AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 2003

Vacancies in Vacaville...   

...and at other small papers throughout the country. Young journalists are increasingly reluctant to work long hours for low pay in less-than-glamorous locales. The result: high turnover and empty desks.

By Tim Porter
Tim Porter, former assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner, is associate director of Tomorrow's Workforce, a newsroom development project, and a freelance writer. He wrote about major newspaper companies' investment in Spanish-language papers in AJR's October/November 2003 issue. He can be reached at www.timporter.com/firstdraft.     

Diane Barney, editor of the Vacaville Reporter, has to be the most optimistic person in American journalism. Her glass is never half-empty. Forget challenges. Focus on opportunities. Bring on the clouds. Bring on the silver linings.

In 2001, 50 percent of Barney's eight-person news reporting staff left the paper. Was Barney frustrated? Depressed? Angry? "It would be very easy to have a little pity party every time somebody leaves," she says, "but I try to look at it as an opportunity to bring somebody new in who's going to have new ideas, excitement, enthusiasm."

Her story could be a TV plot line: Passionate editor of award-winning, small-town paper operates "journalism school part II," where reporters and copy editors learn the trade, then bolt as soon as they find a job that will pay more than mixing low-fat lattes at Starbucks.

Barney, 41, and the Vacaville Reporter, an 18,100-circulation daily on the edge of California's vast Central Valley, straddle the nexus of several key issues that are vexing American newspapers: paltry salaries; a shortage of quality entry-level applicants; and the gap between journalism education and the publishing world of community newspapers.

Most newspapers in America are in places like Vacaville. Of the nation's 1,468 dailies, 1,250 have circulations of less than 50,000, according to Editor & Publisher. They have a combined readership of more than 17 million people--just under a third of all daily newspaper readers.

These small-town newspapers employ 21,114 journalists--37 percent of the editorial staff counted in the American Society of Newspaper Editors' 2002 newsroom census--and form the foundation of the journalism food chain. They feed staff to midsize papers, who in turn supply the metros, which then sacrifice their best and brightest, or at least their most ambitious, to the elite--the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times (winners of all the 2002 Pulitzer Prizes for reporting).

Climbing this pyramid is a time-honored journalism journey, both glorified and vilified as "paying your dues." But it is also one that more and more journalism school graduates, put off by low salaries and long hours, seem unwilling to make. Editors of community newspapers and J-school professors say more graduates choose to opt out of journalism rather than face reporting life in a small town.

They are making a mistake, says Mara Der Hovanesian, who joined the Vacaville Reporter in 1993 and is now markets and investments editor for BusinessWeek in New York. She says the system works.

"Look at Rick Bragg," says Der Hovanesian, referring to the New York Times reporter who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. "He worked for this tiny paper in Possum Trot, Alabama, or something."

Bragg, in fact, began his reporting career with the 14,000-circulation Daily Home in Talladega, Alabama, and then climbed the food chain, stopping in Birmingham, Alabama; St. Petersburg, Florida; and Los Angeles on his way to the New York Times.

It is precisely newspapers such as the Daily Home, the Vacaville Reporter and all the others covering the thousands of Possum Trots, U.S.A., that nourish this system. If they can't hire, the chain breaks apart.

Judged by its work alone, the Vacaville Reporter should have no difficulty attracting good young reporters. Ambitious beyond its size, the paper regularly takes on such projects as testing local government compliance with the California Public Records Act and profiling the region's growing Hispanic community, in English and in Spanish.

Barney contrasts these staff-straining efforts with the daily news diet of council meetings, car crashes and community events. She refers to the projects as doing "as much frosting as we can afford," and they earned the Reporter the best-in-its-circulation-class award last year from the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

The Reporter doesn't have a journalism problem. It has a real estate problem--location.

Vacaville, population 92,000, is one of those California freeway cities that in a decade ballooned from a sleepy rural community into a suburban commuter bedroom. Sixty miles from downtown San Francisco on the outermost ring of the sprawling Bay Area, it is a hodgepodge of generic fast-food corridors, a faded downtown that's in the midst of a promising turnaround and just enough agricultural remnants that any given cul-de-sac can curl to an end in an orchard of pears, at one time the city's signature crop.

Among the largest employers are two state prisons that once housed Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. The minor league baseball team, which has a fish for a mascot and plays in a ballpark sponsored by a credit union named after an Air Force base, is bankrupt. A big tourism draw is the nearby factory that makes the jelly beans President Ronald Reagan favored.

And, of course, there's the name. Vacaville. It comes from the town's founder, Manuel Vaca. But translated from the Spanglish, it means "cow town."

So, although most Vacans, as the city's residents are known, will surely disagree, family-oriented Vacaville offers little to a 20-something college graduate.

Except, that is, for Tanya Mannes.

The hills separating San Francisco from its countrified cousin, Solano County, were still green from the winter rains when Mannes motored eastbound on Interstate 80, driving a $55 investment in her future, a rented Dodge Neon.

It was February 2002, and Mannes, 24, had just arrived on the West Coast from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She brought a degree in English literature, experience working for college newspapers and a recommendation letter from an internship at the Boston Globe that called her a "solid writer." ("It's not the hugest compliment," she says, "but it's something.")

Someday, if her career goes as planned, Mannes hopes to become a health writer. But that morning she was answering an ad Diane Barney placed on the Internet for a "general assignment reporter to work weekends and some nights."

Vacaville doesn't rise from the surrounding farmland so much as creep onto the landscape, announcing itself hesitantly, one acreage-for-sale sign at a time. Mannes recalls looking for the city and "being confused about where Vacaville begins" and "wondering where all the houses are."

Still, she liked what she saw. "I'm thinking, 'There's nothing out here. Look at all this open space,' " she says. "It's sort of like being on the frontier. And I felt like it would be a manageable place to start working. Just driving through town I thought, 'You probably know all the city council members here, and the city manager, too.' The smallness of the place was nice."

A bit early for her interview, Mannes stopped at a Burger King for breakfast near the freeway, then drove a short distance to the Reporter's low-slung, beige headquarters in a newish office park on the edge of town.

Mannes was nervous about the interview and wanted to "project an aura of confidence because this was my first job," she says. "I wanted to convey the fact that I was very capable and solid. I didn't want them to think that here I am jumping around from coast to coast and I'm going to take off tomorrow."

What Mannes found, though, were editors eager to hire her.

Describing interviews with Barney and the city editor, Robin Miller, Mannes says: "Their questions were softball. I didn't feel like I was challenged--and I don't mean that in a bad way. They approached me in a very positive way, almost as if they liked me just based on my clips already. They wanted to know why I came to California, of course. I told them about how I have a lot of friends out here and I like it out here, it's wonderful. Really, I just decided about a month beforehand that I would like to work in California. They liked me. And they hired me."

Mannes began her first full-time reporting job in February. She worked Tuesdays through Sundays covering the neighboring city of Fairfield, catching the general assignment stories and pulling both weekend cop shifts. She made $11.25 an hour, on the higher end of the Reporter's entry-level scale and more than some similar-size newspapers pay in California, where starting salaries can be $9 an hour--what a "barista" brings in at Starbucks in San Francisco.

By taking the job, Mannes entered into an unspoken agreement with the Reporter: She offered the newspaper a bright, energetic reporter who works whenever needed, writes at least two or three stories a day plus weekend features, drives her own car (a 133,000-mile, eight-year-old Nissan Sentra with no air conditioning to ward off Vacaville's 100-degree summers) and is willing to spend more than half her take-home pay on rent and student loans.

In return, the newspaper teaches her what Barney calls the "firsts" of reporting.

Barney describes the training of one of Mannes' colleagues: "We have walked her through the firsts--the firsts that you experience, the first time you have to cover a double homicide and all the gory details, all the 'I didn't say that; how can you say I said that?' witnesses demanding retractions. We've gone through the politics of covering a city council and her disappointment at being lied to in the way a politician will couch things.... We've walked her through all these firsts and she's really become a reporter in the true sense of the word."

Barney wants this symbiotic relationship to last two years, about the average stay for young reporters and copy editors who come to Vacaville. "The first year is an investment," she says. "The second year we reap the benefit of that investment."

Mannes' career plans fit that timeline. "Ideally, I will work here for between a year and a half and two years and get some great clips.... Then I'll move to a more reputable paper, a more well-known paper. Part of it is that it's very hard to live on this income."

Mannes pays $680 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in Davis, a college town about 20 miles east of Vacaville that she calls the "only decent place for a young person to live around here." Even though she lives in a "precarious situation financially," Mannes says she's better off than some colleagues. "I'm lucky enough to have a boyfriend who is a computer programmer. Whenever I go out with him, he always pays." She laughs. "I sound like I'm in the '60s. I don't buy anything.... I furnish my apartment with things from reporters who left, who moved away to other papers. 'Can I buy your futon for 50 bucks? Can I have your couch?'

"I've been very lucky," Mannes says. "My apartment's very nice--nice as in clean, doesn't have cockroaches--but I wouldn't mind being able to buy, say, a kitchen table."

Mannes grew up in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, the oldest child of an immigrant Norwegian fisherman who taught his daughter the value of hard work. Barney says too many young reporters "only see the paycheck and not the payoff." Not Mannes.

"A lot of people don't want to make the sacrifice," she says. "It really is a sacrifice. I just think of it as though I'm still in school. That way I don't get worried by the fact that I'm not saving anything. It's a learning experience, and it's a tradeoff."

Mannes' contemporaries seem increasingly unwilling to follow her career path. Journalism school enrollments are booming--the number of students in journalism and mass communication programs rose to an all-time high of 182,182 students in the fall of 2001, according to the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communications Training and Research at the University of Georgia. But graduates, frustrated by the lingering newspaper industry recession, complain of being unable to find good starting jobs, even though unfilled reporting and editing positions abound on small papers.

In January, the Internet employment site JournalismJobs.com listed 276 newspaper openings, 130 of them for reporters, many for entry-level positions in places such as Seymour, Indiana; Marysville, California; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

JournalismJobs founder Dan Rohn says that while some small newspapers, such as those in picturesque areas like Lake Tahoe, Montana or Idaho, fill openings quickly, others have difficulty attracting interest from recent journalism school grads. Some young journalists "don't have a realistic idea that you need to pay your dues," says Rohn, 36, a former copy editor and reporter for the Washington Post. "Just because you worked for your school newspaper doesn't mean you're going to get a job at the New York Times or the Washington Post right out of school making $45,000 or $50,000 right away." (Rohn started out low on the totem pole, but he didn't have to sacrifice big-city life for his first gig. "I got a job at the Post after college only because I started as a copy aide and worked my way up," he says.)

"Maybe 10 years ago, people coming out of J-school would go to places like Vacaville and Tracy [California] and they would pay their dues, get some experience and then move on to the bigger papers," Rohn says. "Now, these people want more money and they want to live in an area that's more cosmopolitan."

D. Reed Eckhardt, managing editor of the 19,000-circulation Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne, Wyoming, lost 13 of his 26-person news staff last year, many to state government jobs that pay one-and-a-half times as much as the $24,000 to $26,000 a reporter makes in Wyoming's capital.

Local universities provide a steady stream of applicants, Eckhardt says, but "the issue is keeping them." Increasingly, he believes, the root of the problem "is the money and hours. We can't do much about our hours, but we need to worry about our money."

"I wonder if the industry is taking a hard enough look at itself. To ask someone to do this kind of work, to work this hard...." Eckhardt pauses, as if searching for the one reason that might explain it all. He settles for this: "The [student] loans have got to play a role in it. When I started I had no loans. But the pay hasn't increased significantly. So now we're asking young people to do the same work while carrying these loans around for the same amount of pay.

"The industry has got to figure out a way to restructure salaries, and yet, who is going to take the lead? If the big corporations--the Gannetts, the Knight Ridders--don't, and they really can't given the need to satisfy the shareholders, we're just backing ourselves further and further into a corner." (The Tribune-Eagle is owned by Cheyenne Newspapers Inc.)

Indeed, America's journalists are better educated and hold more degrees than ever before. ASNE found in a 1997 study (its latest on the matter) that 89 percent of the newspaper workforce had graduated from college (half from journalism programs), a 53 percent increase from a 1971 survey.

All those sheepskins are expensive. In its 2001 survey, the Cox Center found that 27 percent of journalism and mass communication graduates carried more than $15,000 in education-related debt, and more than 50 percent owed at least $5,000. That's a burden for a reporter earning $10 an hour, which nets out to about $260 in take-home pay per week.

Lee B. Becker, director of the Cox Center and coauthor of its annual hiring and salary survey, says journalism school graduates shouldn't be blamed for not wanting to work at small newspapers.

"If an employer says, 'I can't find good people. The problem is with the people. There's nobody interested in my work,' what they're really saying often is there's nobody who's willing to work for a very low wage, very long hours, very few benefits, very little appreciation, when they could find a job that gives them benefits, gives them better pay and where they're rewarded," Becker says. "That means that these people that they aren't getting are smart."

Becker's 2001 survey of journalism graduates found a "very marked drop" in newspaper salaries to a median of about $26,000--$1,000 less than the previous year and, adjusted for inflation, the same level as 1998.

Studies that measure whether journalism graduates are spurning low-paying jobs at small newspapers are difficult to come by, but statistical evidence abounds that student interest in print journalism is waning, even at a time when enrollment in broader communications curricula is growing.

Becker says lousy pay is the primary reason for the decline. "I don't think it's the case that people aren't interested in careers in journalism," he says. "All the evidence is quite demonstrative of that. Whether they want to take a job if it means earning less than they'd earn at McDonald's, that's another question."

In 2000, the number of journalism and mass communications students leaped 12 percent from the previous year, according to Becker's annual enrollment study. This would seem to bode well for newspapers, but a closer look at the areas of concentration reveals that students are choosing to study broadcasting, new media or public relations over newspapers. The study found that fewer than 10 percent of students were enrolled in the "traditional core curriculum of news editorial [print] journalism." In 1998, the number was one in five.

Moreover, Becker's latest survey indicates that journalism's appeal as a career may have peaked. In 2001, J-school enrollment only grew 2.2 percent, but, more tellingly, the number of incoming freshmen in the field declined 1.6 percent, a reversal Becker attributes to the "weakened economy."

Longtime journalism educators confirm Becker's findings. Cynthia Z. Rawitch has taught journalism since 1981 at California State University, Northridge. Now the associate dean of the College of Arts, Media and Communications says journalism enrollment is "bulging," but that the "trend tends to be broadcast journalism and some PR." She calls the students emphasizing print a "hardcore group."

Rawitch contends that low salaries only partly explain why students are opting out of newspapers. "Starting salaries tend to be low for all three--PR, newspaper and broadcast," she says.

Rawitch also points to a growing relevancy gap between students and newspapers. "The way young people...get their information these days has nothing to do with picking up a printed piece of something and looking at it," she says. "They are electronic.... They don't read newspapers, for the most part, and therefore they don't want to go into newspapers."

Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, says applications to his program have "skyrocketed," a phenomenon he called "somewhat counterintuitive given that there was not, is not, will not be much money to be made in journalism."

So those who choose to be journalists are often heeding a calling. "It means you get a level of commitment and dedication that is quite unusual in many other professions," Schell says. "But you can only abuse people so much. They have families, children and student loans and lives to lead. We are not monks."

Scott Bosley, executive director of ASNE, agrees, adding that even though journalists want to make a "societal contribution...they didn't do this to enter the priesthood."

"Young people are less willing coming out of college to make those kind of sacrifices or wait that long.... Many are unwilling to do that, and if they have other opportunities, then we lose," he says.

ASNE is involved in several initiatives to increase the diversity of small-newspaper staffs--including a program in partnership with the Freedom Forum that pays a $10,000 annual stipend to minority journalists willing to work at a small paper for two years--but none directly addresses the larger difficulties of small-town editors.

"Anybody who is an editor of a small newspaper, particularly of papers under 50,000 or even under 25,000, will tell you that their biggest problem is finding anyone," says Bosley.

Knowing that ASNE shares their pain provides little comfort to small-newspaper editors.

Tom Brooker, general manager and editor of the 10,500-circulation Green Bay News-Chronicle in Wisconsin, believes the industry views turnover as an unfortunate but unavoidable casualty in the battle for the bottom line. That mind-set has only exacerbated the hiring problems small papers face.

"If they had to turn over 300 percent of their people in a year and still achieve the kind of bottom-line performance that they have, that's all they care about," says Brooker, whose locally owned paper competes against Gannett's much larger Green Bay Press-Gazette. "That may be cynical, but I think that after 32 years in this business, I have the right to be cynical."

Brooker sees the triumvirate of long hours, low pay and lower-than-expected levels of job satisfaction driving young journalists away from small papers--and out of the business--as they mature and look for lives beyond their first jobs. "People growing up is part of it," says Brooker. "Wanting to get married and have kids is part of it. It's a natural attrition, I think, that most newspapers our size...will have. That is, if you don't have the ability to provide a person with the hours and economic package that makes family life compatible with a journalistic life, you're going to lose those people to other positions."

Disillusion is a major factor, he adds. "You will work a lot of hours. You will work long hours. You will work hard hours with a lot of frustrating hours, and sometimes all the idealism you bring into the job as a young person gets wrung out of you real quick because you find yourself not doing the great investigative piece or the great in-depth story."

Ask Vacaville's Barney to name her newsroom's biggest need and she mentions the five-person copy desk, which "has been new for three years."

"The copy desk is the perfect epitome of where our struggle is," she says. "Turnover on the copy desk has been the most dramatic and most damaging. I can't afford to hire a really experienced copy editor for what I can pay" ($11.50 an hour).

News Editor Angela Adams, who manages the desk, is more blunt. "It's really hard to get qualified people because we don't pay what I consider a living wage," says Adams, who is 38 and lives with her parents for financial reasons. "It's great if you're really young. It's great if you have a spouse or another income. For a person who is single, it is really hard."

Constant hiring and training can transform the already heavy lifting of small-town newspapering into an exercise of Sisyphean frustration. And when turnover cuts into the quality of the journalism, maintaining morale is not easy.

Barney and other managers regularly refer to the newsroom as the "Reporter family," reflecting the newspaper's 120-year history of independent ownership. (MediaNews Group bought it last year.) Using that metaphor, the permanent staff could be considered the family's adults, or what Barney describes as "veterans."

During a newsroom tour, Barney proudly adds the length of service when she introduces people--the city editor, 12 years; the sports editor, 15 years; the features editor, 17 years; Barney herself, 18.

The children in this family are the young reporters and copy editors: Mannes, one year; a news copy editor, eight months; the most recent copy desk hire, three months.

Given that the children are continually leaving the family for financially greener--and presumably professionally more challenging--pastures, friction between the two groups seems inevitable. Barney, however, maintains that older staffers don't resent the short-timer attitudes. Other "veterans" concede tension exists.

"There is a level of that," says Karen Nolan, 48, a part-time copy editor and columnist who has been with the paper since 1990. "I think there's also a level of all these young people coming in and going, 'Who are all these dinosaurs?' "

Adams points out with annoyance that younger reporters frequently complain about their pay and the amount of work required to earn it. "If you were here at night you'd just hear a lot of badmouthing," she says. "And I think, 'Christ. Nobody has a gun to your head. You don't have to stay here.'... They're young and inexperienced, and for the most part they don't realize that the Reporter is a stepping stone to other papers." Adams believes today's young journalists are more impatient. "When you're starting out," she says, "my philosophy was [that] you're going to be eating pizza before you eat caviar.... Now it seems like the young crowd just really wants it, and they want it now."

Such comments may be normal generation-gap griping. What is evident, though, is the sense of surrender by longtime editors and reporters to a system in which, by their own choosing or not, they are lifers.

Perry Swanson, 27, a reporter at Colorado Springs' Gazette, covered the city of Vacaville for the Reporter. He left in June 2001 after only a year on the job. How did his editors react? "They seemed very resigned to it and not surprised.... They just know that it's a revolving door."

Barney says that Miller, the city editor, used to get "upset" when reporters left, but that was "before she understood that to be a manager here means to supervise the revolving door, to try to bring in the best talent you can and hold them, and then wave them goodbye and wish them the best."

"I've tried to help her come to terms with that because I've had to come to terms with it," says Barney. "That it's OK. That it doesn't make us less of a paper."

Breaking in new reporters is the job of Miller, who cheerfully describes herself as a "T-Ball mom" but has enough city editor edginess to keep a cardboard Burger King crown atop her computer as a reminder that she was once called "Her Royal Highness" behind her back.

When new reporters arrive, Miller arranges lunches with city officials, provides lists of sources and lines up a week's worth of stories on the beat. "Thereafter," she says, "it's learning as you go." Many aren't ready for the task ahead.

"Everybody who comes to a newspaper this size is shocked by the amount of work," says Miller. "They say, 'Eventually, I want to be at a bigger newspaper.' But I don't know that necessarily translates into an understanding of what they're about to step into if they accept a job here.... I don't know that they really comprehend it until they're in the midst of doing it and I'm saying, 'Where's your story today?' "

Barney sadly acknowledges she doesn't get a crack at the cream of the J-school crop. "I can't always afford to hire the best people," she says, driving back to the office from a going-away lunch at a Mexican restaurant for the paper's business reporter. "I can only hire the best people out of the pool I have."

When the Reporter is understaffed, as it frequently is, and reporters must cover more than one beat or editors like Barney must return to the newsroom after dinner to fill a chair on the copy desk, the quality of work suffers.

"We have periods where we're a better newspaper and periods where we're not so good because of the learning curve that we have with the staff as it changes and fluxes," says Barney. "We can't really ever say we're there, or we've attained it, or we're done. It's not like the 'we' stays the same. The 'we' is constantly changing."