As someone who spent 16 or so years working in and around newspapers, I saw something last week that saddened me but didn’t surprise me at all.  A friend from my high school days — someone I’d met at a high school journalism convention in my junior year, and someone who’s worked in the newspaper business many more years than I have since then — shared a blog article on Facebook titled “Why I left news.”

ReportersNotebookIt was an article written by a 20-something writer in South Carolina named Allyson Bird.  She left a newspaper reporting career in August of 2012 to take more of a public relations-type job, and when you read her blog article it seems evident that her heart was more in the thrill and the “vanity” of the news reporting game.  The deciding factor in her move was that the public relations gig offered a more secure, less stressful future.

She is far from the first journalist to go that route.

There’s some vanity involved in seeing your name in a black-and-white byline on a regular basis.  There used to be a sense of honor in doing valuable work that could have a real impact.  There’s a big adrenaline rush in having to go out to cover big stories.  It can be an exciting career, no two days are exactly the same, and it’s a career that used to bring respect and in some cases even a certain level of celebrity status.  It’s also been known as one of the more stressful occupations out there, with constant deadlines and pressure to be accurate at all times.

Now, almost 20 years after leaving the profession myself, I can still say that there are things about it that I miss.  Unless you happen to be a big name at a major media outlet, however, it’s not something that will bring you great financial rewards.  And that sense of career security when it comes to print journalism seems to be dwindling to this day.

Bird has only been blogging for the past three months, producing an average of one article in each of those months before her “Why I left news” post hit the web.  But that article went a bit viral, getting thousands of “shares” on Twitter and Facebook since it first appeared last Tuesday, which has led to around 165,000 views.  It’s an article that’s hit home with people both inside and outside the business of journalism.

She started working in journalism in 2005, what she called the “tail-end of the good days.”  In her blog article, Bird lists a variety of things that are ailing the newspaper business:  short attention spans on the part of the readers; competition for instantaneous, 24/7 news coverage on the web and cable/satellite channels and the pressure on print media to match it; an unwillingness on the part of decision-makers to put out the kind of money it would often take to get the good stories, no matter where those stories were taking place; ultimately coming down to budget-cutting, and in effect being more willing to settle for rehashing press releases.

The timing of the release of Bird’s blog article is interesting because of a few things I’ve observed in the media over the past few weeks …

  • Ultra-rich and ultra-conservative industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, according to the Reuters news agency, are said to be interested in making bids for either all of the Tribune company, which includes 23 TV stations and national cable network WGN American, or the Tribune newspapers which include the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun.
  • Fox News Channel
    Fox News Channel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    A group of Tea Party activists — calling themselves the Tea Party Fire Ants — organized a boycott of the conservative Fox News Channel that lasted from March 21 to March 24, demanding that the network take an even harder turn toward the right by spending more time talking about immigration and the September 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.

  • Tabloid-style journalism may get ratings, and one need look no further than CNN to see it lately, but then CNN’s been in a ratings slump itself no matter what it does to fix its leaky ship.  Case in point — Question:  How much time has CNN devoted to stories like the Jodi Arias murder trial, or the passengers stuck on a disabled Carnival cruise ship with their plight being compared to Hurricane Katrina?  Answer:  Tons, proverbially speaking.  Question:  How much time has CNN spent covering legal efforts to keep consumers such as those stranded Carnival passengers from suing corporations?  Answer:  Little, if any, realistically speaking.
  • Time Magazine has been able to claim its biggest-selling cover story recently which consisted of a special — and quite lengthy — report from its February 20 edition on the cost of health care in America (which has caused a number of readers who haven’t been able to find it in print any longer to search for it online, leading them to places such as this blog to find it).

Tie those items together, and it could lead to a few different conclusions — there is still a strong hunger for solid, investigative journalism that requires a lengthy attention span; sensationalism is hopefully on the way out, but CNN is becoming a prime example of how tabloid-style coverage at the cost of covering “real stories” benefits the few instead of the many; there is a loud group of people out there wanting desperately to see the news slanted toward their (conservative) belief system even when the outlet they’re shouting at already caters to them; there is tremendous power in the corporate world that would seek to slant the news that’s fed to us even more than it is now.

These are all symptoms of a media that’s failing us, symptoms of a media that continues to drive away promising young reporters and writers such as Allyson Bird or the gifted ones with much more experience than her, symptoms of a media that has a few problems to deal with before it can regain the high standing and pride in itself that it once boasted.

That Time Magazine article on health care costs has been the most-viewed here on this blog for weeks.  Another blog article of mine that continues to get attention long after it was originally posted here, even to this day, deals with “one of the major problems facing our major media today.”  That article concentrated on reporters seeming to be hesitant to ask tough questions on hard issues, regardless of a liberal or conservative political stance.

Part of the reason why we’re seeing this problem all ties together with the issues that have been discussed up above, and I could see it long before the point in time that Allyson Bird mentioned — the “beginning-of the-end of the good days.”  It was a point in time back in the early 1990s when the glory of being a reporter seemed to fade, and I found myself walking out that door at my last newspaper job, in part because that “glory road” of being a watchdog for the public interest seemed to be fading.

I was managing editor at a small daily newspaper, and I had a hand in all aspects of the editorial department — from gathering and writing to editing and supervising, from taking photos to laying out pages and approving them before they went on the press.  I did my share of controversial, investigative reporting, and I got kudos from both sides of the political fence because of it.  After a while, none of that seemed to make enough of a difference.

What mattered were the advertisers.  The editorial department didn’t set the tone, the advertising department did.  It started becoming clear to me when a giant discount chain of stores (which won’t be named here, but it rhymes with “small tart”) came into town and began to set the tone.  They didn’t abide by having small-potatoes reporters doing stories on them, if they wanted publicity they’d have press releases to do it.

You didn’t question them on their PR strategy either.  To do so would mean losing what little ad revenue they were willing to provide to the local paper in the form of pre-printed inserts, which were very few and far between.  That became clear to me when the big new guys ran into some national PR trouble and I made an appointment with the local store’s manager for a local angle.  I showed up on time for the appointment, but it was suddenly and unexpectedly called off.

Any griping I decided to do was quickly squelched, from all angles but my own.

It seemed like “the wave of the future” back then, and it seems that way even more now.

Overcoming that future that’s become more like the present is a pretty tall order.  Can it be done?


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