Thoughts of a recovering journalist

The last couple of days I’ve been (as usual) watching the news business. Quite a few discussions have popped up between friends, family and former coworkers about the floundering news industry.

The initial prompt for the discussion happened last week during a conversation with my dad about my youngest sister’s decision to join the marines. Part of her reasoning to do so is rooted in our country’s current economic woes. While she’s taken a little longer to get through her college education, she has several friends who have buckled down and gotten it done. They’ve graduated over the past couple months and are being sent out into the workforce. Except that nobody is hiring. Even friends that had secured internships and job placement promises are being told that the company in question is no longer able to fulfill their promise because of the economy.

My sister saw all this happening and felt like what the heck is the point in spending a bunch of money, time and brain power on a degree if you can’t get a job using it afterwards? Now, this is just one of many reasons she gave me for her decision, so don’t think she just jumped into it on this one idea alone.

Anyway, back to the conversation I had with my dad. I told my dad that I completely understood her reasoning on this issue. Ever since I stopped working I’ve been watching my former industry collapse on itself. The news industry in general (and no Dad, I’m not just talking about the “old typewriter,” as you put it, newspapers, I’m talking about EVERYONE… TV, magazines, newspapers, etc.) has been laying off people left and right. I’ve watched round after round both in my former local newsmarket and in the big cities and corporations.

I have to say that I’ve never understood the whole process to layoff people in the newsroom. When you layoff people in the newsroom that means you are going to have less people to cover the news. Which means you won’t have as much news to report on. Which means that you will start seeing less readers because you aren’t covering everything they want to know about. Which means you will have lower audience/circulation/etc numbers. Which means less ad revenue. Which means more layoffs. It really is a vicious and unending circle.

So to me there has to be a way to cut people in other departments, cut salaries or something that doesn’t impact the quality of your product.

But that again is a whole other tangent. As I said to my dad, I’ve been watching this go on for quite some time now. Because of the number of journalists I know without work, I know that even if I wanted to go back to work right now (which I don’t), that finding a job would be very, very difficult in my industry.

In response to this my dad said my attitude was that of a “defeatist” and that I just needed some gumption like he had when he got into the tire industry. I am sure that in some ways he is right. I could apply what I know to other industries like PR/marketing, internal manual writing and other internal publications, HR, etc. But I would hate it every single day. I know this is true of both me and many of my colleagues out of work right now. Once the news bug bites you, you are never the same.

So I still firmly believe, whether it is “defeatist” or not, that if I wanted to find a job in the news industry right now I would have slim pickings, if at all. That’s just the way it is when industry giants are folding all over the place.

Some of my former employers have put all their eggs into the basket of technology and the Internet as the future and savior of the industry. One of my former colleagues just posted a link to an article about this yesterday from TIME and called it, “interesting thoughts on the future of our industry.” In said article, the author highlights several J-Schools that are integrating computer programing classes into their programs and calls the graduates from these programs the future of the industry and suggests that they are going to revolutionize things and make the news new and innovative.

My university wasn’t one of the big programs talked about in the article and I graduated from there a few years ago. It was funny reading about these big programs just now getting it, when my little program has been doing the same thing for years. The communications program at CSUB is very diversified. I not only took classes in journalism, but PR/marketing, business, politics, web design, graphic design, rhetoric, communication theory and speech giving. When I graduated from that program I really felt like I was ready to tackle any field I wanted to because I had received such a well rounded education. The journalism bug bit me my last year of school so that was where I chose to use my knowledge.

I was the first person in my newsroom to text in court proceedings from my Blackberry as they were happening. I helped organize the workflow so that we gathered background information more efficiently and so we stopped loosing track of stories by letting them slip through the cracks of more important and busy news days. I created spreadsheets. I dedicated tons of my off and free time to studying the ins and outs of ENPS, the computer program that basically ran our newsroom, so that we could begin to use it much more efficiently and so that we could use all of the really great features that were already built into the program. I helped write breaking news stories for the web and send out mobile alerts to our viewers.

One thing that really would annoy me is when the anchors or reporters would say at the end of their story, “for more information about this story go to our website and click on __________.” Only problems was, there really wasn’t more information about the story on the website. I remember fielding a phone call once from a viewer that had seen a story about some innovative medical technology that was helping cancer patients or something. The reporter on the story said the line from above. All that was on the website was a web friendly version (IE not TV speak) of the story. There were no additional links to get more information about the technology, no medical reports or anything else. All things this person, who happened to have the disease, was desperately searching for information on. When I tried to talk to the reporter about it she really didn’t have anything for me to refer the person to either because she had merely revoiced a national package from our affiliate. So I was left telling our viewer that she would probably have more luck with a Google search on her own. It was really disappointing.

One of the things about online news sites that I think is really great is the ability to have more content for those that want it. Whether it is additional video footage, pictures, scans of court documents, etc. In the past couple years I’ve been pleased to see that this company has made better use out of their site, at least when it comes to what they deem as the “big” stories. They make all of these things available for those stories now, for the most part, but it took them a very long time to start doing that and it really is just the tip of the iceberg of what they could be doing with their website.

Anyway, I was constantly met with resistance about all of the changes I was suggesting. In my defense, I really was only trying to make things better and more efficient. I like to organize things. This resistence, coupled with some overwhelming things about the behind the scenes stuff that goes into the news business (everything from coworker affairs, to seeing raw footage of really awful things, to emotionally demanding and long hours, to crazy shifts) really took its toll on me. So I wrote about it on my blog. One of the coworkers that did not like the changes I was pushing for in the newsroom because it was getting me noticed and praised by the higher ups, e-mailed a copy of the blog to the higher ups. I got fired. It was more than deserved. I knew better and I should have handled the situation completely different.

I moved on though. A few months later I found a job at different company that seemed like it was embracing technology and for the most part they were. I was encouraged to blog on our publication sites. I started an online newscast for our publications. I came up with tons of ideas to get our readers going to the web. There were a couple of problems though. Often times when we had more online content to refer readers to we didn’t do a very good job of promoting it in the publication in a way that was eye catching and got them to go click. Hardly any sales people were selling online ad spots so no money was being made there, and as such no one really thought our emphasis should be there. Then, what I think was the sites’ biggest downfall, is the excrutiatingly slow loading of the homepage, individual stories, pictures and most importantly the interactive content that we were sending people to the web for. I think about 80% of the complaints I got from readers had to do with website problems. I was constantly nagging our “interactive team” about the slowness of the site and other problems that it had only to be told that the site loaded great and fast for them or that I needed to make sure my readers had the latest version of IE or Firefox installed on their computer for an optimal viewing experience.

Anyway, after both of those experiences I would say that in general I felt like a fish swimming upstream when it came to getting the news industry to embrace technology both in the news gathering and presentation. So it is fine and dandy that these J-Schools are embracing technology, but I feel bad for those first few kids that are going to be sent into the big stream to fight and make changes. They are facing a tough road ahead of them. I’ve often heard older members of the newsroom referred to as “dinosaurs”, but in my experience the industry in general is a dinosaur and trying to get it to evolve is quite the challenge.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Thoughts of a recovering journalist

  1. GrandmaTiger

    Well I am going to drop in a nickel here (used to be .02 LOL). I personally wish the “news” internet sites had options for LESS techie interaction, I prefer to read things, not see a video and listen to somebody talk, I want facts, backed up by research, not somebody’s opinion or interpretation of what the research means. A lot of times I will see an interesting headline on MSN or Yahoo news, click on it, and then click away again when it starts to load a video; I’ll wait a couple of days and then google the title I found interesting and usually can find a written article, but why couldn’t they have had an option for the text article in the first place?

    News sites in general are starting to be less like factual, research oriented sites and more like a web version of a daytime talk tv show, all talk and opinion without facts or putting a “spin” on the facts they do have. That’s why they lose fans, because they lean too far one direction or the other- and alienate the people in the other camp.

  2. As a former newsie myself, this was quite fascinating and enlightening, Lisa. 🙂

  3. lwuertz

    Mom, I think you have some good points, Dad basically said the same thing. I do think there is some truth to the opinion vs. just the facts ma’am style of reporting. In actuality, I think the whole media collapse is far more complicated and layered than just the technology issue I talked abou here, but I wanted to specifically address this issue because so many companies, including my former employers, are looking to things like Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the web as their savior. I wanted to specifically address the TIME article.

    I could probably write a whole book on the subject addressing way more aspects of newsgathering, presentation, op-ed versus reporting, technology, newsroom politics, the loss of divide between the sales team and the newsroom, and so, so many other topics. And I think I probably will address these all at some point in later posts if I get the inspiration or feel up to it.

    And I also agree that when you click on a headline you should have the choice between reading or watching a video. But I think that the extra stuff should be there and easily located if you do want it.

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