Words of uncertainty and despair from old media

I like talking to news people. They’re smart, funny and irreverent. I spent 20 years in newsrooms, and I’m not sure there’s a workplace anywhere that’s such a mixture of earnest inquiry, frenzied energy, high-minded idealism and juvenile petulance. (Maybe a hospital emergency room at midnight on Saturday.)

However, it’s clear that the newsrooms I knew at the height of traditional journalism’s dominance are becoming just a memory. How do I know? By talking to news people.

I’ve written in this space before about the business of communication — the changes wrought by the Internet and its impact on print and broadcast media. Today I’d like to talk about the people who are being affected by those changes.

I always felt it was a privilege to work at a top newspaper. I used to point out to people that, although there were several million lawyers in this country, there were fewer than 50,000 people populating the newsrooms at the nation’s top 50 papers. I may not have made as much money as a lot of lawyers, but I was part of an elite group that was doing valuable — and enjoyable — work.

Now I pitch stories to the people remaining at those newspapers and TV stations — a group that’s probably 25 percent smaller than it was just two years ago. And as I talk to people in newsrooms across the country, we occasionally get into a larger conversation about the state of the business.

What I hear from them, when they let down their hair, is confusion, uncertainty and despair. They love their work but they’re not sure how much longer they can stay at it. They’re demoralized by the loss of long-time colleagues, many of whom were pushed out the door. They know they should have a Plan B, but they don’t know what it should be.

They mourn the loss of energy in the room, the empty desks standing as a constant reminder of better days. Many of them have seen their pay frozen or cut, their health care costs rise dramatically, their pensions and company contributions to retirement plans reduced or eliminated.

And they’re shocked by the speed at which this has all taken place. Many newspapers set revenue records as recently as 2004. Five years later, their continued existence is in doubt.

I’ve heard this from people in Dallas, in Seattle, in St. Louis. I’ve heard it from Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

And I’ve heard it in Minneapolis. I think the Star Tribune has been putting out a fantastic product in recent years. Under top editor Nancy Barnes (for whom I worked when she was the business editor), the paper has stressed hard-edged news reporting, adding the popular “Whistleblower” team and leading the way on stories like the scandal with the Metro Gang Strike Force.

Meanwhile, the newsroom turns out videos, podcasts, blogs, slideshows and web updates — none of which were part of the workload of a much larger staff just five years ago. Aside from grammar and spelling errors that seem to make their way into print more often than they used to — and perhaps an overabundance on some days of easy-to-report crime news —  I see little dropoff in the quality of the printed paper. Meanwhile, the Web site keeps adding features and traffic.

Still, when I talk to former colleagues, there’s a lot of angst.

“It’s not the same place you left,” is the most common comment. Another: “It’s like a ghost town in here.”

These are talented professionals. They’re not giving up. But they’re battered and scarred by the storm that’s eroding the foundation of their careers and their livelihoods.

No industry, no company, no worker is guaranteed security. Just ask those who once worked for Twin Cities stalwarts like Control Data, Munsingwear or the Schmidt Brewery.

And all across the country, people in the news business are finding that out.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bob Collins on 08/31/2009 - 06:51 am.

    Are you using “newspapers” and “old media” interchangeably here?

  2. Submitted by John Reinan on 08/31/2009 - 08:39 am.

    To some extent that’s true, Bob, but I also deal with local TV stations and a lot of magazines: city mags like MSP, business mags, consumer mags like Good Housekeeping, Met Home and the like. Even trade publications have been affected.

    So, although I admit I’m newspaper-centric, I do hear these same comments from people across the old-media spectrum.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 08/31/2009 - 12:09 pm.

    As a former journalist, I am not seeing the kind of journalism that I like to read and liked to report in today’s Star Tribune. Insightful, meaningful and illuminating. I’m seeing a ton of “who-shot-who” stuff that, if it has a bigger picture, is not coming through in the Star Tribune. Political reporting is still a sore subject as far as I’m concerned. Generally, minor sensationalism wins out over interesting and insightful. It’s certainly not serving the greater good – a term I realize almost sounds beside the point today.

    Despite my regular criticisms of the Strib, I do know newspapers take people. And reducing news staffs in a time of increased interest in news is counterintuitive. But newspapers have to find a new model – not one in which advertisers pay to be nudged up against the news hole in an effort someone might accidentally see their ads. The news industry was slow – make that reluctant and VERY slow – to change. What we’re seeing is the eventual result.

    That said, the best employees – regardless of what field they are in – are secure and satisfied people. Certainly few journalists in the world meet those criteria today. I wish them the best and wish I had an answer for them.

  4. Submitted by Jon Larson on 09/01/2009 - 04:33 am.

    Well boo-hoo!

    The economics that have recently devastated the newspaper and magazine businesses have been ruining people’s lives for at LEAST 35 years. Perhaps if our so-called journalists had been doing their jobs instead of chasing fire engines and cop cars, they could have helped prevent the events that are now ruining their lives.

    But hey, if you folks would rather traffic in cheap gossip rather than write about serious issues, don’t be surprised if the rest of us are aren’t exactly sympathetic to your plight.

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