Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When newspapers don't love us back

I'm sometimes startled by the raw emotions found in blogs, the deep feelings on motherhood, marriage and miscarriage posted by the likes of Heather ArmstrongAnn Powers and Penelope Trunk.

Then, from the ranks of displaced journalists, this:

"In 2009, my life crashed. Freelance assignments dwindled, and attempts to get a staff job were fruitless. My partner's pay and hours were cut at an NYT chain paper. Our home became a minefield of money stress, finger-pointing, and bitterness. Last July, he moved out. Three weeks ago, I lost my house, because I couldn't get enough freelance work to keep up the rent.
"Now I'm hotel-hopping, living wherever I can find a story and a warm bed. I feel afraid and uncertain. I feel betrayed by the industry I love. And yet I still won't leave. It's a faithless lover. All it does is break my heart. But I'm in it for the long haul. I don't know anything else. I made this my entire life, and now, at 36, I feel used up. Broken. I believe in journalism's future, but God help us all through these hard times."

Sort of kicks you in the gut, doesn't it?

The comment was posted in response to a touching essay done by the wife of a longtime newspaperman who just took a job with an online-only news start-up. The husband quit print after many decades in which he gave his all to newspapers, but they offered only layoffs and wrongheadedness in return. "His love has been unrequited," the wife wrote.

I was struck by the essay, which elicited a couple of like tales of leaving print by choice or buyout along with some hearty "Good luck." Then came the heartwrenching comment from Carmen K. Sisson, who blogs as The Fearless Journalist.

"Am I truly homeless?" she asks on the blog, and then quickly answers:

"I’m city-hopping now, living out of hotels and abandoned buildings, chasing bylines and fighting to survive. ... I prefer to think of it as an extended road trip. An epic journey. The ultimate assignment -- rewriting my life.
"Come along for the ride. Letters, comments, story ideas, and work leads are always welcome."

I caught my breath and did a quick there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I check on my bank account. Would I have had her chutzpah? I don't know.

But as someone also on a journey to find my place in journalism's new landscape, I wish her the safest of trips.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why not resurrect parts of the WPA?

A traveling exhibit featuring photographs from the Great Depression recalls a segment of FDR's New Deal that put creative types to work alongside the millions of unemployed who built roads, swimming pools and museums as part of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Which begs the question: Why not do it again?

The exhibit, "This Great Nation Will Endure: Photographs of the Great Depression," was curated by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, according to the New York State Museum, which hosts the 150-photo show through March 14 in Albany. (It moves in April to the Northern Illinois University Art Museum in DeKalb.)

The photos include many of the iconic images now associated with the Depression -- such as the one here by Dorothea Lange -- which were taken as photographers, writers, musicians and actors were employed under various New Deal initiatives. Some 5 percent of WPA expenditures intended to lift the country out of the Depression went to cultural programs.

That same kind of prime-the-pump spending is present today in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, sending aid to states to repair roads, to communities to weatherize homes, and to the unemployed through extended jobless benefits.

So why not lend a hand again to creative types, to the thousands of reporters, editors and photographers who have been displaced by efforts at their newspapers to stanch Great Recession red ink through layoffs and buyouts?

Yes, I do have a vested interest in the suggestion, being a purge alum myself. But I didn't originate the idea.

Indeed, Mark Pinsky wrote about it in The New Republic in 2008; Robert McChesney and John Nichols mention it in their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, as does the report last month from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism on "Public Policy and Funding the News."

Pinsky, a former newspaperman, would create a kind of current-day WPA Federal Writers Project, under which grants would go to journalists to undertake specific assignments (listen to an NPR interview here). McChesney and Nichols would focus more on budding journalists by expanding an idea from media analyst Ken Doctor and others to create a journalism division of AmeriCorps that would subsidize the entry of young scribes into the field.

I'd add a complementary, me-too notion: Don't overlook us career journalists -- as mentors and editors to the budding journalists, as teachers of "news literacy" in schools, as skilled workers at the magazines and websites of nonprofits that now beg for volunteers.

But make sure, please, that we get a living wage. Just as the field of journalism needs a hand as it transitions to some new revenue model not underwritten by big ads from car dealers, retailers and cellphone companies, so, too, do we need help in this in-between period.

I promise to give the job my all, happy to be gainfully employed again and out of the menacing shadow of the Great Recession.

Friday, February 19, 2010

How will future journalists evolve?

What's the career path for would-be reporters in the era of fading legacy media?

The question, which came up last week at a conference in New York City on the Future of Journalism Education, seemed to agitate John Thornton, a panelist in the session titled "Education of the Entrepreneurial Journalist" (see him here at about 27 minutes).

Thornton, a venture capitalist in Austin, is chairman of, a nonprofit online news operation that launched last fall to cover state government. (He's shown far left on the dais in this picture posted by the Paley Center, the conference host.)

Had he been told when he first entered the VC world that the old system was dying and he'd just have to figure things out for himself, "I would have lost a shitload of money for people -- right?" Thornton said. "If there was no sort of apprenticeship, no notion of a career path, that would have been a bad thing.

"And I just wonder how journalists, while they're off in their spare time being entrepreneurs, how they ... evolve in their craft," he said.

It was a question that wasn't answered at the conference. But it piqued my curiosity.

Traditionally, novice journalists got their foot in the door at a small newspaper or TV station or radio station, then progressed every few years to ever-bigger organizations until they might land on the national stage at the likes of the New York Times or CNN. Along the way, they did general-assignment grunt work until they could get a plum beat like City Hall or health care, learning on the job from experts in the community and from editors and reporters in the newsroom.

If that mold is crumbling as legacy media stumble, how will tomorrow's journalists develop? Where do journalism students see future jobs: print or online? Does the economic storm lashing the industry scare them, or are they secure in their entrepreneurial chops?

For some insight, I contacted Barbara Selvin, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, who blogs at Internet Revolution, J-School Evolution on her course, Journalism 24/7, which explores the industry's "terrifying, exhilarating chaos."

Stony Brook, located on Long Island, has had a full-fledged j-school only since 2006. Selvin was its first full-time faculty hire, and she introduced the 24/7 core course to examine "the impact of the digital revolution on journalism."

In an email interview, Selvin assured me that many students "yearn to work in print, at the Times or elsewhere." But, she added, "most expect to work on the Web."

The young j-school has graduated fewer than three dozen students so far, and many are finding the job market tough. But some are working at entry-level print and broadcast positions they landed through the industry contacts of professors.

Do these students have the innate entrepreneurial bent we assume they have, eager to make a name for themselves by developing their own brand? "No, it's not a given for all," she said, "and many find the idea daunting. Others embrace it."

Selvin said the 24/7 course -- which is different each time she teaches it because the media are rapidly changing -- is a revelation to students. "Those of us in the business (now or formerly) take the current chaos for granted, but many of our students have only a vague awareness of what the headlines really mean for their careers," she said.

Yet they aren't put off by the chaos. "They see themselves as reporters covering the kinds of things reporters have always covered," she said. "Students are still idealistic, still detest injustice, still want to make the world a better place."

And, yes, they still "are as vague as ever about a career path."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It's déjà vu all over again

Years ago, I worked in a type- writer factory.

Yes, type- writers.

Not because it got me closer to journalism, but because the factory was one of the better-paying employers in town.

I was a college undergraduate, unhappy with my major and where I was headed. I was on a track to become a high school teacher, likely in social studies, but didn't want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a reporter, but couldn't afford to attend a school that offered journalism as a course of study.

So in answer to that conundrum, I quit going to classes and dropped out of college.

I'm not sure how I thought that would get me closer to journalism either, but it got me closer to the machines on which reporters then composed their stories.

In those days, you could walk into the Smith Corona typewriter factory, fill out some paperwork, pick up your safety glasses and be on the floor by the afternoon.

Like most factories, you made your money by piece work -- how much product you could produce during your shift. And if you were good, your pay was too.

I, unfortunately, was lousy at soldering the small metal components that were the typewriters' guts. An inspector would reject so many of my solders that I never made piece rate; I fled for the first retail job I could find. A few months later, I returned to college part-time, changed my major and took a journalism minor when one finally was offered.

But the factory experience stayed with me.

Foremost, it taught me I didn't have the temperament (or dexterity) for piece work. Later, it offered a fundamental lesson in business: adapt or die.

Smith Corona, which traced its roots to 1886, didn't anticipate the personal computer and other electronic office equipment. By the time it recognized the sea change, the company already was several product iterations behind. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1995, reorganized and re-emerged two years later, but never caught up. Another filing, in 2000, kept the name alive but not much else.

That sounds a lot like the newspaper industry today: Caught by surprise by the rapid adoption of everything digital, it's scrambling to survive -- cutting expenses (staff, editions, distribution) and frantically trying anything that might sustain readership and revenue.

"Our first priority," a Smith Corona executive told the New York Times at the time of the first bankruptcy filing, "is to stabilize our operations in the very short term while maintaining and building upon our longstanding relationships with key customers."

It's eerie how that could have been uttered just yesterday by almost any newspaper executive.

(Photo by me: the Smith Corona portable Deville Deluxe)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Newspaper too thin? Why not sue.

Here's a novel way to get your point across if you think your local newspaper has suffered too many cutbacks: Take it to court.

Keith Hempstead, a lawyer in Durham, N.C., did that in 2008 when he sued The News & Observer, alleging the Raleigh daily had breached its contract with him as a subscriber when it cut staff and pages soon after he renewed.

He later dropped the suit, but not before making headlines for his approach, which he said all along was designed to get the attention of an industry relentlessly cinching its belt.

Indeed, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism that same year underscored his quality concerns in a study titled "The Changing Newsroom: What Is Being Gained and What Is Being Lost in America's Daily Newspapers."

Now a complaint about cutbacks and quality has surfaced again, this time brought in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Georgia by a pair of subscribers in the case of Morris Publishing Group LLC. The two sought to make their point by gaining standing in the Chapter 11 case, whose reorganization plan is headed toward expected approval this week.

But the pair, Judith Seraphin and Ed Slavin, was turned back when a judge ruled they could not intervene as subscribers, readers or third-party interests in the case. (See the decision here by typing Morris Publishing into the search box.)

Morris, publisher of 13 daily newspapers in the South and Midwest, filed for bankruptcy protection last month. At the time, one of its lawyers said he expected the case "will be one of the fastest newspaper reorganizations in U.S. history."

But Seraphin and Slavin, who describe themselves as "local community activists" and "longtime readers and subscribers" to Morris' St. Augustine Record in Florida, asked to be let into the case last week, at the deadline for objections to the reorganization plan.

According to court documents, the pair says they are "horrified" at a perceived drop in the quality and quantity of news in the paper. And since Morris foresees no change in operations under the reorganization plan, other than relief of long-standing debt related to acquisitions in the 1990s, they predict disaster: that its smaller papers will head into "a death spiral of declining interest in newspapers" due to inadequate resources to report the news.

The judge, however, ruled that only the bondholders affected by the rejiggering of debt in the Morris case should have a say in the reorganization. And he said the pair's claims of lost quality and quantity in the Morris papers aren't relevant to "the purpose of this Chapter 11 case, which is to give the debtors the breathing space necessary to accomplish their financial rehabilitation."

Late Friday, it was reported that Seraphin and Slavin asked the court to reconsider.

No matter the outcome, it's heartening to see subscribers like Hempstead, Seraphin and Slavin -- anyone other than affected journalists -- show interest in the industry and what the ever-continuing belt-tightening is doing to the country's newspapers.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Word to the wise: brand yourself

"Overwhelmed with the challenges facing the media, but excited about its future prospects. I have a lot of learning to do," tweeted Adam Falk, who expects to earn a degree in magazine journalism in 2011 from the University of Missouri at Columbia.

"The conference is over, my brain is full, my to-do list is long, but I couldn't be more excited about the future of journalism!" tweeted Michelle Flandreau, a broadcast journalism major at the school.

The two were among the journalism students who attended today's Carnegie Corporation of New York/The Paley Center for Media conference in New York City on the future of journalism education and tweeted about the program. (According to the site What the Hashtag, which tracks Twitter traffic, they were among more than 200 contributors offering nearly 800 tweets on the day-long event.)

I saw Falk and Flandreau in the audience as I watched a live stream of one of the day's sessions, which featured Jeff Jarvis of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism leading a panel on entrepreneurship and journalism. (Below is a photo posted to twitpic showing Jarvis, standing right, taking audience questions and comments as the panel wrapped up.)

There's been a lot of discussion lately (see here and here, for instance) about the state of journalism instruction, now that the bedrock of legacy newspapers has cracked.

One emerging theme is the journalist as entrepreneur, a favorite topic for Jarvis, which subscribes to the idea that reporters no longer will be identified with their employer but will be a franchise unto themselves. It's a "business" they'll need to develop.

Jarvis' panel offered up four entrepreneurs in online journalism --Rafat Ali, founder, publisher and editor of ContentNext Media; Phil Balboni, president and CEO of Global Post; John Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico; and John Thornton, chairman of The Texas Tribune  -- and he asked each of them what kinds of skills the next generation of working journalists should be taught.

And that's where Falk and Flandreau got their headaches: branding, marketing, creating business plans, developing niche specialties -- all in addition to learning to write and report well. Concurrently, j-schools should throw out the study tracks (print, broadcast, Web) into which students have always been slotted: "Digital should be the core of everything," Balboni said.

"Teach the business of news," he added. "... (It) is more important in many respects than the journalism."

The Paley Center promised to archive video from the conference here over the weekend.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why we're getting 'mad as hell'

Another day, another couple of résumés sent off into cyberspace, never to return to Earth again.

Or so it feels.

Which is why I took such absolute joy at reading this item from a former financial services guy who has been laid off longer than I.

The headline (not his original) certainly speaks to those of us who share his situation: Hey, Employers, It's Time You Got Some Manners And Started Responding To Job Applicants Who Take The Time And Effort To Apply.

It's something anyone/everyone who is/has been unemployed would like to yell at least once.

I'll blame the current jobs picture for the urge to be uncivil.

The country still is losing jobs month by month, although at a slower pace than at the height of the Great Recession. In January, the unemployment rate dropped a bit, the Labor Department said last week, but revisions made to 2009's numbers now indicate we've lost 8.4 million jobs since the recession's start in December 2007.

What's more, says a report from the Economic Policy Institute, "In a testament to both the enormity of the current crisis plus the very weak jobs growth of the 2000-07 business cycle, the U.S. labor market started 2010 with fewer jobs than it had a decade ago..."

That's pretty astounding.

The EPI report included this diagram:

So, yeah, we job-seekers (there now are 6.1 of us for every available job, according to EPI) can get a bit testy.

Our applications go unacknowledged; the references you ask for aren't contacted; you choose to hire someone else and we hear about it when the successful candidate announces his new job online (happened to me); we show up for a scheduled interview only to be told the job was just filled (also happened to me).

I'll resist the temptation to embed a clip from the 1976 movie "Network." Instead, I'll leave you with this really creative take on the famous "mad as hell" speech by Howard Beale (Peter Finch), as posted to Vimeo by a young guy from Texas.

Mad As Hell! Kinetic Typography from Aaron Leming on Vimeo.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Interest in online advertising high, but revenue lags

Borrell Associates, a research firm that crunches numbers on local advertising trends, today hosted Day 1 of a two-day, sold-out conference in New York City focused on online advertising.

The company predicted last fall that local interactive advertising would grow by a "relatively paltry" 5.6 percent this year, to $14.9 billion, and begin to level off by 2011. That's compared to annual growth rates in double digits over the past five years -- a worrisome development for legacy media hoping online sales might offset the precipitous drop seen in print ad revenue.

And while CEO Gordon Borrell -- a onetime newspaperman -- says he's "highly skeptical" that hyperlocal news on the Web can generate enough advertising to sustain itself, he's willing to keep an open mind.

Indeed, he posted on his company blog an interview with Jeff Jarvis, head of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, whose passion for the industry he praises.

Borrell says he has that passion, too, but is concerned a sustainable business model for local news on the Web hasn't been found yet. Jarvis led the Borrell panel today on "Turning Hyperlocal into Hyperprofit."

Here's the interview with Jarvis that Borrell Associates posted to YouTube. It's a bit long, but, yes, you can hear the resolve for keeping journalism alive.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Are the digital natives gaining on me?

A couple of years ago, when my cordless kitchen phone went on the fritz, I tried this experiment:  buy an up-market, two-line version (with voicemail) and leave it boxed in plain sight.

Sure enough, it drew passing teenagers like flies to honey, and --voilà! -- installation was swift and painless. The phones were set up in the rooms I designated; a voicemail message was recorded; the clocks were synchronized; an internal phone book was created.

And I didn't have to lift a finger, thanks to the digital natives in my household. They've grabbed at technology before, from video cameras to cell phones to DVD players. (One even threatened to set up our first desktop PC, since her parents were taking too long. We were instruction-readers; for her, booting up was second nature.)

Now people like them are knocking on the same doors I am, competing for some of the same jobs.

While journalism programs are flush with students, their graduates are having a tough time finding work -- as am I -- because of turmoil in the news industry. Yet when they hit the marketplace, they're likely to have fleshed out the new-media skills they've used all their lives -- talents that currently are in demand.

Last month at a news conference at the National Press Club, I chatted with a young woman who will finish a graduate program in journalism in May. She rolled her eyes as she described the programming and multimedia classes she's had to take; she'd rather spend more time writing. But ask anyone about the skills a future journalist will need, and writing isn't the only one mentioned.

Indeed, a lot is made of the budding journalist who is fluent in code: HTML and CSS, Django and Ruby. Check out this roll call. Or take a look at the work of these prospective competitors: the interactive maps created by this j-school senior; the videos produced by this recent graduate; the blog by this student entrepreneur.

Some say the model of journalist as scribe is over. That means the division of labor I formerly observed -- leaving the Web folks to code while I worried about nouns and verbs -- is coming back to haunt me.

Seems like I should have paid more attention when those teenagers were programming that cordless phone.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Confession: I have a journalist's fear of (some) numbers

I've never found a DEF 14A (a public company's proxy statement) that doesn't make me salivate. But put this in front of me and I choke: "Solve each of the following equations for x."

Remember algebraic problems like 5x - 7 = 28 and 5(x + 2) = 1 - 3x? I can't recall if I ever learned to solve them and I certainly don't know how now. Yet they're part of the GRE general test required by many graduate schools for admission.

I've toyed twice in my life with getting a master's degree. The first time, I was early in my career as a working journalist, looking to improve my employability. I searched far and wide for a good graduate school (one of my requirements was no GRE) before deciding I'd rather do journalism than study it.

Last month, I thought again of taking the j-school route. I'd heard of a master's program that offered a fellowship for career professionals that covered not only tuition but also included a stipend. Again, increasing employability was the goal, since I was a refugee of the Great Recession and 2009 newspaper purge.

The 10-month program promised new-media skills and an internship that might open a door to a new job. I needed to secure the fellowship, though, because I currently have a daughter in college and I'm still paying back loans on another daughter's B.A.

Then came the pesky matter of solving for x, along with questions about square roots, arcs and integers. Ironically, the fellowship was offered by the same graduate school I'd contemplated years earlier, the one that didn't require the GRE then. Now, though, it did mandate the test, so I was sunk.

Drat! Looks like I'll have to take the Abe Lincoln route and do a little self-education.

But let me tell you this in all candor: After years and years in journalism -- most of them spent in business journalism -- I don't ever recall having to solve for x.

And not being able to work an algebraic formula never kept me from diving into the pages of financials found in a proxy or annual report -- and coming up with the story. (The key there, if you must know, is to always, always, always read the footnotes.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Can I claim geographic bias?

There should be a new "protected class" under federal labor law, the outlier.

Now understand I'm being facetious here -- or at least only half serious. I appreciate the fact that federal and state laws exist to protect workers and job applicants from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older) and disability.

Indeed, when I joined the ranks of unemployed journalist last summer, my former employer was careful to detail how no protected-class rights had been violated as I was shown the door.

As a job applicant, though, I see another hurdle: geography.

Twice recently I've felt that being from out-of-town worked against me. It's not something I could prove easily (no discrimination is), but the language used was similar as I was told another candidate had been hired because he/she could "hit the ground running."

Both times I had interviewed on my own dime, driving 400 miles to meet face-to-face. Both times I had emphasized my knowledge of the area and ease of navigating from one end of town to the other. Both times I had underscored my ability to start right away because I already had a place to live (an apartment I'm tending while the tenant is out of the country).

Both times, nada. I lost out to a local candidate.

Just last month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that the 2009 fiscal year, ended Sept. 30, saw the second-highest rate on record of claims alleging discrimination in the workplace. The Great Recession and its attendant layoffs and furloughs have been blamed.

Groups catering to employers have sounded a warning about the number, and companies that provide management training are drawing attention to their services. (One, ELT, an online trainer, offers this sobering statistic: For every 1.5 percent increase in the unemployment rate -- which now is at a near-record 10 percent nationally -- there is a corresponding 21 percent increase in discrimination claims.)

With so many seasoned workers affected by layoffs, it's no surprise the EEOC saw age-discrimination claims reach 22,778 last year, vs. 24,582 in FY2008 and 14,141 a decade earlier. That ranked below claims based on race (33,579), sex (28,028) and retaliation (33,613), but some job applicants say they continue to feel the age sting.

For me, though, it's a sense of being penalized as an outlier. And as one, I'm trapped in a classic Catch-22: I can't get a job until I move to an area and I can't move to an area until I get a job.