Sunday, May 30, 2010

Unemployed restaurant critic now 'food stamp foodie'

Take a listen. It's a short video that accompanied a piece in the Seattle Times on Saturday about a former newspaper restaurant critic, now out of work, who has a new relationship with food: making sure he uses his monthly food stamp allotment well so his cupboard and refrigerator aren't empty.

The piece he wrote for the paper is riveting because it offers another anecdote on how a job lost to the Great Recession has cost someone his/her middle-class lifestyle. The New York Times has written about the many affected this way in an occasional series it calls The New Poor.

Some readers' comments on the Seattle Times piece aren't charitable: "A talented man with skills and the ability to work is, instead, mooching off the taxpayers. Get a job," wrote one.

Let's not forget, though, that the U.S. still isn't adding jobs at a fast clip (neither is journalism).

The trend in long-term unemployment is up: those jobless for 27 weeks or more went from 39.8 percent of unemployed workers in December 2009 to 45.9 percent in April. The total number of people unemployed in April was 15.3 million.

The numbers for May are due out Friday.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Here's how unemployment looks, animated

This graphic came to my attention tonight via Twitter, an animated look at the run-up in unemployment, month-by-month and county-by-county, between January 2007 and March this year.

It's striking how strained the labor market grew through 2009.

The animation was done by LaToya Egwuelewe, originally as a graduate school project at American University in Washington, D.C. She got an A on it, she tells CNN in an interview that aired in December. (Note that the animation is an update of the map shown in the video; the video takes about 25 seconds to load.)

The CNN anchor captures the work perfectly: "The illustration is beautiful in a very ugly way for many, many American workers."

Will the metro data, which lags release of the overall U.S. jobless rate, show any improvement in the next report, for April, which is due out June 2? Probably not. You'll remember that while the government reported a net gain in jobs in April, the unemployment rate for the month still ticked up as workers who had left the labor market relaunched their job searches.

The government is due to release the May jobs report next Friday, June 4.

(The Bureau of Labor Statistics lets you take your own look at metro-level unemployment here.)

UPDATE: The BLS reported some improvement in April's numbers. From the release: "Unemployment rates were higher in April than a year earlier in 291 of the 372 metropolitan areas, lower in 73 areas, and unchanged in eight areas." In the March report, unemployment rates were higher than a year earlier in 321 metro areas. While 28 metros recorded jobless rates of at least 15 percent in March, just 14 metros were reporting a rate that high in April.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why clicks shouldn't decide what's written

I learned a new phrase today: page view journalism.

And suddenly, in the echo chamber of the Web, it was everywhere, passed along by blog and tweet. But before its latest surfacing -- spurred by the suggestion that journalists were choosing stories that would generate Web traffic over more obscure (but important) topics -- I found a thoughtful discussion dating to 2008.

Then, Edward Wasserman used the phrase calibrated journalism to describe a new system under which "the commercial value of specific editorial offerings is estimated with precision, rewards and punishments doled out accordingly, and coverage cut to fit."

And what's wrong with that, he asked on his blog, and then proceeded to answer:
"The problem with online popularity pay is it that it mistakes journalism for a consumer product, and conflates value with sales volume. Journalists don’t peddle goods, they offer a professional service, a relationship. The news audience renews that relationship to get information and insight on matters it trusts journalists to alert it to, even though the news may be disquieting or hard to grasp."
More recently, Wasserman, a longtime newspaperman who now is a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., had more to say on the subject, particularly as it is rolling out at AOL (bear with me on the long quote block; it's worth the read):
"When I warned two years ago about the direction online news seemed to be going, some readers objected that my complaints showed why traditional news was on the rocks: I was spouting the obsolete, arrogant insistence typical of the old-guard journalist, who believes editors can dictate taste to their readers and that news organizations can thrive even if they refuse to listen and heed.

"In fact, the calibrated news model that we’re seeing now isn’t really about keeping readers satisfied. It’s about keeping some readers satisfied. Counting up readers doesn’t pay the bills, ad revenues do. That means the readers have to be people advertisers want to pitch to.

"The new model will enable news managers to figure out how profitable a particular story is. Calculating costs isn’t hard, and now, thanks to behavioral tracking, advertisers can measure and profile the audience for that story and determine how much renting space alongside it is worth. Add up how much the story brings in, subtract costs from revenues, and you have an indication of profit per story.

"More important, news managers can see how certain topics have performed and get a pretty good idea how remunerative continuing coverage will be. It’ll be possible to consult something very much like a profit-and-loss statement before deciding whether to assign a story. Already, AOL is considering sharing a piece of its own profits with reporters whose work draws the greatest traffic."
Paying writers by how popular their stores are with advertisers and readers isn't new; it's part of the model at Demand Media, for instance, which produces scads of how-to and advice content through freelancers paid little for their work. But replicating that model wholesale on news sites is troubling.

Yes, pay for reporters at Bloomberg News is tied in part to the number of market-moving stories they produce. And each writer has a board "where the metrics determining his compensation -- any scoops, hits an article attracts -- are tracked," reported the New York Times in a story on the Bloomberg-BusinessWeek merger.

But, Wasserman says, "calibrated journalism feels like a capitulation to the foolishness of the marketplace." And even though many will find it hard to ignore "the snazzy new metrics," he offers this advice:
"... one of the lessons of such technologies is that much as we might think they relieve people of the need to make hard choices, they really don’t. Technologies may clarify options, but it’s people who are left with the toughest of jobs: weighing values, deciding what matters, exercising judgment."

Monday, May 24, 2010

How come cover letters aren't easier?

No matter how many times I write one, I still find cover letters difficult.

Perhaps it's the pressure of knowing the letter is my one and only chance to make a good first impression.

How intense is that pressure? Well, a yet-to-launch, online-only local news site in Washington, D.C., which in the past has talked about employing 50, said last week it's swimming in 600 to 800 applications.That pool of competition certainly includes journalists like me who are jobless and others who are gainfully employed but may see a grass-is-greener opportunity at, an experiment by the company that built into a print and online dynamo.

TBD says it puts a lot of stock in cover letters, calling them "the ultimate test for a writer." (Oh no!) It's also posting applicants' really bad errors to Twitter as a series labeled #resumetip to scare off typos, bad grammar and clichés. (Double oh no.)

Most recruiters and career gurus counsel jobseekers on the importance of cover letters. Joe Grimm, who once worked as a recruiter for the Detroit Free Press but now is a free agent, urges applicants to write "killer" letters. Others say they should be written with as much care as the résumé is.

But I have to admit I liked the hint of rebelliousness from Nick Corcodilos in an Ask the Headhunter post. He didn't get many to sign on, judging from the comments offered in support of cover letters. So he was blunt:
"I really don’t get the idea of a résumé + a cover letter. It’s as though you’re admitting your résumé doesn’t cut it, doesn’t justify your application and doesn’t explain in itself why you should be considered."
A résumé is a cinch. A cover letter? Still a chore.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Save the media? Let us count the ways

Adam Thierer wants to save us journalists from bailouts and welfare.

Um, OK (but, honestly, either might come in handy about now).

Thierer, president of The Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has been railing for some months about keeping the federal government's thumb print off any plans to save mainstream media, especially those that would offer a financial hand.

In fact, along with other PFF staff, he has written several essays under the umbrella title "The Wrong Way to Reinvent the Media." (You can listen to a podcast overview of the issue here.)

It's Essay 5, "Media Bailouts & Welfare for Journalists" that has me packing up my tin cup.

As you know, the bottom dropped out of big-media's business model, resulting in massive belt-tightening and layoffs. Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission all have been looking into whether the cutbacks are temporary or permanent, and whether they could threaten democracy's core.

As a result, all kinds of proposals have been floated to prop up "old media" until they adapt to "new media" ways, including things like news vouchers that would allow consumers to apportion a government-funded subsidy to their favorite media outlet.

Thierer's group, which isn't keen on any of the ideas offered, today hosted a panel discussion in D.C. on this question: "Can Government Help Save the Press?" His Essay 5 was one of the handouts I picked up at the event.

The panel itself ran the spectrum of viewpoints on what role government might play. A couple of media lawyers want the FTC and FCC -- both now studying the economic threats to big media -- to "be bold" in whatever proposals they may endorse. Others, also lawyers, see any role by government to aid the press as clashing with the First Amendment -- or, as one put it, "Subsidies invite censorship."

(A podcast of the two-hour event is here.)

In the end, there was no consensus on how or even whether government can help save the press. Which is too bad, since I'm having my own economic issues (no paycheck) while pundits inside and outside government ponder media's (and my) future.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Writing is what we journalists do best

This photo by Elizabeth Malby of the Baltimore Sun building sits atop a website, Telling Our Stories, that went live this week.

The site is a collection of memoirs by reporters, copy editors, photographers and others affected last year when the Sun cut 60 positions, including about a third of its newsroom staff.

The recollections shared -- of pride and excitement at a first byline; of stories that made a difference; of a deep and abiding love of newspapers -- will be appreciated by fellow journalists. The tales of being told you'd be among those let go -- and the resulting dead man's walk through the newsroom -- will ring true for others who shared that fate.

I'd suggest approaching the site this way: read the intro on the home page, then click on "The fellows" for a brief bio on project participants. That way you'll learn who they are and what they did at the Sun before following the link to their contribution.

Just be sure to have a box of tissues nearby.

Put some worry lines on that 'I need a freakin job' face

By now you've heard about the "I need a freakin job" billboard in Buffalo, featured in news reports this week as President Obama visited western New York to talk up the economy.

From WIVB Channel 4 in Buffalo (after the commercial):

Both the TV station and the Buffalo News say the billboard wasn't aimed at Obama's trip; that was serendipitous. Rather, the highway sign is part of a campaign organized by two brothers to bring attention to continuing high unemployment.

"See, here's the thing. Nothing matters if people and families aren't working. We need to make some noise. The government is absolutely broken," they say on the website aptly dubbed INAFJ, for I Need a Freakin Job. They also posted a video on YouTube a month ago.

To be sure, with the jobless rate stuck around 10 percent, their message resonates. But if I could offer one suggestion, it would be this: Make your campaign appealing, too, to unemployed and underemployed professionals.

Give me a LinkedIn chapter of your movement to complement the Facebook generation on the billboard and YouTube.

The website and video are edgy, but the pictured crew is pure Gen Y. Sure, they have reason to be worried: Experts say people entering the job market in a recession usually land lower-level jobs at lower-level pay than new employees in more robust times.

But those of us pushed out of the jobs we've held for years also are concerned about our futures.

Take Cynthia Norton, featured Wednesday in the New York Times' "New Poor" series, where tales of the recession's impact on once solid middle-class lives are detailed.

Norton, 52, a former administrative assistant, lost her job at an insurance company two years ago. She had worked in the field all her life -- even ran her own secretarial services business at one point -- but office-support jobs are disappearing as technology takes greater hold.

So Norton tried to retrain -- and now is stuck with student loan payments. She sold off assets. She took a part-time cashier's job. She even joked about breaking the law, since jail would take care of room and board.

The recession stole her career, as it did the livelihoods of others in job categories made obsolete by the creative destruction that is said to accompany every leap forward in capitalism.

That ought to give the INAFJ brothers many, many generations of faces to use on future billboards. I'd certainly like to see Norton's there.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Newspaper layoffs ebb but don't end

Last week, The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City laid off 57 employees paper-wide, including an undisclosed number in the newsroom.

The Kansas City Star did likewise, laying off 12, eliminating 12 open positions, and telling everyone else they must take an unpaid week-long furlough this summer.

It was the second layoff since January at the Star; earlier, a dozen workers also were let go. At the Oklahoman, the cuts were about a third the size of the last round of layoffs in October 2008.

At each paper, the publisher blamed the layoffs on soft advertising due to a still-weak national economy. Stated the Oklahoman's David Thompson, "Like most media companies, we are trying to adjust to our environment.”

But economic indicators are pointing up and surveys say the average American is feeling better about the economy -- even if the official government group that dates recessions hasn't ruled yet that the Great Recession is over.

So what gives at newspapers? After two years of brutal personnel cuts, aren't publishers awfully close to the bone by now?

Paper Cuts, the blog run by a St. Louis newspaper designer that keeps a running tally of layoffs, says the industry lost at least 1,726 jobs in the first quarter this year. That compares to at least 970 in Q1 last year (heavier layoffs occurred in the second and third quarters of 2009) and 1,984 in Q1 2008.

Scroll through the blog and you'll see an indication of one new tack that seems to be gaining momentum: consolidation. At Media General, all of the copy editing and designing functions for the chain's weekly and daily papers are moving to just a few newsrooms; it's happening, too, at Tribune Co. and at E.W. ScrippsBooth Newspapers is consolidating printing while outsourcing ad production work.

One bright ray in all this, though, may be the U.S. Department of Labor's mass layoff report. On Wednesday, the agency noted an improvement in numbers for the first quarter: Big whacks at payrolls by employers (50 or more jobs) were down significantly from the record highs reported a year earlier.

The numbers, also tracked monthly, cover 18 industry sectors, from manufacturing and mining to retail and health care. The government said 12 of the sectors reported record declines in the number of announcements -- called "events" that put workers out of jobs for at least 31 days -- in the January-March quarter vs. last year.

The industry sector that includes newspapers (and a bunch of other information publishers like magazines, broadcasters, software and directories) reported 44 mass layoffs in the quarter, according to the government, down from 98 in Q1 last year and 62 in the final quarter of 2009. The number of affected workers, 6,290, was less than half of a year ago (14,688) and the fourth quarter (12,264).

But before we all breathe a sigh of relief, remember this: A massive layoff may be in the offing -- as many as 500 workers -- as the daily newspapers in Honolulu combine. And there could be some change in staffing this year at newspapers that just came out of bankruptcy reorganization with new owners in Philadelphia and in Orange County, California.

UPDATE: Officials now say combining the Honolulu papers will cost nearly 400 jobs.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Who suffered more in the Great Recession?

The 2.5% gap between male and female
unemployment in May 2009 was then
the highest in history, according to Mark Perry.
So it wasn't a "man- cession" after all? Or it was, but now it's morphed into a "she- cession"?

For most of last year, Mark Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan-Flint who blogs at Carpe Diem, has written extensively about the man-punishing characteristics of the Great Recession: that more men than women have lost jobs since the economic downturn began in December 2007.

In June 2009, he cited government data to show that the gap in the male vs. female unemployment rate was the widest it has been since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track in 1948. (Some suggest it's because men worked in sectors hit hard by the recession -- manufacturing and construction; others say it has more to do with who has college degrees vs. high school diplomas.)

But while the numbers early on showed men losing 80 percent of the jobs killed by the recession, the focus now has turned to who's going back to work sooner. And according to a report released today by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, it's men.

Between October 2009 and March, men gained 260,000 jobs while women lost 22,000, according to the report. (In April alone, women gained 86,000 jobs -- but men added 204,000, says the report, citing the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers.)

Still, the report worries that "As job losses slowed in the final months of 2009, women continued to lose jobs as men found employment." And for single mothers in the work force, the recession took a heavy toll: their unemployment rate jumped from 8 percent to 13.6 percent between 2007 and 2009.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-NY, who chairs the joint committee, told the Associated Press she was concerned by those numbers because families were more dependent on women's earnings as spouses lost their jobs or as more one-parent households with children were headed by women.

Of mothers who were working last year, one-third were the family's sole breadwinner, the report said, while two-thirds were in dual-income households. (And mothers as the only job-holder in the family rose from 4.9 percent of married-couple households to 7.4 percent between 2007 and 2009.)

Rather than offering any policy options, the report (timed to Mother's Day) seemed more interested in drawing attention to the recession's impact on working mothers. Or, as one member of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues told the Associated Press, "We have no safety net for these women."

As for the mancession, Perry blogged in January that he saw signs of its easing; yesterday, he pointed to improvements in the latest jobs numbers in the construction and manufacturing sectors.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I tweet, therefore I am -- a journalist?

Alfred Hermida as a panelist at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison conference on "New Journalism, New Ethics?"
Posted on Flickr by the college
"Sigh," came the Twitter post.
'tweets are not jour-

I should have known by the "Sigh" that if I thought likewise, I'd be labeled a dinosaur, too.

"Cohn ignores how editorial process can take place in a distributed and collaborative way through social media," said the next post.

And later, "Discussion on 'is Twitter journalism' is pointless. Instead let's talk about how acts of journalism are talking place on Twitter."

And later still, "Twitter as a platform can be journalism. It would be like saying magazines aren't journalism by looking at celeb gossip titles."

The series of tweets were from Alfred Hermida, who teaches journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who participated last week at the annual conference of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The program, "New Journalism, New Ethics?", was webcast, as well as blogged and tweeted live. I followed several of the sessions on my laptop.

The comment from Scott Cohn, a senior correspondent at CNBC, the cable business channel, came in a session titled "Whatever Happened to Verification in Journalism?" that was designed to explore the compatibility of fact-checking and speed in the 24/7 news cycle.

Cohn cited an incident in which he nearly retweeted a piece of information before verifying it -- contrary to common practice by reporters. "Tweets are not journalism," conference live-bloggers quote him as saying. "Journalism is reporting of the facts based off of an editorial process (with a fist banging on the table)."

Sounded right to me: You don't just take someone's word on something; you check on the veracity of what's being said, why it's being said, and who's saying it.

But then came the Hermida tweet.

A BBC veteran of TV, radio and Web, Hermida is an assistant professor at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches courses on new media and integrated journalism. He just had a paper published in M/C Journal, a peer-reviewed academic journal, that focuses on Twitter and what he calls "ambient journalism."

"[A]mbient news," Hermida writes, "is based on the idea of the audience as the receiver. Ambient journalism, on the other hand, takes account of how audiences are able to become part of the news process." And Twitter, the microblogging service "that enables and extends society's ability to communicate," he says, "... has emerged as a significant platform for people to report, comment and share news about major events, with individuals performing some of the institutionalized functions of the professional journalist."

(Coincidentally, on the same day as the "New Journalism, New Ethics?" conference, the MIT Technology Review published a piece, "Why Twitter Is the Future of News," on a study that shows graphically how tweets reverberate throughout Twitterdom, spreading information far and wide.)

I get the examples of breaking news that Hermida cites in his paper: Twitter headlines on Obama's election, the Mumbai attacks in India, the US Airways landing in the Hudson River. And it was through Twitter that I first learned Saturday about the big aqueduct break that affected drinking water in the Boston area, and was able to check to see whether my college freshman daughter had access to bottled water.

Does that make Twitter journalism? I'm still not convinced.

Tweets are a resource, to be sure, not unlike the press release, telephone tipster or government whistleblower that provides a piece of information about something. But it doesn't become journalism until all the pieces are fitted together like a puzzle, given context and due diligence by a reporter, to create a news story.