In the two years I’ve been playing hooky from the blog — late ’06 to early ’09 — many outlets have launched exciting new lifeboats, most of which have been or are about to be sucked under by the Titanic that’s about to submerge behind them.
The latest fad seems to be a call for papers to shun their still-unprofitable Web sites and turn to the real business at hand: harvesting ever-shrinking profit from the print product.
That’s fine: if newspapers don’t need us, we don’t need them. Which was basically my argument in the following letter to an aspiring reporter. Among my claims:
1) Young journalists should generally not seek work at any general-audience outlet that is older than the Web browser.
2) Yes, that includes small markets.
3) The brightest up-and-comers are Web startups that cater to smaller, more highly motivated audiences.
4) For a newcomer, the likeliest path to a job at one of these startups wouldn’t be demonstrated expertise in writing — it’d be demonstrated expertise in the subject matter.
Full letter follows.
GA-THUMP! I’m going to load you with more information than you need on a quiet Saturday morning.
First off, I’m a government reporter. I occasionally get to dabble in various sorts of artsier culture coverage, but mostly I’m interested in policy, and that’s what I write about. But most of my reporting colleagues — features, sports, business — got here in more or less the same way.
Starting with the stuff about my own career: I worked four years at the main student paper where Anna and I went to college, including one summer internship at a free alt-weekly paper in my hometown. When I graduated with an English degree in 1999, this wasn’t enough to get me in the door at a small-town daily paper, so my first job out of college was at a twice-weekly in rural Iowa. Then I took out $35,000 in loans to do grad school at Northwestern, whose j-school has a pretty good name. My best classes there were the semester I spent in D.C., covering Congress for the Tuscaloosa News (sort of a pseudo-internship) and a semester I spent writing the business plan for a prototype weekly paper for young adults in suburban Chicago.
This got me a job running the Web site at the Longview Daily News, a small-town paper in Washington, and after a year there I moved to a suburban daily outside Portland. I’ve been at the Columbian for two years now. I’m 27. I make $15.97 per hour, 40 hours a week, $33,500 a year; I rent a one-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood for $595; I shop at Safeway, own a ’99 Toyota, rarely fly, save 10 percent for retirement and cook for myself five or six nights a week. I’m comfortable.
I love the freedom and independence of my job, which requires a good mix of artistry and technical knowhow. I like being able to play with different forms and I like learning something new almost every day. I like being responsible more to my readers and my community than to my company. I like having the respect of important people.
I file about four stories a week, 600 to 800 words each. I do four or five major projects (1,500-2,000 words) per year.
Like many newspapers, mine is dancing back and forth from the edge of bankruptcy and the bosses have no long-term plan to save it.
For the last 30 years, this was a fairly typical trajectory for daily newspaper journalists, both feature writers and news reporters: spend a few years in the boonies, working overtime until you collected a portfolio of good clips. Using these, and using contacts among your colleagues and competitors, you climbed your way up to bigger markets, which offered better pay, less quantity, more quality and more specialization.
Describing the journalism market right now is a tall order, so I’m going to depart from your template to do so.
Local newspapers have traditionally been the biggest employers of journalists, with the biggest audiences and the most influence. (National outlets aside.) And as I assume you’ve heard, newspapers are in big, big trouble. Eighty percent of our revenue comes from ads, but with a shrinking audience, ads in newspapers are becoming less valuable. The audience is shrinking because the Internet provides broader and deeper information than our print product ever can, and our online product is basically just an electronic version of the print product, so it’s not going to save us, either.
The economy is making things worse, but this is a permanent situation. Buffett said that until the tide goes out, you don’t see who’s been swimming naked, and newspapers have been swimming naked for about a decade.
Local TV news, another big journalist employer, is in the same situation. Network TV audiences are shrinking just as fast, and their Web sites aren’t any more innovative than newspapers’.
All this is to say that in case you were thinking about it, I would not recommend trying to break into general-audience outlets like newspapers or television. A smart newcomer could almost certainly find a job for a non-daily newspaper in a small town, but it’d almost certainly be a dead end.
Many people break into journalism by freelancing for local or niche magazines. General-interest magazines are also in trouble, but niches are doing better. Business newspapers and trade publications (like American Cop or Architectural Digest) also seem to be doing fine.
Freelancing requires some other source of income as you start, but it might be the best way to tap that artsier energy you mention. To start doing this, look on the Web site of a small publication you like (print or online) to find out if they pay for freelance pieces. If so, cold-call (or, better, walk into) their office and ask for advice on how and what to submit. Start with short stuff, and move to longer projects.
The up-and-comers, journalistically, are Web startups that cater to smaller, more highly motivated audiences (like, say, streetsblog.org). Right now, I’m looking for a job that’ll let me do this for municipal policy, hopefully at a state or local level. It’s hard to find, not least because of the thousands of laid-off newspaper journalists flooding the market.
I’d tell you more about those startups — who they tend to hire, how they pay, what skills they require — but I don’t know and in any case I don’t think the rules have been written. I think personal contact is very important for small companies like these, I don’t think traditional journalism classes would do a very good job of preparing someone for this work and I don’t think these companies would tend to care about what classes you’ve taken.
I suspect that for a newcomer, the likeliest path to a job at one of these startups wouldn’t be demonstrated expertise in writing — it’d be demonstrated expertise in the subject matter. And I think the best way to demonstrate expertise on a topic is to launch a blog about it and post to it consistently over several months, whether or not it attracts a substantial audience.
That’s just my hunch. I hope it (and at least a bit of the above) helps. Let me know if you have any other questions (if you dare).