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As ABC News Lays Off 300 to 400, Who Are 'Journalists' Now? Do You Care?

In business, Media on February 24, 2010 at 9:38 am
Journalists in the Radio-Canada/CBC newsroom i...

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As ABC News today announces the layoffs of 300 to 400 members of their news staff, the question — begged almost daily these days — is who’s bringing us/you the news and information you value and trust?

Writes Jeff Bercovici in The New York Observer:

In the latter half of the last century, journalism mutated from a relatively prestige-free trade into a hoity-toity profession that, like medicine and law, involves graduate degrees and six-figure salaries. But journalism is not a profession, or even a trade, really. It’s an act. And anyone who performs that act is, at that moment, a journalist.

This recognition comes as the journalistic establishment slides beneath the water line, taking with it the six-figure jobs necessary to pay off all those J-school loans.

As fellow True/Slant contributor Paul Smalera recently told The New York Times, it’s pretty unclear who’s going to be able to make a living producing journalism without the back-up of a major media organization like ABC News, no matter how cool or edgy or interesting readers find information from less-traditional outlets:

Dozens of Web sites have correspondingly sprouted up, posting articles written for free or for a fraction of what a traditional magazine would have paid. Into this gaping maw have rushed enough authors to fill a hundred Roman Colosseums, all eager to write in exchange for “exposure.” Paul Smalera, a 29-year-old who was laid off from a magazine job in November 2008, is now competing with every one of them. And after months of furious blogging, tweeting and writing for Web sites, Paul has made a career of Internet journalism, sort of.

In the process, he’s had to redefine success. While he is doing work that he finds satisfying, he is earning around half of the $63,000 he made as a full-time employee, and he doesn’t have health insurance — or prospects for getting any. He has very little in savings and a mountain of credit-card and student-loan debt. “I think the economics are bleak right now, but in the long run, the opportunities are going to be online, and that’s why I’m willing to make the investment,” he told me over coffee.

Bercovici has it half-right. Very few well-paid J-jobs remain available and the pool of veterans competing for them is becoming even more Darwinian than ever, and it was crazy to begin with.

But this notion that anyone with a cellphone or Twitter account is offering “journalism” doesn’t work for me — any more than a lumberjack who cuts down a tree has created a dining room table or set of chairs. Beginning the chain of news production with a tweet or cellphone image snapped and sent within seconds by someone who gets what’s happening in front of them and feels the urgency to share it is inarguably potentially valuable — but not without subsequent checks, balances, fact-checking, analysis and the primary tool of anyone with experience — skepticism.

Remember, please, the names Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair — rising young stars initially sheltered and lionized within serious newsrooms producing thoughtful, reliable material.

As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Amateurs, civilians, citizen journalists — whatever you want to call them — have a place, and a growing one, at our shrinking table. They are not, and must not become the only place to which we gravitate for the information we use to make important decisions about our lives. Publishers thrived for years on profits of 15 percent or more — orders of magnitude higher than those of many other industries. Now everyone’s scrambling to get the cheapest work possible out of the journalists still hoping to do the work they/we love and value.

Our challenge, as those trying to do good work and pay bills and pay off student loans and save for retirement — call that an annual income of $45,000+ in most parts of the United States — is becoming a tough(er) row to hoe with every passing day. It’s not just random whining about losing a profession we love(d) or incomes that allowed us a life, not a scrabble for survival.

Driving costs into the ground means driving many smart, talented veterans out of the business. This affects the quality of information available to readers, listeners and viewers.

  1. Mainstream print journalism with it’s expensive and fallible fact checking and gathering apparatus is no longer the basis for any kind rational business model. You can view this as the victory of vapid bullshit and shake your fist but the fact is that a lot of people will sneer at anyone naive enough to talk of journalistic ethics or the value of an informed citizenry.

  2. I made no such assertions here.

    I raise the question — and will continue to do so — where do readers and viewers seeking smart, ethically-sourced, fact-checked material get it and trust it?

    Why is an ignorant citizenry better off than one with at least access to information? It will make better decisions knowing nothing of the corruption and deal-making behind so much of what affects us?

  3. This is a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts that as the quality of print newspapers go down, so do subscriptions. My section A is averaging 4 pages a day it seems.

  4. Ebizjoey, what’s your local paper? Do you turn to other news sources as well? which ones and why?

    • The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio). We are now a one paper town and the paper keeps getting smaller, it has to stop, if not there will be nothing left but a sheet! My other sources are AM when I wake up, mostly news, quit with the other day talk (poison, need solutions) and I watch at least the first 1/2 of the world news. Heavy T/S reader, enjoy it. I also get NYT articles in the email, but it is just not the same as a morning coffee, dog, and paper in hand! I just have to know the news, what can I say? I enjoy here because it is unpredictable and interactive, thanks!

  5. We really can’t catch a break. In J-Schools they’ve changed the model a bit by teaching us how to be a one-person news machine: reporter, copy-editor and sometimes photographer all at once WHILE competing with the kid next to us with Twitter on their cell phone.

    I haven’t run in to any “non-journos” trying to provide me with news, but maybe it’s because I don’t go looking for them. Tailored news sites are fine for some, but not for me. I’d rather support my fellow journalists (those with real training on how to gather and provide the facts).

  6. Blogger-journalists have a heavier burden than those in the traditional set up. In this part of the world, the media house takes the responsibility of a reporter’s mistake. But in self-publishing, the need for following ethical standards and fact-checking is more important.

    A friend of mine in her early 40s and was with NYT said two things: its hard to stay gorgeous,the media bosses are waiting to kick you out as you turn 40.

  7. I count myself as being a blogger in the technology space, rather than being what I understand would once have been called a trade journalist.

    I found myself drawn into the blogspace by the level of poor quality blogs out there, where it is clear that little to no research done AT ALL yet the article is still published by what some people consider “a trusted source”. Worse, when I have looked into some of these online blogsites more closely, I have found that they are really just cleverly disguised advertorial. In short, there is no intention of providing or assuring quality of output or integrity of views with what is written AT ALL.

    I think the key to successful journalism of the future, be it through blogging or the good old-fashioned newspaper, is going to come down to independent views that can be trusted as not having a vested interest in what is being published or broadcast, as well as the “tree-shaking” that only the accomplished freelance journalist can do who knows how to capture the source and have a well-defined view of the topicality of the subject matter at hand.

    Even in technology space I operate in, I am appalled at how poorly things like the gaff by Google in letting its data be accessed in China was handled. I am no expert journalist, however the key issues of what that means for data protection in a globalised economy was glossed over in favour of jingoistic and out-dated comments such as “….but then Google just hacked ‘em right back”. Where is the quality and integrity in that?

    I want to see good research into HOW it happened – and without it being too techie so that the non-technical person can understand it, as well as insightful media comment into what the impact of it means for doing business globally including how we prevent the rights and privacy of average citizen GLOBALLY being protected. I certainly do NOT want to see jingoistic BS and a complete lack of understanding of the principles and value of data protection and privacy in a modern age!!

    In any case, you may like to know that it is not just veteran, good quality journalists that are being driven out of business by cost-cutting to the point of stupidity – it is also IT professionals too who are being replaced, in a few weird operating scenarios, by graduates who have no experience and ultimately fail in the job. It is then up to the quality professional to come in and clean up the mess. However it is too late for the business in some instances – and so I guess the saying of “what goes around, comes around” applies to those businesses who have failed due lacking any real capability to understand who and what they REALLY needed to operate, or creativity or genuine marketing to find out what their customers want and are (still) prepared to pay for. Good riddance to them – as long as it does not come at the cost of ridding business of the quality professional completely!!

  8. Ebizjoey, how depressing — and not unusual. I have only lived in cities (luckily) with 3 to 5 dailies — Toronto, Montreal, Paris and NYC. When I worked at the Montreal Gazette, we were the only English language daily — and it showed as there was no one out to kick our butts and spur us to excellence — and readers sure let us know it!

    Is is worth your time to add a few other sources? NPR and BBC, while liberal, offer a lot; The Economisf or FT for international news. I read Canadian and British papers online as well.

    Matt, thanks for your perspective. There are few things more annoying to me as well as reading lazy, shoddy or unethical journalism, whatever the medium. It spurs me to try to do better, but makes me wonder how much (?) readers know or care about the differences.

    • Thanks, Caitlin. I think your article DEFINITELY echoed sentiments I have felt without even BEING a journalist myself, yet knowing the art that goes into good journalism that I can clearly see that you proselytise (and for good reason too!).

      I know it’s an old cliche, but in this case a true one, to say: “I hear what you are saying – and I feel your pain”. Coz we are facing a similar dilemma in the IT – or rather ICT – profession too with businesses seeking to get more graduates to the pound here in the UK over one or two professionals who can do the job. It is driving me barmy!

  9. Who gives a shit. There is no news on ABC that I would watch. Now if they employed Bill Moyers or Charlie Rose I would TIVO it daily.

  10. Martin, it’s not the loss per se of ABC’s news staff that is my larger point. I get most of my news not from TV as it is either…What will you do (it would you?) when those you do like and trust, like Moyers or Rose are also axed?
    Just because you now enjoy that alternative to network “news” , which is often appallingly shallow and predictable in no way guarantees it’s longevity.

    I’d be lost without access to foreign press, I routinely hear stories on the BBC (who recently cut their NYC staff) weeks or months before the Americans get there, including the NYT, which for many still remains their first or even only (!) read.

    I doubt there are many serious journalists today whose job is not vulnerable.

    • I watch CNBC Europe so I dont have to watch those a holes like Maria and Erin blowing their producers on live TV. At best I mute the show during the day and just watch the ticker. Take thsoe broads down.

  11. The Face of Journalism in this Brave New World is a Dollar sign folks. It’s here, it’s moving forward and many of those professionals in the Industry have failed to change to meet or atleast keep up with the changes in the news environment. The bottom line here is the bottom line. News, Journalism has become less sophisticated and while AP style should be the law of the land it’s not. The world is far too busy and wants their news pronto, just like their latte at Starbucks. The newspaper giants of yesteryear where too slow to respond and the pockets weren’t deep enough to ride it out.

    The question I pose is about that phrase journalistic integrity. I do not believe that it takes a J degree to ask hard hitting questions or write a good story that will appeal to readers/viewers. Yes, there will be the Stephen Glass examples out there. Yes, There will be the tech fads like Twitter but unemployment is unemployment and where does Journalistic integrity take you from there?

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