I wasn’t even twenty-five years old and I was working for the New York Daily News. All of my friends and family called me their “big-time reporter.” Except at that moment, I was the big-time New York reporter crying in a bathroom stall, thinking, “I hate this.” If this was what it’s like at the “top,” why had I worked so hard to get here?
It was a weird thought because I was living my dream. I had been living and breathing journalism since high school; I loved writing, telling stories, and talking to different people. I found joy in writing for my high school’s barely-there newspaper. I worked myself ragged as a writer and sports editor of NYU’s student paper, but I loved every minute of it. Sometimes I still can’t believe I did all of that for free, yet when I got the chance to do it for a top paper for a good salary, I didn’t want to do it at all.
Was it because of the newsrooms I had worked in or the people I had worked with? Yes and no. I’ve worked in three newsrooms in different parts of the country. Each had their own personality, but all of them tried to fight the future. It’s enough for me to understand why newspapers are dying.
During my post-grad internship at The News and Observer in North Carolina, I pitched a story about Facebook privacy concerns. I spent an hour explaining Facebook to my assigning editor, who still couldn’t wrap his head around it and treated the story like intern busywork that should never see newsprint. After I left, my final draft was turned into the millionth “Facebook is popular” trend story, six months before the Facebook privacy backlash began in 2005.
After that, I spent two and a half years working for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a newspaper that was trying to catch up with the Internet. Reporters were required to blog, though some of the reporters had trouble understanding what a blog was in the first place, confusing posts with print articles on the Web site. Colleagues and I tried to rebel against the weekly post requirement. We had the freedom to write how and what we wanted, but they controlled when? Wasn’t that against the point of blogging? At least this newspaper’s editors understood the importance of their Web site and tried the best they could, even if they were a few years behind. Reporters blogged, we recorded audio and video, but, most of all, complained—a lot.
At the Daily News, a photographer made a slideshow to go with one of my stories. My supervisor proudly circulated the link around the section, but his boss had a very simple response to the multimedia effort: “Why?” Yet this same person also suggested I create a Google Alert with my name to see if blogs picked up any of my stories, as if it would be an honor and a reward. I found it odd that one of the largest newspapers in the country needed the reassurance of bloggers. After all, everyone at the paper acted like they were unaffected by falling circulation numbers, saying that this is New York and newspapers can’t possibly be dying here because people always have read papers and thus always will. Reporters and photographers mention the paper’s circulation rank at least three times a day in conversation to each other, sources, recent hires, and anyone who dare cross them.
But that mantra won’t stop the numbers from falling, the layoffs from coming, the readers from preferring the Internet, and the ads from not selling. The people at the paper kept telling me how everyone wanted to be in my position. After six weeks, I didn’t want to be there anymore. Three months later, I’ve been laid off from a temp receptionist job and my job search has stalled as the economy crumbles. All I can do now is read blogs in my pajamas all day, but I’m thankful for the chance to be a reader again and see what all the fuss is about.
It’s different on the other side. The only newspaper I read is the free one handed to me before I get on the subway, because I can’t afford to pay for one. My mind drifts during long, jargon-filled online news articles and I enjoy their succinct and snarky blogs more. I follow CNN, AP, and The Onion’s Twitter feeds. My job hunt is fueled by online job postings on various Web sites and attempts at networking. I check CNBC.com for updates about the falling stock market and which company is laying off how many today, because newspapers frustrate me by providing yesterday’s information.
My main concern is how newsrooms will move forward—if they ever do. A lot of people who love reading the hard copy and want coupons, but what happens when that group dies off or the economy gets worse? Why buy a bulky stack of paper filled with yesterday’s news when you can log on and get today’s for free? I’ve attended too many journalism conferences where the theme has been convergence and editors talk about how “blogs are the future.” They’re not the future anymore; they’re now, and the Internet will rule more of how we get news in the years ahead. Where have these editors been?
Reporters need to stop regarding the Internet as a pest they’re not paid enough to provide for and accept that, in addition to their daily duties, this is the new journalism. Owners need to remember that, along with the flashy appeal of the Internet and big profits, newspapers still require good journalism and even better journalists. Newspapers, even without the “paper,” can still remain a news authority, but they need to start acting like one and stop acting like the great-grandfather trying to impress the cool kids.
My current interest in journalism has shifted to the Internet, blogs and social media. News doesn’t necessarily come from news sources anymore. Everything on the Internet has the potential to become something big, even if just for a day. That works out well for marketing ploys and blog book deals, but it also helps promote stories from all over that might have ordinarily flown under the radar. I’m not sure how things will evolve, but I’m excited to see how it does and that’s what still has me interested in the industry. The Internet facilitates creativity. and I think newspapers have the potential to do so much with it. And I’d love to be a part of it, if they ever do.
I want this to happen, so much that it’s hard for me to stop caring for the profession I loved so much in college, but cried about hating in the bathroom. Maybe things will get better when the economy bounces back. Maybe newspapers will start to have the backing to utilize the Internet the way they want and should. Maybe a new generation of editors and reporters will embrace the Internet and save newspapers from dying. Right now, though, I have as much hope for newspapers as I have of finding a non-journalism job while equipped with a journalism degree in this economy—none.
In July, we invited laid-off and bought-out journalists to reflect on their experience in the form of a letter to colleagues. Now we are issuing a similar invitation to the young people who’ve come into the profession in the last five years or so, and the young journalism students who soon will. We invite them to air their concerns and hopes about journalism, too. The central questions: What do you see in this business that makes you still want to pursue it? How do you imagine people will get quality news five years down the road? How will you try to fit in? Send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll publish these periodically under the headline “Starting Thoughts,” and we’ll archive everything we publish here.