“The World Needs What We Do”
Despite the sad tidings in the newspaper business, a reporter-turned-journalism professor sees bright futures for today’s j-school students.
By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR contributing writer.
The news about newspapers wasn't very encouraging in 2005.
More than 2,000 newspaper jobs were lost. Knight Ridder suspended its minority scholarships and internships for 2006, this after putting itself on the block in response to demands from large shareholders. Along with the New York Times Co. and the Tribune Co., it was one of several large media organizations to cut newsroom employees. In December, the New Jersey Press Association postponed a job fair for lack of interest by employers.
Announcements like these predictably cause wailing and breast-beating over the alleged looming demise of the news industry. Lots of reporters and editors, many of them my friends and former colleagues in the newspaper business, ask me what I tell my college students about their future in journalism, and whether they'll actually have one.
Yes, I know that newspaper circulation is down, that Internet behemoths want to gobble up the classified-ad business and only people with gray hair watch the network news. It's a painful experience as news transforms from ink to Internet, from paper to podcast. But why should journalism be immune to the trends that are gripping other industries? It's funny how we journalists are perfectly capable of keeping such issues in perspective — as long as they involve somebody else.
The fact is, the future of the news business has never been brighter. With the advent of the Internet, and cable and satellite TV, there's an almost unquenchable thirst for "content" (what we used to call stories and photos). Somebody has to fill all that vast space, much larger than any shrinking newshole at any print publication. So journalistic skills will remain in demand.
Here's the real problem, and it only tangentially has to do with the journalism business: The economy is a hard taskmaster. In particular, baby boomers are getting shoved aside. Our salaries and benefits are seen as too expensive.
Consider these potential business risks (and, in some cases, realities) culled from one corporation's recent financial report:
• An economic downturn
• A decline in consumption of our product as a result of competition
• An increase in the cost of our raw materials over the levels anticipated
• Labor disputes or shortages
• Disruptions in electricity and natural gas supplies and increases in energy costs
• Our ability to attract and retain qualified employees, including senior management
• Increases in health and welfare, pension and postretirement costs
• Increases in interest or financing costs or availability of credit
• Rapid technological changes and frequent new product introductions
Every one of these items came from Knight Ridder's 2004 annual report. They just as easily could have come from the financial report of a clothing retailer, airline or automobile manufacturer.
So what's really frightening isn't what's happening to journalism. What's scary is the way in which journalists from my generation, an otherwise bright bunch of people, haven't realized that they're no more special than employees in other industries. We were the generation that demanded change. We were mistaken to think that it would forever occur on our terms.
In the first four years after I left my reporting job at the Philadelphia Inquirer in December 1999, I worked for two different companies and saw five — count 'em, five — rounds of layoffs and buyouts. It was pretty unsettling, and there were times I wished I had never left the shelter of my union newsroom. But I did what millions of other Americans are doing — I drew a deep breath and adapted.
Younger people, more adept at new media, are now taking over journalism. It reminds me of how we all cheered when, in our 20s, Knight Newspapers — a predecessor of Knight Ridder — took over the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. They were in bad shape at the time, particularly the Inquirer, which was an awful rag. But in came a new Inquirer editor and then his successor, who hired a team of ambitious young reporters and got rid of "deadwood" (in many cases, older staffers). You can bet that those who were pushed out the door didn't see it as a positive development. But voilà, a Pulitzer Prize factory was born.
In November I attended a newsroom going-away party for 75 of my former Inquirer colleagues. It was a solemn, depressing occasion. All 75 people took buyouts, among them a lot of veteran journalists with truly exceptional talent. They are sorely missed. But neither the Inquirer nor its sister paper, the Daily News (with its 25 buyouts), had to lay off a single person. So all the young, hungry, energetic folks, at least the ones who felt like staying, kept their jobs.
The day after the party I went to my doorstep, and there was my newspaper. Truth be told, it looked pretty good, and it has looked at least that good every day since then. In the days and weeks after the buyouts, I saw several bylines that I knew were appearing for the last time, and it made me sad. But except for other journalists, nobody noticed.
Having said that, it must be noted that the Inquirer has won only one Pulitzer since 1990; in its halcyon years, from 1975 to 1990, it won 17. Only a handful of the journalists responsible for them remain at the paper. Plus — as is the case with most newspapers today — the newshole is smaller and the stories are shorter.
So where does that leave my journalism students? They'll start out in the professional world a lot like we did — with low pay, long hours and bosses demanding the impossible. They'll be just like us, too, in that they'll work their way up to better jobs with better pay. They may not have comparable benefit and pension packages (a reality that's affecting workers across the country), and there won't be as many of them in newspapers. But just because we can't imagine their futures doesn't mean they won't have good ones.
It is said that Netscape founder Jim Clark once used a paper napkin to sketch the business plan for what would become WebMD, a company that built one of the Internet's best sites for medical news. I was an editor for WebMD for a while, and I liked working for a guy who thought big. What we need now are more journalistic visionaries.
As Joe Natoli, chairman and publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, told the newsroom at that farewell party, "The world needs what we do."
So I'm telling my students to keep the faith. I think journalism will be in good hands.