Thursday, June 4, 2009

'And what don't you do for a living?'

I’ve been a journalist for 25 years. And on Monday I’ll have been an unemployed journalist for one year.

I’ve been freelancing a bit, and doing some editorial consulting, but I haven’t had what used to be considered a ‘real’ job for a while. And I’m coming to the conclusion, like the increasing number of folks in a similar boat, that I’ll probably never work in a traditional newsroom again. Or perhaps even for a traditional news organization.

But you know what? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every industry needs a regular infusion of new blood and there are lots of enthusiastic and talented young people out there who – while they’ll undoubtedly face challenges – will find new opportunities as we go through this economic shakeout and media companies re-organize themselves.

I wanted to be a journalist from the time I was 15. My English teacher’s wife had been Belfast correspondent for the Irish Times and telling stories sounded like just the coolest thing anyone could do. I worked hard and found myself in the right place at the right time on a couple of crucial occasions. And journalism treated me right. I’ve no complaints.

As Thomas Edison said: when you're doing something you love, you never work a day in your life.

I spent 17 years with the Financial Times, in both London and New York, starting on the copy desk with a six-month contract, then working on staff for the International Edition. I was able to combine my academic interests with work – I wound up writing about every US presidential election since 1988 – before I joined the team to set up the paper’s online edition,

A few years ago, I wrote about the early days and how we established the site for a special section marking's 10th anniversary.

In 2006 I took one of a second round of newsroom buyouts the paper was offering and moved to New York to follow my American wife, who had been offered a dream job she couldn't pass up back home.

I had a great time at the FT; I made some very good friends and like everyone else there I had the sense that we were part of something special. I changed jobs within the paper often enough that there was always a new challenge.

While the FT and I were well-matched, Forbes and I just weren’t the “right fit”. If I hadn’t left there when I did, I’d likely have been let go in the layoffs that followed over the next few months. But there are still some good, talented people there and I wish them well.

When I left, I had another job lined up, but after three interviews - including one with HR – the company announced it was laying off a significant number of editorial staff and everything was put on hold. The worst thing about that experience was that I had to call them to find out what had happened.

And that was the beginning of the big industry-wide slide.

My biggest mistake, I guess, was not to look around more before I went to Forbes. I got the gig and thought there was no reason to play the field. Now, with opportunities harder to come by, I wish I had explored other options.

But that’s all neither here nor there.

Over the past few months, I’ve probably shipped my resume out to about forty news organizations, and I’ve applied for specific jobs at places like US News and World Report, CNN, The New York Times, ProPublica, Wall Street Journal, Reuters (for two separate positions), New York Daily News, Huffington Post, New York Observer, and Newsweek.

I’ve also thought about exploring other fields, like PR or management consulting, as well as teaching, which I’ve always enjoyed. Just the other day a friend from FT days, who took a buyout around the same time as me and previously had a good career at CNN, gave up looking for a job after a year and started a Masters’ program in Education.

So what does a mid-life journalist do when they’re out of work?

Obviously, they can go and sing in the subway, hence this project; but they’re also thinking every day about how they might fit into whatever model of the media industry comes out the other side of this recession.

And whether or not they’ll even want to.

But our profession, of course, isn't alone. At the end of May, about 14.5 million Americans were unemployed, 9.4 per cent of the total workforce - the highest percentage for 25 years. According to the AP: "if laid-off workers who have given up looking for new jobs or have settled for part-time work are included, the unemployment rate would have been 16.4 per cent."

So at the same time as journalism is re-inventing itself, people’s understanding of the whole nature of work is being re-evaluated.

Now, when a job ad asks for “salary requirements”, it’s basically an auction to see who’ll do it for the lowest number. Companies are regularly asking employees to take a pay cut, give up vacation days or work extra hours for free in order to trim costs and make it slightly less likely that their jobs will be lost. It also means, I guess, that when they eventually do get laid off, their payoffs will be smaller.

Some companies are even – God help us – selling their unpaid internships.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have a sense of entitlement to a job, and I’m not whining about not having one. I am where I am through my own decisions. But as I watch news organizations struggle with fewer resources, the difficult thing for me to wrestle with is what seems to be valued in “news”.

When it’s more important than ever that people understand how they’re affected by some of the most crucial issues of our time, audiences don’t seem interested unless it’s presented in a slam-bang, celebrity-laced, short-attention-span theatre version, where discourse usually involves two talking heads cancelling each other out.

And if the audience isn't hooked, neither are the advertisers.

On the other side of the coin, though, there are reasons to be upbeat about long form, narrative journalism that has at its heart a mission to explain, rather than just entertain. Yesterday, I was at a lunch honoring the winners of this year’s Livingston Awards, young journalists who have created some remarkably good work, backed by news organizations that understand why it's important.

I’m optimistic about the profession, but it’ll be a tough road. The companies that are left standing, let alone prosper, at the end of this dip will be different animals indeed.

Thinking about the future of media (and newspapers in particular) from economics to content structure to delivery systems, to understanding the nature of the audience, is something I’ve always been passionate about. I regularly read smart media pundits like Jay Rosen or Jeff Jarvis - on Jarvis's Buzzmachine recently there was a good discussion based around an FT editorial on the future of newspapers - and, always, my friend John Naughton.

I'm planning to keep on top of industry developments and broader media debates while I’m doing this storytelling project; I’ll post and discuss some relevant items and hopefully find out what others think.

But here’s a final thought for now: maybe the slide towards a lowest common denominator populism in our mass culture is inevitable. Hasn’t it always been?

WSJ legend Barney Kilgore once said that the easiest thing a reader can do is stop reading; and writers and editors have always understood the need to grab and hold onto an audience.

So the challenge becomes finding a combination of enlightenment and entertainment; reminding readers why good journalism is good for them, while giving them enough of what they might really want so we can pay our bills.

After all, remember the old Fleet Street rhyme from the early 20th century?

“Tickle the public, make them grin,
The more you tickle, the more you win;
Teach the public, you’ll never get rich,
You’ll live like a beggar and die in a ditch.”

1 comment:

  1. In my opinion, media companies must think about the future in many different ways. I mean, they've got to figure out how they would keep customer's attention, how to be respected by it's audience, but most of all how to develop a relation between company and it's customers. Publicity income comes along with all those stuff.
    It's not "tell me what I want to listen", it's like what would you offer for me to read and keep coming at your web site or buying or newspaper?
    There are much more to be done than just good, old fashioned journalism. In my point of view, this is the first basic principle media companies should follow.
    They must think about google's model as an example and try to develop something similar to the media companies...that's what I believe.
    Congratulations for your blog. I really like reading it.