Thursday, December 31, 2009

Your next job? Think outside the box

Say you've been looking to return to journalism, like I have, and you're starting to get antsy (or frantic) about the now-growing gap in your resume. Let's take a look beyond the legacy media at some of your (ah-hem) best options:

* Become a celebrity blogger. You remember Paris Hilton, socialite, reality-show star, actress and businesswoman? If you're a fan, you could follow her for a Web site that features all Paris all the time. It's a paid gig (thank goodness!) that requires HTML and SEO familiarity, as well as Twitter and other social media skills. And you need to be something of a paparazzi, as "candid photos, candid videos" are desired.

Just submit a couple of writing samples and links to any online work, and you're golden. Don't bother with a resume; none is needed, according to the ad.

* Move from news writing to porn writing. That may be off the mark a bit, but I recall an ad a few months back that promised more money per word the more risque you were able to write. More recently, an ad titled "Fun Job for Out of Work Journalists" offered to hire copy editors and development editors to work on erotic romance novels. The pay was awful -- $17.50 for copy editing a 10,000-word book -- and in addition to having a "good grasp of grammar" and meeting deadlines, you had to "feel comfortable with frank language and graphic sexual descriptions."

* Oversee social media for big names in the defense industry. These pop up with regularity on job boards. A recent one, for instance, sought "a creative and innovative editor to moderate discussion forums and manage reader comments on web sites targeting the Middle East region." You had to be adept with Facebook, Twitter and multimedia, and fluent in Arabic. Oh, and you had to be able to qualify for a security clearance, too.

* Volunteer. Occasionally a job looks promising in an ad, but come to find out it offers no pay because a nonprofit is looking for volunteer help. This is admirable work, of course, helping to produce, for instance, a monthly newspaper to aid the homeless or to spread the word on a group looking to empower inner-city girls.

Call me selfish, but I can't think about doing anything unpaid until I find paying work.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Object lesson: Save a journalist

When my daughters were younger, perhaps in middle school, I used to paint for them a grim picture of what would happen if they didn't read a newspaper.

Never mind offering pearls of wisdom on the importance of being an informed and involved citizen in a democracy. No, I had a more object lesson: "If you don't read newspapers, I won't have a job."

Well, now the joke's on me as I and many other newsroom orphans form a long unemployment line. My kids' failure to pick up the newspaper-reading habit has cost some 15,000 journalists their jobs this year.

To be fair, it wasn't solely their fault nor their generation's. I remember being in college, yearning to be a journalist, and a friend telling me she had no use for newspapers. I was appalled then, too.

But like their Boomer parents, Millennials are a demographic force to be reckoned with. Newspapers just haven't figured out how to serve them.

Part of that stems from the Millennials' belief that if something is important enough to be news, it will find them, rather than them having to seek it out.

Don't believe me? Check out this blog from Carol Phillips at Brand Amplitude, a brand research firm in Stevensville, Mich., a Lake Michigan community not far from South Bend, Ind., where Phillips is an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame: "Social media offers a way for Millennials to control and shape their news by filtering it through friends or reporters they trust."

I used to think that was pretty self-centered and presumptuous of Millennials, believing they were so important the news would come to them. But a passage in Harper's, in a long, long ode to the San Francisco Chronicle, finally offered some perspective.

In it, a friend of the author explains how he consumes news, unfettered by a newspaper's ties to its native city and vice versa: " 'If I think of what many of my friends and I read these days, it is still a newspaper, but it is clipped and forwarded in bits and pieces on email—a story from the New York Times, a piece from Salon, a blog from the Huffington Post, something from the Times of India, from YouTube. It is like a giant newspaper being assembled at all hours, from every corner of the world, still with news but no roots in a place. Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore.' " (emphasis added)

And, in fact, I do that too: In addition to reading newspapers in print and online, I sign on daily to an iGoogle homepage populated with RSS feeds from journalism blogs and news sites I don't want to miss. Via email I get alerts of breaking news, new entries from favorite blogs, and daily summaries of industry trends and talk. And those daughters, who never developed the habit of daily reading a newspaper, send links to things they want me to enjoy.

But how do you create from this seemingly chaotic consumption pattern a sustainable business model that can re-employ all of us laid-off journalists? I wish I had the answer.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"News Wars"? Let's hope the print media participate

Just days from the start of the new year, let's take a moment to revisit the too-close-for-comfort prediction made five years ago by two young Poynter Institute staffers that 2010 would be the year of "The News Wars."

The idea is plausible, given the deteriorating financial state of many legacy news organization, which have seen pockets once rich with revenue -- real estate listings, employment ads and other classified staples -- migrate to the Web even as new online operations poach the stories, photos and graphics that are the print media's bread and butter.

After all, that's at the root of threats to erect paywalls to protect content and sue search engines for copyright infringement.

But the skirmish foreseen by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson in their short film "Epic 2014" (soon updated as "Epic 2015") is different: The News Wars "are notable for the fact that no actual news organizations take part."

As Thompson tells it, the two created their decade-out look at the media landscape after a bar-hopping discussion one weekend in Miami about a speech delivered to an industry group by Martin Nisenholtz, the executive in charge of the New York Times' digital operations.

They focused on Nisenholtz's mention of the multi-contestant, role-playing game Ultima Online and what it might mean for journalism: "What if people could create and affect news stories by simply reading, viewing or listening to them?" they asked. That question now would fall under the rubric "social media."

So they sketched out in their film how such a system could develop, mainly through the growth of competitive behemoths Google and Microsoft, which would invent or acquire new technologies tit for tat (TiVo, Blogger, Friendster, Picasa, Newsbot) until they reigned supreme. (Google, meantime, would morph into Googlezon through a combination with Amazon.)

The News Wars of 2010, then, occur when Googlezon and Microsoft battle for supremacy in supplying the online news and consummables platform for Everyman. Googlezon ultimately wins by applying new algorithms that strip relevant factoids from news produced by the mainstream media and then "re-sorts, re-calculates and re-combines these scraps with our information -- our blog entries, our photos, our purchases, our lives. Suddenly, news is more relevant than ever before," Thompson says in a smooth, haunting voice as he narrates.

It isn't until 2011 that the mainstream media wake up and mount a challenge to Googlezon's hegemony, with the New York Times claiming the "fact-stripping robots" voilate copyright law. The Times loses, and by 2014 (when the original Sloan-Thompson film ends) the paper has left the Web and exists as a print-only newsletter "for the elite and elderly."

Googlezon, though, has launched Epic (Evolving, Personalized Information Construct), which at it's best offers a broader, deeper view of the world, according to the film. "But at it's worst, and for too many, Epic is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational."

"Epic 2015" has a lighter ending than its predecessor, foreshadowing the creation of a Twitter-like service through which people can arrange picnics or warn others off traffic jams. The more melancholy "Epic 2014" suggests the masses opted for the Googlezon product over the legacy media, despite its shortcomings.

"But Epic is what we wanted; it is what we chose," says the film. "And its commmercial success pre-empted any discussions of media and democracy or journalistic ethics. ... But perhaps there was another way."

Am I the only journalist who missed the Epic films? I only found them after seeing the announcement that Thompson had been named to the team that will help launch National Public Radio's local news initiative, which is seen as picking up the reporting left undone as newspapers have retrenched. (He and Sloan still collaborate on the blog Snarkmarket.)

Here's the YouTube version of "Epic 2014"; you can also see both versions here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

We journalists sure like our work

The Poynter Institute hosted a live chat with the provocative title "Are Journalists Giving Up on Newspapers?" that concluded with a split decision: "Yes, some are, with important consequences" (42 percent of respondents) and "Yes, some are, but newspapers will survive anyway" (26 percent).

Meantime, 32 percent feel journalists aren't giving up on newspapers as fast as the papers are giving up on them. (Which earns a big "Right On!" from the 15,000 or so journalists like me who were laid off or bought out by newspapers this year.)

I can't tell you how big the respondent pool was to the Poynter chat, which I just happened upon one afternoon; it's archived here. (Click on the "Are Journalists Giving Up..." title under "Completed Events".)

These kinds of chats, live or archived, are sometimes frustrating because they aren't linear: Someone is always countering a point or answering a question from several speakers ago. Nevertheless, they usually are instructive.

Such was the case with the mini-polls that popped up as the Poynter chat progressed over the course of an hour. The program was led by a couple of folks from the school and also featured Matt Stiles, a former big-city newspaper reporter in Texas who now works as a reporter and data-base specialist at, the deep-pocketed online news site in Austin that went live in early November.

For instance, one poll asked why we journalists stayed at newspapers. Four in 10 respondents answered "It's what I love," while three in 10 said they "need the paycheck." (Does that practical sentiment negate the first?) Two in 10 said they remained because they were "still optimistic about its future," and one in 10 picked the "all of the above" option -- which also had for good measure "I don't like my other options," which was picked by no one.

The majority of participants were full-time journalists (53 percent); 21 percent identified themselves as former journalists.

One mini-poll seemed directed at the latter, asking why they left the newsroom. "All of the above" was a favorite answer here, too (33 percent) for a list that included  "It (the news organization) was moving too slowly" (27 percent); "I was more excited about other options" (20 percent); "The money was better elsewhere" (13 percent); and "I lost faith in its future" (7 percent).

The journalists who still work full-time at newspapers seemed resigned to riding out the storm that is threatening to topple their papers' traditional ad-based revenue model. Asked which action was more admirable, 75 percent picked "Staying put to steer through rocky waters," while the remainder endorsed "Bailing while I can." (No one chose the option "Going down with the ship if it must sink," perhaps reflecting the cost in worker loyalty wrought by the deep staff cuts made at newspapers.)

Remember the old Timex slogan that the watch "takes a licking and keeps on ticking?" Seems like we journalists do the same.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Local knows best

I have a bone to pick with Thomas Friedman.

The New York Times columnist Sunday talked about a childhood friend, pummeled by the Great Recession, who has learned to become more innovative through what Friedman calls the Great Inflection: relatively cheap, abundantly available services delivered via the Web.

His friend, who owns a marketing agency, had to "radically downsize" because of the deep recession that began in December 2007, but found he could still take on projects -- and deliver them more economically -- by outsourcing many of the steps to a finished product.

He has learned to be innovative, Friedman wrote, and if only banks would lend again, the marketing agency -- and many other companies -- would take off, reinvigorating the economy. That was the column's purpose: to plead for loosening the vice grip on credit. The Great Recession and Great Inflection have made companies "ultralean" and more productive. "But we're like a superfit track star with a weak heart," Friedman says. "We've got to get credit pumping in our industrial muscles again."

Yet to be innovative, Friedman's friend passed over local voice talent for a film the agency was doing for a nonprofit and went online to find stock photo images it could use. Doing the former, the friend indicated, cost the agency just 10 percent of the $250 to $500 an hour the local voices would have charged. The latter cost a few bucks, vs. $100 to $2,000 per image in normal royalties.

And there's my beef.

Remember the "Think Global, Act Local" sentiment? Nowadays, it seems local be damned.

The Toronto Star decided last month that it needed to move copy-editing and page-layout duties outside the company -- affecting nearly 80 workers -- to save money. On Friday, Alan Mutter, a former newspaperman turned Silicon Valley CEO, warned in his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, that others likely will take up that mantle:

"The jobs of news editors, photo editors, copy editors and page designers may face wholesale elimination at some newspapers in the new year as publishers seek to cut costs by outsourcing editorial production to cheaper vendors," he wrote.


Mutter says outside vendors promise papers savings of up to 55 percent to take over production: editing stories, writing headlines, cropping pictures, laying out pages. But if they're not ready to take that step, owners might look to have just one dedicated desk handle production across several papers in their chain, Mutter says -- which still will cost the jobs of workers involved in production at each paper.

Yes, savings are realized, but at what cost? Jobs are lost, of course, but oftentimes credibility takes a hit, too. Just ask any editor on the other end of a reader tongue-lashing for not putting an event in the proper, known-to-all-locals neighborhood. You might as well mix up Manhattan and Queens.

Let's be locovores of more than just our food.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

When will the aftershocks end?

Every day seems to bring a new jolt:
  • Some big bylines are included among the 74 newsroom workers who opt to take a buyout at the New York Times -- and on the Metro Desk alone that adds up to more than 80 years of experience.
  • Nielsen Co. decides to close the venerable Editor & Publisher -- long a news and jobs bible for journalists -- as it sells off a handful of trade publications.
  • The Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland, which has offered free, multi-day training for journalists for more than two decades, will be shuttered at month's end. (Disclosure: I've been a "fellow" there twice.) The website said grants from long-time funder the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation were not renewed. 
It feels as if the earthquake that has shaken the newspaper industry continues to send out powerful aftershocks. Just as you thought you'd regained your footing, another tremor comes through.

And it likely won't get better, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The agency's Occupational Outlook Handbook 2008-09 Edition offers this pdf update on job projections in the category "news analysts, reporters and correspondents": whereas employment by newspaper publishers stood at about 33,000 in 2008, jobs likely will fall to 25,500 by 2018, down 22.72 percent.

Earlier, the projection was for growth in this jobs category of about 2 percent between 2006 and 2016.

I wonder how much worse the 2009-to-2019 outlook may be.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

But you've got to eat your spinach, too

As AOL launches as a stand-alone company (disentangled from its ill-regarded merger with Time Warner), attention will focus once again on whether "content mills" are the model for journalism in the future.

Newspapers for years have been bad chefs in planning their daily spreads, trying to balance how much spinach vs. cotton candy to serve up to readers -- in other words, what an informed citizenry ought to know as opposed what it (secretly or otherwise) wants to know. Derivatives or Britney? Public option or Tiger?

In some ways, the Web has made the menu-planning harder, since it can easily measure the "traffic" a story generates. A horrific ax murder in an affluent neighborhood? Not only will the news bulletin on a newspaper's website produce a lot of clicks from local readers but it also will bring hundreds of thousands more through a national aggregator.

So a package of stories on the ax murder is developed for the next day's newspaper, perhaps to the detriment of stories on shrinking ice sheets, famine and war, nuclear politics or other thumbsucking esoterica.

The more the murder resonates with readers, the more stories are produced around it. And the more eyeballs those stories draw in print or online, the more happy are advertisers who happen to be on display nearby.

But companies like Demand Media,, Suite 101 and Associated Content have upended that model: They watch online searches for keywords on what interests readers, sell that audience to advertisers, and then produce the content to keep readers coming back. They pay freelance writers pennies per word -- $10, $15, $20 a story, vs. the historical $200 and up -- but promise to share future revenue as the stories or adjacent ads are clicked.

(The model, by the way, irritates professional freelancers, judging by this call to arms by one Seattle writer to petition "sweatshop-content users and content-mill owners to pay writers fairly," as she described it on LinkedIn.)

Now enter the 800-pound gorilla, AOL.

The company has been gearing up to create deep content around highly sought-after topics, like Demand and its brethren do. It even has created a mechanism, called Seed, to automate the process of conceiving of and assigning stories to writers.

It's a tough model to accept for those of us who formerly earned our living via legacy media. Fifteen bucks per story and pennies per click? The other day, one wag did the math and came up with a staggering volume of page views that a reporter would need to earn a modest $40,000 annual salary.

And what of the spinach, the stories that help shape an informed citizenry?

Consider this offered by Lauren Rich Fine, a former Merrill Lynch analyst who now is associated with Kent State University’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. She participated in a panel discussion on new business models in news at last week's workshop on the future of journalism in the Internet age, held by the Federal Trade Commission:

"The idea of matching advertisers with content like Demand Media and AOL I think it is actually very smart. ... I think the flaw in the model is, what this whole workshop is getting at, is if you're trying to preserve democracy, giving people what they want probably won't end up with the kind of coverage that most of you in this room really want to provide, and therein lies the real challenge."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fighting for journalism's future

File this under best-laid plans.

The idea originally was to travel post-Thanksgiving to Washington, D.C., to help auto-less daughter get ready for an overseas assignment. (You can't buy everything you need at the CVS Pharmacy located atop the nearest Metro subway stop. Eventually, you have to travel to Target in the 'burbs.)

Then, once she was in-flight, I could use her apartment as a base of operation for exploring job options in D.C. And, given the timing of the trip, I could also indulge a bit of wonkiness: taking in the Federal Trade Commission workshop on the future of journalism in the Internet age.

Ah, if only...

A Monday morning networking breakfast at the National Press Club was interrupted by a fire alarm and a cellphone call. The former was only a drill, but we nevertheless had to descend the stairs from the 13th-floor premises, cutting short the slim hour allocated for networking. The latter canceled a planned networking lunch that day, and took several e-mail exchanges to reschedule.

Then another e-mail moved a nice-to-finally-meet-you meeting with a prospective employer up a day, to Tuesday. The networking lunch formerly scheduled on Monday became a late-Wednesday coffee date instead. Both changes blew my plans to attend the FTC workshop in person, as those of us who pre-registered were told the early bird would get the seat and the rest would watch via videoconference in a hall a few blocks away.

So I cut my losses and saved the Metro fare by logging on to the webcast when I could. The morning session of the first day is here (bear with the intro video); you can get access to the other sessions here. (One downside to the webcast was its nearly stationary camera, meaning none of the speakers' data slides was shown as they talked.)

Big on the first day were appearances by News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch and Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington. Their presentations were critiqued by New Haven Independent Editor Paul Bass, who himself was a panelist on the second day of the workshop. Or you can listen for yourself on the FTC webcast: Murdoch is introduced at about 57 minutes; Huffington at about 2 hours, 45 minutes.

The workshop ran for two days, from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Officials said it will be followed in the spring by more workshops focused on some of the policy issues related to journalism today: changes to copyright law or cross-ownership restrictions, for instance.