On The State Of The News Media, And The Reporter Who Quit

This week, the fine folks at Pew released their annual State of the News Media report and the findings were grim (again) for those of us who still want to make a living doing journalism. One third of Americans surveyed said they abandoned a news outlet because it failed to provide “information they had grown accustomed to,” a majority of those people aren’t aware of the business-side meltdown of the news industry, and meltdown is not an exaggeration — budget cuts and layoffs “put the industry down 30 percent since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978,” Pew reports. Local TV news is being kept alive by traffic and weather, but that’s not expected to last long. A full 85 percent of MSNBC programming is talk — commentary rather than produced pieces of reporting and interviewing.

In response, Slate’s Matt Yglesias made a compelling argument that while the producer-side/revenue problem still exists, the abundance of choices for news and information outside of the realm of “traditional media” makes this a better time than ever for consumers.

“Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more…

The recent improvements in news distribution are astonishing. You don’t need to go to a specialty shop to find out-of-town newspapers or foreign magazines. Just open a browser. You can check on Israeli news sites when a new government is formed or during an American presidential visit and ignore them the rest of the year. The Internet also brings the enormous back catalog of journalism to life.”

Yes, Yglesias ignores the effects of a vastly downsized professional journalism workforce on state and local communities, where the disappearance of watchdog reporters is likely felt the most directly. That is the conceit on which we started NPR’s StateImpact network in 2011 and The Texas Tribune in 2009. (Good god, has it been THREE years!?) The local news problem continues to vex us and is worth its own post (or book), so I’m tabling that.

A few days after the report was released, the Twitterverse led me to the personal post of Allyson Bird, a former newspaper reporter, about why she left the news business on her own volition. She writes that the response was huge — 165,000 pageviews in the first day after posting — and sparked a raw conversation among other journalists, both still in the biz and out. As my friend Joey says, “No journalism gets more read and talked about by journalists than stories about journalists.” We are egotistical maniacs.

“I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied,” Bird writes. Later, she hits on the notion many of us working journalists know well — that your good work is only rewarded by more work: “Everyone works so hard for so long and for such little compensation. The results are dangerous.”

Bird’s been lauded and lashed by fellow journalists, all who seem to have strong opinions about her piece. I have just a few thoughts to throw out in response, mainly cause I like that we’re having this collective conversation and hey, Friend Matt created WordPress so we could all be publishers, so, why not.

As a journalist who did sign up for that $16,500 salary out of school to work nights and weekends and face constant condescension from a misogynist GM in Waco, Texas, I and many others like her empathize with the part about dissatisfaction. For me it was temporary, but what constitutes satisfaction differs from person to person. Being able to feed and house yourself comes before bylines, and in conversations about declining diversity numbers in newsrooms, one reason that comes up is salaries so low that entry level folks would need wealthy families or second jobs to support.

Bird partially blames the 24 hour news cycle for overworking reporters, but we’re beyond a survival of the fittest phase in the news biz — it’s mutation of the species. There’s no point in lamenting the multitasking required of reporters today, because most have proven they’ve mutated as necessary to keep up.

The wide readership of and thoughtful social response to Bird’s piece, one she published without the distribution platform of a mainstream news brand, is “Exhibit A” in favor of the digital revolution that is blamed for killing mainstream news. That Bird wrote a single post, published it herself, and it led to a national conversation is Yglesias’ point:

“A traditional newspaper used to compete with a single cross-town rival. Time would compete with NewsweekTime doesn’t compete with Newsweek anymore: Instead it competes with every single English-language website on the planet. It’s tough, but it merely underscores the extent of the enormous advances in productivity that are transforming the industry.”

Incidentally, for the writer herself, this kind of exposure could lead her right back into paid journalism. Already she’s booked on WYNC’s The Takeaway, which will only lead to more exposure.

I want to think journalism is a meritocracy and that I work not-demanding hours a fantastic national news organization because of my skills and hard work, but just as it is in life, who makes it and who doesn’t can be quite capricious. Those of us who have jobs we love and get paid for it should be grateful, strive to keep growing and pay it forward, as our predecessors did.

The exciting thing about journalism today is it calls for a kind of entrepreneurial spirit and creative thinking that it didn’t back when finances were more stable. But it is an entrepreneurial spirit that led to amazing startup news organizations like the one I’m proud to have helped launch, creation of new storytelling methods or projects that streamline data journalism  and the invention and funding of simple tools to provide greater context, like DocumentCloud. 

Newsrooms will keep contracting. But the wheels of invention and progress keep moving forward. For their sake and ours, I hope the creators and problem solvers out there will still want to create and solve problems even if the prospect of profit remains unseen. Allyson did, and it’s proven anything but unsatisfying.

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