Staying afloat: Novice and experienced journalists fighting to survive
As newspapers around the nation cut costs or close, thousands of journalists are losing their livelihoods. Young people entering the industry are forced to watch newsroom veterans fade away. But some things aren’t changing. A passion for news and the desire to tell it is the tie that binds those journalists still in the field. And whether they’re overworked or unemployed, they’re still hungry for great stories.
Bradley Zint works in a two-person newsroom in the tiny island town of Kodiak, Alaska. He covers multiple beats as a general assignment reporter, takes his own photos, and paginates the paper. The workload is sometimes overwhelming, but he has no complaints. After all, he has a journalism job.
He is one of a lucky few – a 2008 college graduate with just enough experience to be invaluable to any newsroom struggling to stay afloat.
Granted, Zint had his eye on the Last Frontier for some time before being hired by the Kodiak Daily Mirror (KDM). Yet, he admits that sacrifice is a big factor if young job seekers like himself are to be successful. Zint attended college at sunny California State University, Long Beach, where he was editor of the campus newspaper, the Daily Forty-Niner. He said a willingness to move for a job helped him get one after graduation. “All too often, people I know haven’t gotten jobs quickly or at all because they weren’t willing to move from their present location to someplace new,” he wrote in an e-mail interview.
Flexibility also helps. “I was aware I’d be doing just about everything,” Zint said of his position in Kodiak. While he prefers reporting and doesn’t consider himself to be a very creative designer, he said that versatility is essential. “Because there are so few reporters at KDM, what’s overwhelming is trying to grasp and keep on all the various beats at once.”
Back in California, veteran journalist Aaron Crowe is struggling in a different way. He has learned about WordPress and search engine optimization (SEO), and took a PowerPoint class. He does some freelance work, but the bottom line is that he is unemployed. But he’s not jumping ship yet.
He was assistant metro editor of the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., until he was laid off in June 2008. Within weeks of receiving his pink slip, he started AC Consulting, a freelance business with a few small clients. But he is open about his status as an unemployed writer on his blog, www.aaroncrowe.net. He said a college friend he found on Facebook passed the blog link to her editor at AOL’s WalletPop.com. This brought him some part-time work writing and editing about personal finance for WalletPop and doing SEO articles for AOL Shopping.
But the Web is bringing him down. Crowe said that most of his trouble looking for a full-time job involves transferring his newspaper skills to the Internet or PR. “I always lose out to someone with even a little experience in that field,” he said in an e-mail interview. “My skills transfer, they say, but another applicant had some experience doing what [the company is] doing.”
Despite his hardships, Crowe doesn’t blame his misfortune on his age. “Young and old journalists have a chance, they just have to find their niche,” he said. “My years of experience should count, since I’ve worked as an editor. But I’m catching up,” he adds, “as fast as I can on online ways to inform people.”
He is still aware of the conditions in his old newsroom because his wife works nights on the copy desk. “Her work overload is increasing,” he said. Meanwhile, she has endured furlough and lost vacation accrual and 401(k) matching. And the Times isn’t hiring young journalists, because it isn’t hiring at all.
The reality is disheartening, but it’s a message that Alvin Chang, who graduated last month from New York University (NYU), didn’t hear at school. He found the lack of candor detrimental to his future and that of his fellow students. “Tell me I won’t have a job,” he pleaded in a student newspaper column earlier this year.
His despair seems melodramatic, but Chang, a former editor of NYU’s Washington Square News, deserves credit for being a realist. He said in an e-mail interview that professors dodged questions about the future of the industry with sarcasm or vague answers that left students guessing. At job fairs, media companies have spots in their internship programs, but can’t offer much else due to hiring freezes and cutbacks.
Chang even has the multi-platform experience that editors love – from PhotoShop to InDesign to broadcast. “It’s frustrating because I have these skills,” he said, “but it doesn’t seem to translate perfectly into anything.” He knows that today’s journalism students have slim chances of finding work in newspapers. “The reality of the situation is that we will likely be unemployed and it will be one heck of a journey trying to figure out what to do from there,” he said. Chang admitted in early spring that he would consider working at a bookstore if he could not get a writing job after graduation. For now, he is freelancing for ESPN.
Young journalists willing to take on multiple roles have a fighting chance in newspapers. But there is no skill set or level of experience that guarantees job placement in today’s newspapers. Instead, luck seems to be the operative word. So Bradley Zint will be grateful for his job in isolated Kodiak. Aaron Crowe will learn as much as he can to market himself in job interviews. And Alvin Chang will keep his fingers crossed.
All three are apprehensive about the future of the medium, but they aren’t joining the mass exodus that many have been making from journalism into PR. These journalists are hunting for story ideas and are still making connections, be it through Twitter, LinkedIn, or old-fashioned e-mail. Those journalists who are still committed to the craft don’t plan on going anywhere. “For those few who have this burning passion,” Chang said, “we’ll have enough strength to fight through whatever hellish journey is ahead of us.”
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