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From AJR,   October/November 2008  issue

Newsroom Gloom   

Interns watch newsrooms shrink, but many still seek newspaper careers.


By Tim Collie
Collie is a Florida-based writer.     

They watched mentors lose their jobs.

They saw the desks around them empty.

They saw passions flare, tears flow and the newspapers they'd staked their futures on shrink in size.

And their careers are only just beginning. The real-world experience that newspaper interns gained this summer wasn't exactly what many expected, but it apparently hasn't crippled their enthusiasm for news.

Newspapers have shed more than 1,000 jobs this year, and hundreds of those cutbacks occurred just as fresh-faced summer interns arrived in newsrooms.

"It's been pretty depressing," says Mathilde Piard, 24, who watched about 120 newsroom positions get cut this summer during her internship at the Palm Beach Post.

Meanwhile, the exiting veterans who worked alongside them wondered just how much to hold back and whether they should encourage college students just entering what some say is a dying industry.

"For some reason, they decided to hire interns this summer, and these poor kids are sitting in the middle of our disintegration, literally watching some of us cry in the middle of the newsroom as we go toward our demise," says Post columnist Carolyn Susman, 62, who took the paper's buyout package after 40 years in journalism.

Among those who lost a job was the paper's ombudsman, C.B. Hanif, with whom Piard was staying for the summer. Suddenly, she was trotting off to work each day while he went to the beach and considered his next career move.

"I think they've shielded the interns a bit from how depressing it really was, and nobody really told us to get out while we can. But nothing really prepared us for a lot of the depressing stuff we heard and saw," says Piard, who graduated from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University before beginning her internship at the Post.

The experience left Piard thinking of seeking work in Europe she's a citizen of France as well as the United States in the much healthier newspaper industry there. Ultimately, the Post hired her as a multimedia producer.

Another factor worrying Piard and others is the hundreds of experienced writers and editors they're now competing with for jobs in the U.S. She thinks newspaper Web sites provide opportunities for creativity and in-depth journalism. And like other interns, she still aims for a newspaper career.

"That shocked me how many of our interns still really want to work for newspapers," says Lynn Kalber, who has run the Post's internship program for 15 years.

"When I was recruiting this year, I had more and more interns requesting to be in print. You kind of want to shake them and ask why. I don't know what prompted it. There hasn't been some big story like Watergate or anything like that."

Though all those interviewed say they were aware of the economic slump newspapers were in before they started their internships, their college advisers hadn't warned them of the emotional minefields they were entering. Intern Jessica DaSilva became a minor journalism celebrity after her personal blog post describing a Tampa Tribune staff meeting spread across the Web and angered some veteran journalists.

DaSilva, a student at the University of Florida, wrote about how she admired Tribune Editor Janet Coats for pushing change at the paper.

"Through most of this meeting, I just wanted to shout, 'Amen!' and 'You go girl!' because Janet understands what's up," DaSilva wrote. "She can see the trend in the industry: Innovate or obliterate. She stressed more than several times that if newspapers don't change then NEWSPAPERS WILL DIE."

Because the post also discussed layoffs, and how some staffers seemed frightened and resistant to change, DaSilva's missive was interpreted by some as a dismissal of old-timers by an arrogant upstart. After Romenesko and others linked to her post, some vilified her online while others rushed to her defense.

"I'm empathetic and I realize that the people who were laid off have to feed their families," DaSilva says. "That's not something I would ever praise.

"A lot of people think that these people getting laid off are opening positions for younger people, but that's not true at all. We all were scared by what we went through and saw in our internships."

The fact that she blogged about an internal meeting at the Tribune points to the chasm widening between new and old media, and new and old journalists. DaSilva and other interns say they heard much discussion about declining readership but were rarely consulted about what young readers are looking for from a newspaper.

Some interns say they would often discuss how too many of their papers were making changes without paying attention to the basics like design, writing quality and the speed with which their Web sites upload content.

"Maybe people need to start looking to my generation for some advice," DaSilva says. "Because the way people are getting their news is changing, and being the first generation that's really grown up with the Internet, we can help.

"A lot of time our opinions are discredited almost, or brushed aside because we don't have a lot of experience in journalism," she says. "We have a fresh perspective. I think people need to incorporate that in the planning."

But fresh perspectives aren't always welcome in climates dominated by fear. The overwhelming message that intern Wesley DeBerry got at the Sacramento Bee was to hunker down and produce. The day before he left his 12-week internship, management sent out an e-mail announcing that wages were being frozen for at least a year. Like many interns, DeBerry had been hoping to turn the summer gig into a full-time job.

"It was clear that wasn't going to happen, though," says DeBerry, 23. "I worked with great people there, but every time there was a staff meeting, you'd see the fear on the older people's faces as they came back to their desks.

"I remember someone told me that all it's about now is byline counts rather than the actual quality of the journalism," DeBerry says. "I just wish I'd graduated in the early 1990s rather than after the turn of the century, you know?"

What didn't change for these interns despite layoffs, buyouts and debates over new technology was the thrill that always comes with a terrific story: a well-crafted lead, a great interview, a scoop and that first byline, be it on the front page or the homepage.

"Sure, there was a lot of doom and gloom, but I talked to interns all around the country and everyone loved the work," says Derek Fabry, 21, a Dow Jones intern at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. "We've all been working with interesting people, doing good stories.

"The newsrooms are shrinking, but the job I'm doing is good no matter where it's posted."