Today’s Journalists Face a Bleak Future

Mick Gregory

Benevolent liberals should set up non-profit “newspaper journalist rescue” organizations like groups do for greyhounds. Today’s newspaper reporters are finding they are used up at age 40 and are shoved out the door to be replaced by 24-year-olds fresh out of J-schools with no family to support or mortgage to pay. The gray haired, chubby newsroom members after 20 years of chasing deadlines, find that they are no longer “cutting edge.” Some might even be moderate, a few are actually closet Republians. They can’t attract the right demographics.

The new, spirited reporters are on a mission to spread the liberal gospel and punish “the suits and the pukes.” The fact of the matter is that many of today’s journalists are C+ students who despise math, business, and engineering. A large percentage don’t even graduate with a four-year degree.

Here is a glimpse of the kind of “professionals” who make up the newsrooms in 2007.

From his long-time status after three years in newspaper design, 27-year-old Luke Trautwein barely hesitates when asked if he would advise young people to join today’s newspapers.

“No,” he says firmly. “I’ve been in the newspaper business for three years, and I’ve only seen the negatives. Papers being sold and bought, and sold and bought, and people not knowing if they would have a job. I don’t know if there ever were the glory days, but I haven’t seen them. It seems like I can see it ending, and you wouldn’t want to tell people to get into that.”

“I love it. Any job where you can ride your bike to work and come in and joke around and high five and wear what you want to wear, and they respect you for who you are, and they need you for who you are.

“The people are so different and you get them all together and work harmoniously–most of the time–to put out something good every day. That’s very cool.”

Caught in the obvious contradiction, Trautwein grins.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he concedes, “but I love what I do.”

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about this stuff,” says Binyamin Appelbaum, 28, a business writer at the paper for almost three years. “You’d have to be crazy not to wonder whether this industry will be around to employ me for a long time.”

Aggravating that uncertainty was last year’s sale of Knight Ridder (which had owned the Observer since 1955) to McClatchy and the months of suspense preceding the deal. Reporter Emily S. Achenbaum, 28, says the period was “the first time I thought, ‘Wow, I’m part of a dying industry.'”

“I came here to work for a company that doesn’t exist anymore,” transportation reporter Richard Rubin, 28, who joined the paper in 2001, told me in January. “I’ve got 39 years until Social Security checks start coming in. Is Social Security going to be there in 39 years? Will the newspaper industry be there in 39 years? I’ve started to think about it that way, and it is daunting.”

For a new hire, “It would be hard to walk in here today and say, ‘Aha, I’ve made it. I can be an employee here for the next 45 years.'”

Not long after our interview, Rubin left the Observer to cover tax policy for Congressional Quarterly.

Especially discouraging is the generational flight from newspapers by their peers. Daily readership for people aged 25 to 34 plunged from 77 percent in 1970 to 35 percent last year, according to Newspaper Association of America figures. A study last year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that just 22 percent of those under 30 had read a print newspaper the previous day.

“Out of all my friends, single or married, about my age, one of them gets the paper, and he only gets it on weekends,” says reporter Deborah Hirsch, 24, who covers adjacent York County, South Carolina. “Everybody thinks it’s cool to know a reporter, but when it comes to do they really care or are they reading on a daily basis, the answer is no.”

While several still swear by ink-on-paper, most of those I interviewed prefer to read the paper online. Several admitted neglecting or not even subscribing to the paper version. “I subscribe,” says clerk-reporter Emily Benton, 24, “but I’ll be honest. They pile up outside my door on weekdays.”

At 24, higher education reporter April Bethea knows she is fortunate to work at a paper of the Observer’s standing. But she already is nervous about her future.

“You’re writing things, and people aren’t reading,” Bethea says. “I’m vain. I want people to read what I write. I don’t know if I will retire as a journalist, I guess because there have been so many changes at the paper in the last two years. I will never stop wanting to be a storyteller, but I feel I may get burned out by all the changes.”

“I’m a news junkie. The passion would be there whether or not anyone was reading the paper,” Mr. Isaguirre says. “But it is disheartening sometimes to look at the state of the industry.

“People my age look at things a little differently. There is not a lot of job security. We have grown up in an era where we have seen repeated cases of people who spend 15 or 20 or 25 years at a company and have the rug pulled out from under them. It’s changed how we look at our careers. We have less of a strong connection with our companies than previous generations had.”

Observer Editor Rick Thames, 52, readily acknowledges the agitation among young staffers. “They have a right to be impatient with us,” he says. “Our industry is slow to change, and it still doesn’t understand itself. There is so much off track that it must be frustrating to be in their shoes and wonder if we are ever going to see straight.”

“The newspaper delivered to my door isn’t that much different from the newspaper that was delivered to my parents’ door when I was 5 years old,” says reporter Deborah Hirsch.

“It’s very rare to find a story that appeals to young people on 1A or a section front,” says general assignment reporter Dànica Coto, 29. “You have to think as a young person and say how stories are going to affect them. It’s not just saying the mayor announces a light rail project. You have to think: I see young people riding the trolley every day. How will this affect them? Will they be able to sleep later or get to different jobs or what? You don’t have to do the whole story from their perspective, but you have to think about it.”

Repeatedly, young staff members called for more surprise. “People my age tend to react to buzz,” says Emily Benton. “Most single adults are not going to read a schools story as the second lead every day. Give them something that has a national reach, but also has a hip reach.”

Leslie Wilkinson, 29, agrees. “We need to surprise people, take more risks, print some things that shock people out there on the front page,” says Wilkinson, a design team leader and one of the Observer’s youngest supervisors. “Do some things that make your parents or grandparents cluck.”

More urgency, says 27-year-old Alisha Hord, a former copy editor and designer who is now an online sports producer: “My parents waited for the paper at 6 a.m. If we want to know, we go online at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. or 4 p.m. We’re constantly connected. We want iPods, we want podcasting, we want slide shows, we want alternative story forms. My generation isn’t going to sit down and read a 60-inch story every day.”

At the same time, some worry about leaping from change to change. Stan Choe, 30, worked at the Observer from age 23 till 29, then joined the Associated Press in New York as a business writer. He remembers the paper fondly but felt concern about what he saw as an unsettled mission. “There was a new buzzword every month,” Choe recalls. “We have to put more audio on the Web. We have to write shorter. We have to write more features. We have to put in what it means to you. You felt like we must not be achieving what we wanted if we were switching every month.”

Since I visited the Observer, Benton has left for a job outside the newspaper business, editing for a weekly music marketing magazine, although she plans to continue a blog aimed at young readers. “The doom and gloom of working for a newspaper doesn’t really make people want to stick around,” she says.

Hirsch will keep fighting. “I knew I was coming into a ‘dying industry’ when I started this,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s really dying. People will always need information. I will have a job. It may be different, but I will have a job.”

Excerpts from Carl Sessions Stepp, AJR’s senior editor

Yes, you will have a job. But will you have a life?

New tip: It’s grandma Nancy Pelosi’s birthday. Guess how old she is? Is she 67, 68, or 69? How much has she spent on facelifts?

Why won’t you read about her birthday party in your daily newspaper?

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7 thoughts on “Today’s Journalists Face a Bleak Future

  1. Hi Mick,

    This doesn’t just happen in journalism. Before I farming was thrust upon me, I wrote computer software. At one of my positions, I was required to train a new employee as to how we did things. Since she had a masters degree, I figured this wouldn’t be all that difficult. Of course, once she admitted that, in 6 years of advanced education, she had never written a complete functioning program!

    As to Pelosi, the liberal press is keeping her out of the spotlight until the Democrats can get their ducks in a row and actually pass some legislation. Really, it wouldn’t do to show the divisions in the party to the general public.

    the Grit

  2. ’24-year-olds fresh out of J-schools with no family to support or mortgage to pay’!!!

    Hey, I’m 25!! With a mortgage to pay and a family to take care of. You must have immature youth over there or something! Still, I am a peculiarity for my generation. I should be watching football and drinking myself to death.

  3. I think I understand. If I do that’s one huge helping hand! Thanks my friend!!! That’s a whole new way of looking at the world that I’d never considered before. Better scrape together as much sun-screen as I can find.

    ‘independent cuss’ – That’s a new term to my British ears but I think it’s a compliment!? Like being a Great White Shark in a fish tank.:)

    Thanks.

  4. I admire your independence. Yes it was a compliment. I should give you some more detail on “North Sea.” Get some IT and Petroleum Engineering experience. Sign up for some online crash courses. With the price per barrel at $70, there are some good paying jobs connected to pumping that black gold and getting it to market. There is an estimated 70 percent of the oil left in the North Sea reservoirs.

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