Friday, July 30, 2010

For the nightstand: weekend reading

(via Flickr: jj_pappas423)
In the interest of exercising brain cells this weekend, I offer this worth-reading list:

"Pressure Cooker Journalism" (Newspaper Death Watch): The pace of the online newsroom is leading some to worry about burnout. Blogger Paul Gillin links to the New York Times article about life in the fast lane at Politico in Washington, D.C., and talks about the use of traffic stats to keep the stories coming.

"Increased Worker Productivity Has Destroyed Millions of Jobs, and We Should Be Grateful" (Carpe Diem): Economics Professor Mark Perry posts charts on manufacturing output and jobs to argue that "Any time we can get more output with fewer workers ... it's a sure sign of economic progress and a rising standard of living." (Tell that to the nearly 15 million unemployed, half of whom have been out of work for six months or more. Their standard of living is not rising.)

"The ‘Great Recession’ Earns Its Title" (Economix): Statistics bear out of use of the moniker, even if "great" at first seemed ill-advised.

"No Fed Plans to Give More Support, Bernanke Says" (New York Times): The Fed chairman sees the unemployment rate remaining above 7 percent through 2012, and said it would take “a significant amount of time” to gain back jobs lost in the recession.

And from the Fed's own mouth: "Current Economic Conditions," the so-called Beige Book (Google docs) assessment of the state of the local economy in the 12 Fed districts. Bottom line: the economy continues to improve, but at a s-l-o-w pace.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

10 things I've learned in the land called jobless

So here I am, today marking the one-year anniversary of my layoff, still without a full-time job. (There was no cake or ice cream, though, to mark the occasion.)

(You'll understand this musical interlude when you get to No. 3 below)

I have a regular freelance writing assignment, a weekly newspaper column for which I am grateful, because it lets me look an interviewer in the eye when he/she asks the dreaded "What are you doing now?" question. (Saying that you're "working" practically full-time trying to land a job doesn't cut it.)

I'm not as panic-stricken as I was a year ago about being jobless, although having reached the cutoff in my extended unemployment benefits -- and waiting to see whether Congress will let me collect more -- puts me in a funk.

I sent out a boatload of résumés and made other inquiries and contacts (and dutifully recorded them in my unemployment insurance handbook), but landed only four face-to-face interviews after a lot of begging and pleading. And none of them yielded a job offer.

So what have I learned in a year's time?

  1. That the worse thing I can be right now is unemployed and looking for a job. Employers prefer hiring people who already have jobs.
  2. That I have too much experience, meaning that at first pass I look too expensive. Post-recession, employers are going with cheaper hires.
  3. That I probably won't find a traditional 9-to-5 job (they're disappearing), so I'm going to have to hustle a bunch of separate gigs in the hopes of living the kind of life to which I've become accustomed -- i.e., that I have some spare change in the bank.
  4. That it's rare that your application to a company's website, or your résumé sent to HR, is acknowledged -- even if an opening was advertised and that's why you're corresponding.
  5. That it could take me years to get back to the salary I had been earning before my layoff. That seems to be a rule of thumb with you lose a job during a recession.
  6. That this recession is one for the record books in the number of unemployed workers, like me, who have been out of work for longer than six months.
  7. That somebody should do a reality show on journalism. It might provide a newsroom with a new (and novel) revenue stream.
  8. That I still sweat through cover letters, no matter how many I write. Can't I just say I'm the greatest hire you'll ever make?
  9. That if all else fails, I could become a private investigator, since the skills for PI and journalist are similar.
  10. That the economics of journalism still stinks.
UPDATE: Congress finally passed and the president signed legislation extending for another six  months unemployment benefits for those who had been cut off. W00t! I'm back on the dole.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

'Bright side' to unemployment? Are you kidding?

Ticker from the Economic Policy Institute shows
the number of workers (as of July 3) who have
lost unemployment benefits due to inaction in Congress.
Two thumbs up to Andrew Leonard for his tongue-in-cheek "The bright side of mass unemployment" in Salon, where he rips a couple of positive takes on the country's current 9.5 percent jobless rate:
  • That "Companies are getting higher-productivity employees for the same or lower wage rate they were paying a marginal employee."
  • That "there has been better cost containment in the U.S. than in some of our competitors" because pressure for higher wages is nonexistent, aiding multinational companies.
I'll take a big "Thank You!" then from Corporate America for doing my part, as I sit here on the eve of my one-year anniversary of being unemployed. (Actually, I'd prefer a job offer instead. You can contact me here.)

The June unemployment report from the government, released last week, shows a continuing record-high number of U.S. workers has been jobless for six months or more -- 6.75 million workers, or 45.5 percent of the total unemployed. (Leonard's article, by the way, quotes a story that parses the duration of unemployment even more finely -- to the number of workers jobless for one year or more. I haven't been able to find data like that for 2010 through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, although the agency has produced such stats for 2008 and 2009 -- when unemployment was just ramping up.)

The Economic Policy Institute, which follows the unemployment data closely, pointed out that even though the June jobless rate ticked down a bit from 9.7 percent the month before, the labor force contained about 652,000 fewer workers.

"[L]abor force participation is an entire percentage point lower now than it was a year ago," EPI economist Heidi Shierholz wrote. "This points to another ongoing issue in the labor market: the backlog of 'missing workers,' that is, workers who dropped out of (or never entered) the labor force during the downturn."

She calculates the number of missing workers at 3.6 million since the start of the Great Recession, and notes they aren't reflected in any jobless numbers. "As these workers enter or re-enter the labor force in search of work, this will contribute to keeping the unemployment rate high," she says.

Meantime, as EPI now tracks on its homepage, more than 1.7 million unemployed workers have lost jobless benefits since the beginning of June because Congress hasn't approved their extension. The National Employment Law Project, an advocate for low-wage workers, says that's unprecedented: "Never before has Congress cut off benefits when unemployment was so high."

And it also points to another statistic that ought to lower the wattage in the bright-side-to-unemployment camp: that every $1 in unemployment benefits generates $1.60 in economic growth, according to Moody's

Of course, those of us who are unemployed would rather be spending money from our full-time jobs than from a pot we share with 15 million other jobless workers.

UPDATE: Congress finally passed and the president signed legislation that extend unemployment benefits for another six months for those who had been cut off.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Rejoice: Google will save the day

Google CEO Eric Schmidt
at Activate 2010.
It's good to know that Eric Schmidt has my back.

The Google CEO sees a future for newspapers -- an online one -- once we get over the hump of shifting from analog revenue to digital. (Dollars in the former are now pennies in the latter as advertising moves to the Internet)

"We're in one of those transition periods, and it's very painful," he said last week in an interview with Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, at the UK newspaper's Activate 2010, a conference held in London to discuss technology and the future. (You have to go here to view the interview, since I couldn't embed it, but it's worth the trip.)

"What does the news-reading experience look like some number of years from now?" Schmidt asks. "Well, it's clearly going to be on one of these digital devices because you carry it everywhere." It will offer deep dives in reads as well as targeted ads; it will be presented in full color and with video.

"It'll know what you read and so it'll show you what's changed, as opposed to repeating things over and over again," he said. "The newspaper often tells me things I already know, cause I already read it and they forgot I know it because it's static, not dynamic.

"But the most important thing," he added, "is it will be highly personal." (Just days before Schmidt's appearance at Activate 2010, Google News was redesigned to offer a personalized collection of stories under the heading "News for You" that users can build using keywords.)

And Google's role in newspapers' future? To offer the various components of this brave new world for media companies to choose from and build their business and content models.

And that's where Schmidt and the company have me and other laid-off ink-stained wretches covered: "I believe that ultimately not only will the revenue be replaced [in the shift from analog to digital] but I think it will be higher. And the reason I believe that is ultimately the medium is more personal."

Thanks for the upbeat outlook, Mr. Schmidt.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Saving freelancing, one writer at a time

In the spirit of the aphorism "It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness," one freelancer is helping another break away from so-called content mills in order to make a living from writing.

You may recall that early in the year, the Los Angeles Times wrote about the sorry state of freelance pay. In part, the article blamed the recession for cutting the budgets at newspapers and magazines that use freelancers. But it also cited the likes of Associated Content and Demand Media, companies that use armies of freelancers to fill vast websites with how-to and other service pieces.

"Seasoned professionals have seen their income drop by 50 percent or more as publishers fill the Web's seemingly limitless news hole, drawing on the ever-expanding rank of under-employed writers," said the LA Times.

Indeed, an oft-cited reference to Demand shows that the freelance copy editors it uses to read through all those stories for its website are paid $3.50 per piece.

And Demand isn't alone: A quick check of my local Craigslist found a freelance offer from a travel website that pays $20 for a minimum 1,000-word article -- or 2 cents a word. (Compare that to a regional magazine in my area that pays 30 cents a word for freelance feature stories of 2,000 to 4,000 words -- or up to $1,200.)

The trend toward lower pay so infuriated one freelancer that she penned a couple of anti-content mill pieces and called on others to steer clear of Demand and its brethren.

Then, in the spring, came the offer from Jenn Mattern, a freelance writer since 1999 and niche blogger since 2004 who operates a website that provides advice and assistance to freelancers. Her proposal: free one-on-one coaching "to help a freelance writer move beyond content-mill work to something better."

She selected a "winner" from among the pitches received, and has been blogging weekly about the "student's" progress in branding herself via a new website; soliciting clients who will pay at least 25 cents a word for her work; creating a marketing plan; and so on.

It's interesting reading. Will it inspire others to leave the content mills (and perhaps rescue freelancing)? Maybe -- or maybe not. But at least those who do exit will have a road map to follow.