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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

Leaving the Field She Loved   

Uncertainty about the future of journalism pushes a highly regarded reporter into PR. Tues., March 20, 2012.


By Michelle G. Chan
Michelle G. Chan (michelle.grace.chan@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Ever since high school, Emily Nipps had planned on being a journalist for her entire life. She had big plans, and as her career progressed, the thought of leaving the field rarely crossed her mind.

Until recently.

As the Tampa Bay Times reporter watched her newspaper and others around the country shrink, as she focused on a future defined by living paycheck to paycheck, Nipps decided it was time to make a move.

Nipps, 34, a respected up-and-comer, shocked the Tampa Bay journalism community and attracted attention on national journalism blogs when she announced in early March that she was quitting to go into public relations.

The paper, a well-regarded regional daily owned by the Poynter Institute, tried hard to keep her, offering her a raise that would have been more than she'll be making at the Bayfront Medical Center. Nipps says she didn't take the offer lightly; it showed how much the Times valued her even in the face of the paper's financial struggles.

But it was too late. She had shifted gears. By now she was more excited by the prospect of a new career, a new challenge, rather than simply fattening her bank account.

"I have to say I am a little bit scared for newspapers," she says. "I don't know that I can wait around another three years to see then how many are here, or if we're going to get raises."

And, she adds, "I decided to leave because I was excited about doing something completely different and new."

Pat Farnan, an assistant managing editor at the Tampa Bay Times, acknowledges that the industry's struggles can be disconcerting. The newspaper business "is reshaping itself, and I think there's logically, understandably, some uncertainty that comes with that."

Farnan says he's sad to see Nipps leave, given her talent and her bright future. "She is a very gifted writer and reporter who we have watched grow dramatically in recent years, so we're always disappointed when such people leave," he says.

"It's not unusual for us to try and keep somebody here," he adds. "People have left here over the years many times. We're a place where people grow up and become strong journalists, and they sometimes go on to other jobs."

Nipps says that she always had high hopes for her journalism career. She found meaning and purpose in what she did, and wanted to one day become an editor, perhaps a leading figure in the industry.

"When you're a journalist or in newspapers, there is a sense of pride that you have," she says. "And you almost feel like you're part of something very important."

But the industry she loved was changing. Newspapers were under siege in the digital age. Many were sharply reducing the sizes of their staffs and the levels of their aspirations. Nipps found the changes "kind of depressing."

And so she decided it was time to find a profession that would be more financially stable than the one she had long loved. She says she hadn't received a significant raise in four years.

"I used to think that everyone who goes into journalism knows they're never going to be rich. It was never a goal of mine," she says. "But in the back of my mind, I was very, very bothered by how poor I am."

Nipps recently bought a house, and the thought of raising a family has crossed her mind. Though she has no student debt and lives within her means, Nipps found that she did not have the funds for anything outside her regular purchases.

"I feel like I have only enough to cover what I'm doing every month," she says. "If my car breaks down, if I have a root canal, if I want to do anything to add to my expenses, I can't, and I have to go to my mother to ask for money. And I feel like I'm too old to be doing that."

She saw that peers in other fields were making considerably more money. She knew that she was smart and skilled. She felt that she deserved better.

"You look at things like this, and you feel bitter," Nipps says. "I knew I was never going to be rich, but I never thought I would be poor."

When Nipps started her job search, she had no idea things would move so quickly. She sent her résumé to the medical center and, within a few weeks, she had a job offer.

"You get kind of locked in that life, and it's hard to see that there's anything outside of it," she says. "It was not an easy decision, and in the end it didn't come down to money."

Growing up, Nipps never anticipated this moment would come. She decided she wanted to become a journalist when she was a senior in high school. Her mother, Jackie Booth, had studied journalism and English at Brigham Young University, but she dropped out of the field to start a family two years out of college while working at the Colorodoan in Fort Collins.

"She never really lived out her dream of being a journalist," Nipps says. "She didn't directly push me into journalism, but it was sort of meant to be."

Nipps studied journalism at the University of South Florida, and launched her career in 1999 covering sports for two years at the Tampa Tribune. In 2001, she joined the sports staff of what was then the St. Petersburg Times. (The paper changed its name to the Tampa Bay Times at the beginning of this year.)

Nipps says she wasn't an avid sports fan growing up and had never even gone to a high school football game. But she saw opportunity as a female sports reporter. She moved into hard news in 2005 and was covering breaking news with a heavy Web focus when she left.

"The thing I liked about journalism was that you get to do all these cool things you never get to do in real life," she says. "Ride on a fire truck, talk to cool people, go to these cool events that you wouldn't normally get to go to if you were a real person―you're the most interesting person at a party."

But her view of the profession evolved. "In the last couple years, I got less of a thrill seeing my name in a byline. It was more about experiences, and that I'm affecting change and people. My way of thinking lately is that there are other ways to make change in the community."

Nipps, who starts her new job March 29, realizes her new world will take some getting used to. "Newsrooms are so comfortable and relaxed, and you can say whatever's on your mind," Nipps says. "I'll have to dress nicer, behave nicer... It's going to be a complete culture change, and it's going to be really strange working on the other side."

But she's looking forward to the challenge. "I'll just enjoy learning new ways to apply my skills to communicate. Get people to open up. Take what someone is saying and translate it to the general public.

"I'm looking forward to how all the things I've learned for the past 12 years can be applied to the world in a completely new way."