May 12, 2009
/ by Katrina M Mendolera
Will journalists flock to newspaper exits?
While tighter budgets, dropping ad revenues and a dramatically changing industry lay waste to newsrooms, journalists are departing for different fields as layoffs, burnout and the fear that comes with an uncertain future spike.
The numbers flocking for the exit are worrisome. According to PEW Research Center’s 2009 State of the News Media Report, daily newspapers lost about 2,400 full-time newsroom positions in 2007, while 2008 lost approximately 5,900. This doesn’t even include online papers, free dailies, weeklies or statistics from 2009. Dr. Scott Reinardy, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, put it into perspective in an e-mail interview: “If the mandated gutting of newsrooms continues, those intending to leave will naturally diminish because they will have already left.”
For some media professionals, the profound changes happening in the media industry has been a time for tears. For others, the time was ripe for change. Whatever the reason, the exit is often bittersweet.
Robert Matson was executive editor of Messenger Post Newspapers in Canandaigua, N.Y. In late 2008, he left a lifetime of newspaper work behind to become a public affairs director at a local college. In an e-mail interview, Matson explained he walked away because of the downturn in the industry and the changes that had overtaken MPN in the last two years. In 2007, MPN went from being privately held by a local family to a chain operation owned by Gatehouse Media and tied to Wall Street. (Last year, Gatehouse was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange for not keeping shares above $1.00.)
While the change in his career occurred because of practical reasons, Matson said the impact has also been deeply personal.
“I see bylines that remind me I miss people there. I see changes in content or approach, though even very subtle, that make me think 25 years of my efforts are being slowly dismantled. It’s an irrational response, of course. But it’s there.”
In other areas of the country, timing was key. When Helen Huntley, former personal finance editor at the St. Petersburg Times, was offered an early retirement package, she took it. The 37-year veteran of the newspaper had been writing about investments and personal finance for over 20 years; when the offer came, the time was right to make a longtime dream a reality by starting a new independent investment management firm with a friend. “The state of the newspaper industry played a role in my decision. I thought that even if I did stay at the Times, it might be for only a few more years and that the trend was [toward] more work for fewer reporters. I envision my current job as a financial adviser as something I will be able to do for many years,” she said in an e-mail interview.
The reporters left behind are the ones picking up the slack from vacated positions, says a 2009 PRWeek/PR Newswire Media Survey. “It is quite evident that reporters are feeling incredible pressure due to the combination of fiscal constraints and increased competition among peer publications and ‘new media’ platforms,” said Sarah Skerik, vice president of distribution services for PR Newswire.
According to the survey’s results, the current state of affairs has created an increasingly challenging work environment and has led to more than 50 percent of those surveyed to
Journalists seeing increased workloads
consider a career outside of the journalism industry. Many more journalists are now saying their workloads have increased. In 2008, 20 percent of media professionals surveyed reported increased responsibilities. In the 2009 survey, that figure spiked to 70 percent claiming a heavier workload. The primary area of new duties is online reporting – 68 percent now write for online news sections, compared to 38 percent in 2008. In addition, 28 percent of those surveyed are now also blogging for their papers as part of their everyday jobs.
Reinardy has also done extensive research on the effects the job has on the journalist. In a previous study of journalists 34 and younger, he found that 74.5 percent of those surveyed said they intended to leave newspapers or answered “don’t know” if planning to stay. “That clearly showed some uncertainty about their future at newspapers,” he said.
Despite the dwindling newsroom, Reinardy found that media professionals still have a strong pride in their work. In a recent study conducted at a metro newspaper that had lost 50 percent of its newsroom, he found that while staff worried about their jobs and were generally mistrustful of the company, they were optimistic and determined to produce good journalism. This quality over quantity attitude is what may be the “saving grace” of newsroom devastations, he said.
With fewer and fewer journalists left standing, the PRWeek/PR Newswire-sponsored survey reported that PR professionals can serve to aid journalists, who are now hard-pressed to break more stories over multiple mediums. Keith O’Brien, editor in chief of PRWeek, said in a statement: “There is a great opportunity for PR professionals to utilize these multiplying avenues to increase coverage of their clients. But this also means it’s even more imperative for PR pros to carefully consider the needs and schedules of the reporters and bloggers that they plan to pitch. The competition for content makes seasoned PR professionals a valuable asset.”
–Katrina M. Randall
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