the Salt Lake City Olympics, Hurricane Katrina.

But about five years ago, O'Driscoll felt the paper's "philosophy and story focus" at the time didn't leave him the opportunity "to tell the stories I wanted to tell." On December 21, 2007, he took a buyout that included 48 weeks' pay. Days before, he had covered shootings at two Colorado churches that left five people dead.

"That was the last media herd thing I had to cover," he says, remembering the 12-degree weather as he stood outside waiting for a press conference. "All of that told me, 'Yeah, another reason I'm not going to miss this job.' "

In April 2008, four months after taking the USA Today buyout, he went to work as a public affairs specialist for the Intermountain Regional Headquarters of the National Park Service in Denver. "They were looking for a veteran journalist who could write and was adaptable," he says. In his new job he handles media relations and writes news releases and the employee newsletter as well as speeches.

"I thought I would have a period of mourning having left the newspaper business," he says. "I didn't." He adds, "There's something to be said for dialing it back. It's not as all-consuming as newspapering."

O'Driscoll says he has learned this overarching lesson: "Second and third acts can start in your mid-50s."

Peluso, 59, started his second or third act in 2002 when he was laid off by the online division of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, then owned by now-defunct Knight Ridder, where he'd worked in a variety of editing jobs since 1980, including, at one point, news editor. "That was the toughest job I ever had," he says. "Twelve hours a day without even a coffee break. Any meal I ate, I ate at my desk. It was brutal."

He got almost a year's severance pay and within a month was working as a writer and editor at the University of Minnesota Foundation, where he's now director of marketing analytics and technology. "It's a terrific place to work, and it's very stable," he says.

"I miss the newsroom that I left," Peluso adds. "I don't miss what I'm certain it became." He describes newspapers today as "continually reining in ambitions."

At newspapers today, "there's no other way to feel other than beat down, and I'm glad I'm not there to be beat down," he says. "My blood pressure is at least 20 points better than when I was in the newsroom. That's no lie," he says, adding, "Getting laid off six years ago was the best thing that ever happened to me."

"We were there at the top, the best time to be in it," he says. "The '80s were a blast, the '90s were a bit more stressful, but the last few years who'd want to be there?"

Robert Hodierne (robert@hodierne.com) is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Richmond. He worked for 35 years at newspapers, wire services, radio and television news operations and on the Internet.

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