Friday, April 17, 2009

A few words on newspapers ...

If you're a journalist, you can't get away from the topic of the "dying" newspaper industry. At work, at home, at parties, on assignment, everyone seems to want to talk about it.

So, newspapers ... I didn't start this blog intending to talk too much about them, as I don't have any new insight to share. Everything that can be said about newspapers — that they're struggling to make ends meet, that they're mostly to blame for their troubles, etc. — already has been repeated ad nauseam. As for me, I took a job with a corporate newspaper and it came back to bite me on the ass. There's not much more to say on the matter.

But I will say this: The situation, both mine and journalism's, really sucks. Newspapers are cutting publication days, shaving staffs and replacing local voices with homogenized wire content. Some of them, believe or not, are raising prices in the process. The unemployment lines, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly crowded with intelligent, creative, hard-working ex-journalists.

None of this I could have possibly imagined 13 years ago when I entered journalism school. I left for college in the fall of 1996, right about when the Internet started creeping into the minds of the general populace. That summer, I had my first taste of the Web through a trial AOL membership. I remember e-mailing back and forth with friends — the conversations said little beyond, "Hey, look at me, I'm e-mailing!" "Hey, me, too!" None of us had any idea it would come to control our lives.

If I could go back in time, would I change my major? Perhaps — I at least would take some Web courses. Yet, I wouldn't trade my newspaper experience for anything. I like newspapers. Working for one can be a hell of a lot of fun when times are good and there's money to throw around (relatively speaking, of course — there aren't many rich journalists beyond evening news anchors). But I don't know anyone having fun working at a newspaper right now. 

There's a general malaise in newsrooms across the country, as one would expect when workloads increase, paychecks shrink and the possibility of losing your job hangs over your head like a perpetual inversion. A deadline-driven environment will always have its share of stress, but as staffs shrivel and rumors of more cuts spread, well, you can imagine what kind of work climate that is. Some people stay positive, some project doom and gloom, others try to keep it all hid and slap on their happy face. But it gets harder and harder to smile the smaller the newsroom gets.

Right before I left, a coworker told me he sees ex-Statesman employees a few months after they leave and they look 10 years younger. Now I know what he was talking about.


  1. Whenever I read one of these newspaper death sites I'm always struck by the fact that the demise of the industry is always centered on those poor unemployed journalists who gave their all in such unbearable conditions until the very end. The fact is the shrinkage of the newsroom is only about a third of the story. The other 2/3 thirds of the story belongs to the business, circulation and production part of the operation that has also been eliminated. Those employees, most of whom don’t have the luxury of lamenting their choice of major, are the forgotten casualties in this saga.

  2. As to looking 10 years younger after you leave: That has always been true at the Statesman for all of the 43 years that I can vouch for.

  3. You are right, Anonymous — such stories do typically center on the newsroom. But I certainly did not intend this to come across as a "woe is me" thing, nor to suggest only the newsroom is taking the blows. In fact, the Statesman got hit in other areas more than other papers because they moved to remote printing and laid off pretty much all of their pressroom employees.

    That said, writers write what they know, and for me that means analyzing and discussing what I saw happening in the newsroom to my colleagues and friends. I really can't speak for the experiences in other departments.

    In response to your comments, I would make the argument that it's easier for someone who worked a blue-collar, lower-wage job in the press room to find a job than it is for someone with a journalism degree who is going to appear overqualified for anything short of a comparable job in communications.

    If you don't believe me, go ask the owner of the new Ben and Jerry's Scoop Shop in Boise: He got more than 100 applications for eight part-time scooper positions, and some of the applicants had MBAs. He said to me, "How can I hire someone with an MBA to scoop ice cream?"

    In 2002, I was unemployed after returning from Europe and it took me four months just to land a part-time job at a newspaper. In that time, I tried to find work doing anything, from delivering pizzas to working in a lumber yard. No one would give me the time of day once they saw my job experience.

    The fact of the matter is, whether you worked in the pressroom or the newsroom, the situation sucks for everyone.

  4. Anonymous is right in pointing out that the long slow death of newspapers is putting more non-journalists than journalists out of work. Will the former find jobs sooner than the latter? I have to disagree with Chad, as I think of journalists as generalists who can fit many different molds. Look at Chad -- his head is so stuffed with ideas that he can barely sleep! But I do agree that the situation sucks for everyone....I left journalism the year the Laidoffloser left journalism school. If I looked 10 years younger after I left, I put them back on after a short career in software. I had it easy. The Statesman has always sounded to me like an assembly line in a sausage factory. Kudos to the survivors. I hope someday you'll think of this incident as your graduation.

  5. Chad,
    Did you watch the 5th season of The Wire by chance?

    I have it if you want to borrow it.