For 150 years, the basic job of a journalist did not change much. But oh how that has changed in this century.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports newspaper industry jobs shrunk from 420,000 in 2000 to 183,000 in 2016 (this includes journalists, press room, circulation, ad sales). During the same period, Internet publishing jobs rose from 80,000 to 198,000.
Three journalists who crossed the divide (one of whom crossed back) offer three views of what the new world is like. The results? Some are publishing the new way with better standards and better pay and work conditions; some are working their tails off just to stay even; and some are, well, some have a long way to go. Here are their journeys.
Maggie Leung is the startup leader and senior content director at NerdWallet.com. Her print credentials are outstanding—Wall Street Journal, both Seattle papers, Washington Post, Oregonian, San Jose Mercury News and assistant managing editor at the Las Vegas Sun in 2007-2008. She then switched to supervising news editor at CNN and passed up promotion to join NerdWallet. She hit the jackpot.
“NerdWallet is atypical of most print and digital outlets today. How: We value quality over quantity. What that means: We give writers and editors time and support to gain domain expertise and do quality work. We pay competitively with every major news outlet in the country. We offer benefits, perks and stock options that are equal to or better than every news outlet in the U.S. We offer telecommuting and work-life balance. We invest heavily in training and coaching. We help develop careers and want talented people to stick with us,” Leung wrote in an email interview.
NerdWallet has a relentless editing process and careful fact-checking so it builds credibility. The website has a laser focus on helping consumer make good financial decisions.
Perhaps most importantly— NerdWallet is profitable.
Profitability still is a goal for Bill Bowman, co-owner, operator, reporter, publisher, editor and chief cook and bottle washer at Franklinreporter.com in New Jersey. Bowman and his wife started the site when he was laid off; he thought about starting a weekly and then eschewed the start-up costs at a newspaper and created a website. He used a basic WordPress template, did it quietly for three weeks so he could build content, and made a key decision—set up a paywall. (It’s inexpensive—$36.50 a year—a dime a day).
And Bowman set out to do what reporters love. If it moved, he covered it, and people loved it. But the challenge has been being both journalist and businessman. He is eking out a small profit.
“They opened a new Panera Bread in town. They are an advertiser and they asked us to cover it. I covered it and you know what? People love to read about that.”
I spent 30 minutes on the phone with Bowman at the end of his long day and I could have spent another hour. This man is insanely happy doing what he loves—covering local news.
Not so happy is the story of Tom Henderson. Tom is “old school.” In fact, he insisted that I tell you this interview was done by email. He hates the phrase “content generation” and believes the “aggregation” of other reporters’ work in your article amounts to theft and deception. One imagines Henderson as the type of journalist who loves to be described as a “curmudgeon.”
He lost a newspaper job in 2009 and went to work for a media group. When most of the staff was laid off, he was asked to write seven articles a day and to try to work trending search words into the articles so they would be found by Google and Yahoo! And traffic would flow. In one example he gave, if “Serena Williams” was trending and he was writing an article on finance, he’d be asked to work that trending name into the article— although one had nothing to do with the other.
He gave it up and went back to newspapers, landing a reporting job at the McMinnville News-Register in Oregon where he will happily describe the basics of good journalism to any young reporter.
“Be editors and reporters. Write stories instead of content. Remember you are in the service of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, not curating and monetizing content. Remember that journalism—real journalism—is essential to freedom and justice among a free people.”
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.