For several years as an editor at The Wall Street Journal I was invited by my college alumni association to speak about journalism to undergrads at the group’s annual Career Night. This involved a panel discussion with three or four others in the field talking about what we did, how we did it and—of primary interest to the audience—how we got our first jobs.
My regular panel mates worked at CBS News, The New Yorker, and the AP, and they’d talk about great stories they’d covered and great places they’d been on the company dime. When it was my turn, I felt it was important to paint a more realistic picture for people just starting in the business, so my advice was that they could learn everything they needed to know about my field—newspapers—by reading Sherlock Holmes.
In The Man With the Twisted Lip, the great detective solves the case of a guy who has “disappeared” in London. Neville St. Clair was a reporter who disguised himself as a disfigured beggar to research a story on life in the streets. He set up shop near the Bank of England, capered and quoted Shakespeare, and he quickly found he could make far more money panhandling than as a journalist. So without telling his wife, he quit the paper and became a beggar full time, moving his family to the suburbs and commuting to “business interests” in the city.
On hearing this and its relation to the laughable pay and benefits at the small papers where they’d likely land their first jobs, most of the kids hustled down the hall to workshops on med school and investment banking.
But not everyone. College grads still flock into journalism—or at least until very recently they did—ambitious, well-educated, and hopeful that despite the career carnage all around them they’ll be the exception to the rule. They’ll wrangle internships at big papers and get hired by small ones, where they’ll get direction but little training at a bit over minimum wage when calculated by the hours they’re expected to work, supplying their own cars and, at many papers out in flyover country, even their own cameras. Some will make it, some won’t, and the beat goes on.
Despite this kind of dedication—or stupidity—by the worker bees, many publishers these days find they still can’t make a buck. Gradually, this is an industry that has collapsed into itself. Long enjoying monopoly markets, low levels of debt, high profit margins, and an apparently bottomless labor pool, most publishers were loath to give up a good thing, and consequently failed to recognize the forces for change building around them. When they did, they often reacted with half measures or they over-reacted, lurching from fad to fad hoping for salvation: hyperlocal coverage, “civic journalism,” ads on the front page, “sponsored” news pages on issues of interest to local advertisers, joint ventures with local broadcast outlets, blogs, blogs on blogs, the list goes on. Trendiness, thy name is Gannett.
Amid all the angst and hand wringing, though, I keep reminding myself it’s the business model that’s failed, not the journalism. In a fully wired, 24/7 world, news has never been more available and probably has never been more important than now. The audience—readers, listeners, people—still look for and respond to information on developments that affect them, their families, or their communities. And the press’s watchdog role is still vital to the workings of government and democracy. Surrounded by a free press, Americans can be unmindful or even neglectful of it. But those who doubt its importance need only look to Tibet, Cuba, or Zimbabwe.
After thirty-three years in newspapers, I bailed out in January. I’d had a good run, reporting events as varied as the 1981 air traffic controllers strike, mine fires in Pennsylvania, and the handover of the Panama Canal. As an editor, I had a front row seat on three wars, the impeachment of a president, and the 9/11 terror attacks. The coming of Rupert Murdoch was just too much, however, and I left the Journal for a policy post at the International Broadcasting Bureau, the agency that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Marti, and other government broadcasters. Yes, there is life after newspapers.
Examples die hard, though. My daughter is studying photography in college and hopes to land a job as a shooter on at least a medium-sized paper when she graduates. She’s pretty good, too, and just might do it. But I warned her not to make a career of it. That’s the advice I’d offer others as well. If you’re interested in journalism, even now, give it a shot. It’s a great way to learn about the world, develop communication and analytical skills, and provide a public service. But over the long haul, there’s more stability and better money to be made panhandling.
Winston Wood is a former editor at The Wall Street Journal.
The steady drip of layoffs and buyouts, slowly desiccating once-vibrant newsrooms around the country, has also produced a reservoir of anger, sadness, fear, uncertainty—even some cautious optimism here and there—among reporters and editors who invested years, decades in some cases, of their lives to print journalism. We’ve asked anyone so inclined to channel these emotions, not into rant—although there will be a bit of that—but rather into reflection on what went wrong, and where we might go from here. We will publish one per day, under the headline “Parting Thoughts.” All of the letters we publish will be collected here.