AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2009

Hunkering Down   

June/July preview» Despite the massive economic problems plaguing the newspaper business, some journalists refuse to scramble for the lifeboats.

By Beth Macy

There are days when I dream about quitting the newspaper business and opening my own coffee shop. I'd call it the Underdog Cafι. On rainy days, the lunch special would be tomato pie and biscuits. My lovable but dumb dog, Lucky, would bask in a pool of front-window light. Customers would feel so at home at the Underdog that sometimes – but not too often – they would forget to pay.

But the daydream always ends there, before the dinner menu is even sketched out.

After 23 years in the business, after seeing my white-haired brethren grudgingly accept buyouts, after the uncertainty of watching the corporate execs put our newspaper on the market – only to take it off when the economy tanked – not only am I still here at the Roanoke Times, but I still get excited when I happen onto a great story. That's why I stick with journalism, even as it threatens to bail on me.

Call me a Pollyanna; some of my favorite coworkers do. But there's a certain relief that came when I decided earlier this year to plant my entire body in the sand, Reporter's Notebook and all. I don't like the presses shutting down in Denver and Seattle. I hate the fact that thousands of American journalists have lost their jobs to buyouts and layoffs already this year, and many others have made the preemptive move of getting out before they're forced out.

But more than 40,000 newspaper journalists are still cranking away, and I'm grateful to be among them, having vowed to ride out the tsunami until they pry the company-owned laptop from my cold, ink-stained hands.

As Poynter Online recruiting columnist and former Detroit Free Press recruiter Joe Grimm puts it, "Sometimes you might feel like you're being naοve, but there's a certain relief that comes when you decide to stick with it and tell yourself: 'I'm tired of being uncertain; I'm staying put.' That's when people start sleeping again."

I've spent evenings, weekends and furlough days for the past few months talking to some of the hardy sleepers among us, sussing out the best psychological strategies for staying sane while staying put. Sometimes, the conversations buoyed my resolve; other times, they gave me heart palpitations.

A few journalists I contacted were so distraught they couldn't talk. Others obliged, but I had to employ my typing shorthand to deal with their rapid shifts between on and off the record because they were nervous about their editors' reactions to the story.

Reporter Lindsay Peterson says the discussion brought therapeutic relief. "It's like when your boyfriend breaks up with you, and you quit going out," she wrote after our talk, "and then a friend of his calls, and you spend three hours talking about him and whether you'll ever get back together again."

Amy Ellis Nutt sees herself as a kind of midwife. A national award-winning enterprise reporter for Newark's Star-Ledger, Nutt believes she's witnessing the rebirth of journalism from a bedside seat, trying to manage the labor pains and hoping that, whatever happens, there will always be a way for her to tell stories and make the public's business known.

But, as any postpartum mom will tell you, the roughest part of labor is the time between the contractions; the uncertainty of not knowing when the next painful swell is coming and whether it will hurt more than the last.

Nutt was present at the end of 2008 when the Newhouse-owned paper lost 46 percent of its editorial staff. The farewells and obligatory cakes were staggered, with nearly half of the 150 staffers leaving on December 31. The grief was monolithic.

"It's sad to see so many good people falling away from the profession and so much institutional memory lost," she says. "Some days you feel like you're slowly being buried up to your neck, but you're still there, still breathing."

Journalists who cope best focus on what lured them into the business to start with, Nutt believes. "Journalism is needed now more than ever, from the smallest profiles of ordinary people to the investigations of where the bailout money is going."

This year, Nutt has investigated living kidney donations and the effects of reduced public funding on people with disabilities. "And you hear from people, and they thank you for listening to them and trying to tell their stories. And those are the things that never change. So you psych yourself up, because there are fewer people telling these stories, which means there are even more reasons for you to get out there and do them."

Because Nutt came to the profession later than most – at 54, she's worked for newspapers for 12 years – she retains an enthusiasm unusual for many staffers her age. She's perhaps also more apt to embrace collaboration with photographers, videographers and online producers, as journalists of all stripes try to build the medium of the future.

Nutt co-writes narration for video scripts that accompany her stories, reports and posts stories online for the paper's continuous news desk and tries to learn online skills from much younger staffers. While she's always working on at least one enterprise project, she likes to simultaneously tackle short-range stories, too.

"I know great reporters who just don't see themselves moving into the next phase of the business. But I'm not someone who only wants to work on projects; I like working on deadline. I'll pitch in and take dictation for someone in the field. I still love the excitement of being in a newsroom, and I don't mind having to learn new things."

Amid the shrunken newsroom at the Star-Ledger, a complicated camaraderie, borne of relief, survivor's guilt and excitement for the future, has emerged, she says. "We're starting over, and there is not quite optimism, but at least a sense of curiosity about what's going to happen.

"We're the ones left in the lifeboat. We made it off the ship, and we're out in the big ocean. But we're alive, and we're together, and one way or another, we are going to get to shore."

Already, Bill Reiter can hear his colleagues at McClatchy's Kansas City Star laughing. His buddies from J-school, too, the ones who call him when they're feeling nervous about the state of the industry.

In the testosterone temple that is the American newsroom, Reiter knows he'll be teased for his unbridled optimism, his belief that journalism's glass is still half full. "I feel like I live in Middle Earth, and the dark cloud has covered the land," Reiter says.

What right does he have to be so happy about his job? After all, he's a mortgage-holder with a journalist-wife and a kid on the way, and he works as a sports enterprise reporter at a paper that has had four rounds of layoffs, saying goodbye to more than 100 staffers.

There's plenty to do at work; he feels lucky to get to write Sunday takeouts on a near-weekly basis. But he also spends half his free time "trying to talk fellow journalists off the ledge."

Here's what he tells them: "I can't save the newspaper industry, and I can't stop layoffs, and I can't impact the recession. I know this is a clichι, but I can only do the best work that I can do, and I happen to still love it. If you still love it, love it while you can." Besides, in this economy, no profession is layoff-proof.

Reiter, 31, believes journalists are craving colleagues and editors who inspire them, who trust them and who know that the key to rowing through the rocky shoals of reinvention is telling great stories.

"Everywhere I look there are signs that people are desperate to feel good about journalism," he says. The Web site sportsjournalists.com – where sports reporters typically complain about the uselessness of awards – took an uncharacteristic turn as participants urged the complainers to "be quiet; give us something to celebrate, for once!" Reiter recalls.

His buddy Reid Forgrave noticed the same response at a beer-and-bitch session following the latest Iowa Newspaper Association awards dinner. Forgrave, a reporter for Gannett's Des Moines Register, says the usual complaints about "my editor wouldn't let me write a 40-inch story; it had to be 25" were gone.

"The old complaints almost seem like a luxury now," says Forgrave, 30. Even with the announcements of Gannett-wide furloughs, "People weren't too happy about sacrificing a week's pay, but they weren't as irate as you might expect. It was more like, 'At least we're not getting laid off.' "

What keeps him going is the readers who are desperate to tell their stories. The day before his weeklong furlough was to begin in February, a source tipped him off to a 70-year-old woman being kicked out of her house because it was in foreclosure – even though she'd paid her rent.

"Those are the stories that I'm most scared of losing. You can always say foreclosures are up 4.2 percent, but when you show it happening to an old woman who's on her front lawn with her granddaughters going through her stuff.."

Even though he can't always do it, Forgrave knows he does better work when he protects himself from newsroom negativity, even if it means trying to distance himself from some coworkers and the poisonous drumbeat of Romenesko postings. It would help, he adds, if more editors across the country doled out "honest, positive encouragement that plays to our conscience, to our calling – the reason we got into the business in the first place," Forgrave says.

He likes to take the long view, imagining the industry five or 10 years into the future: "We've figured out how to make money on the Web and we're back to the place where we're not all Chicken Little anymore.

"It will probably have been good for us to have had the spotlight shone on us. For once, we'll feel more in tune with the people we're covering..down to the level of what newspaper writers used to be and back to the people that we should be writing about more – the voiceless."

Investigative reporter Lindsay Peterson is planning for her journalistic day of reckoning – sort of. Her paper, Media General's Tampa Tribune, has had so many rounds of buyouts she can't keep the number straight, and the reporting staff is now roughly half the size it was when she arrived there two decades ago. Fierce competition with the St. Petersburg Times has many reporters in the region wondering which paper will be the last one standing.

Still, Peterson decided a long time ago: If the ship's sinking, she's going down with it. "I really didn't think the ship was going to go down when I first said it, but right now everybody's looking for a lifeboat. The problem is, those lifeboats aren't very sturdy. The friends who've gone into PR jobs, it's OK; it's a paycheck. But if they could turn the clock back, they would come back."

Peterson, 53, says most of her peers are riding out the storm, or trying to. "The only way I know how to do it is just to keep looking for that next story," she says.

She's caught, though, between not knowing which stories appeal most to Web users (and the advertisers who court them) and feeling guilty about not putting print loyalists first. She frequently questions whether she's putting her energy into the right stories, trying to divine what it is people want to read on the Internet. "The stories we put our hearts and souls into don't seem to be getting as many hits as we'd hoped," she says.

A recent narrative she wrote about a wounded soldier from Iraq garnered 6,000 hits – and only slowly, over several weeks of traveling around the Internet – while a colleague's salacious news story about a teacher caught sleeping with a student generated far more page views and comments.

Earlier this year, a series of articles about an eccentric woman traveling from Florida to Texas on horseback surprised her by scratching her writing itch – and attracting a huge Internet following across the country, becoming the paper's most e-mailed story the day it ran.

"I had a great time with it because, finally, it met all the criteria, and the editors were drooling," she says. "But I don't think they expected it, either. You might think a story is interesting or you may not, but it's like the viewers are the ones deciding now.

"It's more democratic, yes, and it's something we need to pay attention to. But it's disturbing and disruptive, too."

Peterson hopes the value of journalism will somehow endure in the media-reinvention process, and by some miracle she will be able to outlast the coming changes. Plan B, though, if she does get laid off, is to get her doctoral degree in journalism, using the demise of newspapers as her thesis topic.

"I want to understand it," she says. "The only thing that keeps me from getting depressed is that I just can't comprehend what's happening; that we're all looking at possibly losing our jobs... It's still just unbelievable."

Dan Suwyn has advice for Peterson and all the other realists out there. And for their bosses. A former journalist who now runs a change-management consultancy called the Rapid Change Group, Suwyn, 45, says layoffs not only affect the mental health of the survivors left behind; they also have an impact on productivity. If the normal worker is productive five out of eight hours in the day, for a worker in the aftermath of a layoff or buyout that number plummets to 1.5 to 1.8 hours a day, he says, citing government statistics. He says that effect can last anywhere from three weeks to a year, depending on the magnitude of the cuts.

Journalists are obsessing: How are we going to do more work with fewer workers? Did I make a mistake by staying? Do I need to get out, too?

"Most managers don't know how to deal with people who are angry, but people who are angry are still demonstrating that they care, and that's a good thing," he says.

While reporters are still in the caring mode, editors should set transparent and specific goals – for example, to increase page views for stories, develop more interactive ways to pull in readers, make city government coverage more relevant – and then celebrate every tiny victory along the way. "Right now," Suwyn says, "what I see most media companies doing is kicking into survival mode instead of into, 'How do we show the employees who are left that they're safe and respected? That they have a chance to contribute to this so they can use their intelligence to help grow the media company of the future?' "

Journalists need to realize that if they're not already working in a free-agent economy, they soon could be, Suwyn says. "Ask yourself: 'How do the skills and principles I have apply to different media? What can I do better online?' Maybe you get to be the last person to turn out the [newsroom] lights, and that's great. But in case you're not, think about how you can apply your principles in a different medium.

"Newspapers no longer have the market cornered on journalism, so what are you going to do? It's not just about Budweiser any more. There are lots of microbreweries and, while the microbreweries might not pay as well, sometimes they are more rewarding."

Patrick Evans hopes to continue working for his CBS television affiliate, KPSP in Palm Springs, California, for the rest of his career. While his station has so far been spared layoffs, many of his broadcasting peers who work elsewhere have been asked to take a pay cut – or to take off – a situation that makes contract-renewal time fraught with anxiety for everyone in the field.

"For those of us who have chosen to tough it out, you've got to wake up, get to work, be enthusiastic about what you're doing and make sure your bosses and your viewers know you love being there," the senior meteorologist says. "Because there is always someone younger and cheaper who would love to do your job."

With his wife also in the media industry – Carol Horton is the marketing manager for Palm Springs' Desert Sun – the couple thinks it's smart to have an alternate plan that has nothing to do with the media. Evans, 42, has long wanted to open his own restaurant. And while he concedes that being a restaurateur is also a challenge these days, every weekend he tries to perfect at least one dish for his would-be menu.

He's also started taking the Foreign Service Exam on an annual basis. Though no U.S. State Department offers in media relations have emerged, "It's a good mental exercise and, if the opportunity came up, it would be fascinating.

"I don't want to have to leave," he adds. "But I think it's prudent to think about it and be prepared."

Evans stays upbeat by trying to be grateful for family, friends and good health and by finding joy in the work he does. "Today the temperature was 80 and tomorrow it might be 81, and I've got to discern that one degree," he jokes.

Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries about the sinking ship is that there are still young passengers trying to get on board (see First Person, April/May). When American University senior Jill Holbrook declared her communication studies major three years ago, she thought she'd be relying mainly on her story-writing skills. But the 22-year-old has learned to blog, tweet, shoot and edit video, edit sound for radio and – oh yeah – report and write.

She knows how to do a little of everything, but sometimes she frets that she doesn't do any of it very well. Still, she's gotten so good at writing tight for journalism classes that for the first time in her academic career, she struggled to write a 20-page literature paper.

Holbrook was two years into her studies before she became aware that getting a job in an industry that's shifting by the second might be tough. And then the recession hit. "I wish I would have been warned that I was going into a dying industry," Holbrook says. "A little heads-up like, 'You probably won't be getting a job when you get out' would have been nice."

On the last day of her college career, she was thrilled to learn she'd landed a part-time job as a board operator for Sirius XM, where she'd been interning. She hopes the position will eventually lead to a full-time job as a radio reporter or producer.

Those rookies lucky enough to find jobs may be replacing some beloved and bought-out colleagues, but veterans would be wise to cozy up to them more than they do now, advises Amy Eisman, Holbrook's writing for convergent media professor and the director of writing programs at American's School of Communication.

Recent college grads "are a great resource, and so are you guys," says Eisman, a founding editor of USA Today. "They're just in awe of the veteran journalists, but they don't know how to ask questions as well as you do." Information comes to them so readily online that they're also not as good at judging its credibility, she says.

Eisman worries, though, that her graduates aren't embraced by newsroom long-timers for the "great pile of skills they leave us with" and instead end up shoveling copy from here to there for years, with no opportunity for advancement. "In some places, the industry isn't always caught up with them."

Veterans hoping to become transitional journalists – rather than transitioned journalists – stand to learn a lot from young journalists such as Holbrook, beyond their technical prowess. The newcomers tend to be more comfortable injecting first-person point of views into stories and cultivating niche areas of expertise. They're also more likely to grasp how to brand themselves in the free-agent economy, where reporters don't just write stories for the companies they work for; they also promote their work via their own blogs and through Facebook and Twitter.

"They're being directed by people who are thrilled to have them but don't know how much they know and how much they still need to learn and how much they want to be just like them..but with digital skill sets," Eisman says.

The best transitional journalists don't look upon their digital comrades as the younger, cheaper versions of their former colleagues, but as people they can't afford not to learn from. Working together, Eisman predicts, journalists can steer the industry away from the abyss.

"Just like with the economy, I think it's going to get worse," she says, "and then eventually something beautiful is going to grow up from the ashes."

Beth Macy (beth.macy@roanoke.com), the families beat reporter for the Roanoke Times, has written for AJR about writers' sources of inspiration and about how to handle coarse language used by newsmakers.