It’s never been easy being a journalist. Back in the early 1970s, when I began my career as a freelance writer, I collected stories about the trials of writers. One clipping related the story of a freelancer, frustrated by the repeated rejections of his stories, who walked up to the receptionist at one of the major women’s magazines and demanded a meeting with the editor. When he was told the editor had no time for him, the frustrated writer took out a cleaver and hacked off the fingers of his hand.
Nowadays journalists don’t have to practice self mutilation. Consider Todd Smith, 37-year-old reporter for a suburban St. Louis newspaper who was covering a municipal meeting last July when a berserk gunman let loose with a fusillade of shots. The reporter took a shot in the hand but managed to phone in the news with his other hand. Last month the reporter was summoned to a meeting with his boss. Smith anticipated a pat on the back. Instead he got fired — a budget cut, as cruel as any other.
Some bruised journalists gathered at Princeton University last week to discuss the financial crisis now facing the newspaper industry. The anecdotal accounts were all grim: Newspaper closings; others in bankruptcy. That was Friday, May 1. If it had been Monday, May 4, the talk could have been about the Boston Globe and its prospects.
Does it matter? Yes, the panelists agreed. From the statehouse to the executive suite, journalists now are rare birds, and investigative journalism is becoming a lost art. One panelist told an anecdote about a new legislator in North Carolina who was instructed by the party leaders to follow the party line in her voting even if the constituents back home disagreed. “You can vote anyway you want here,” the newbie was told. “The folks back home will never know.”
Charles Layton of the American Journalism Review noted that while there used to be 32 reporters in Trenton 10 years ago there are only 15 today. More alarmingly, there are now 120 lobbyists for every statehouse reporter. “These are the people who drive the business of government,” said Layton.
Jim Willse, editor of the Star-Ledger, recalled December 31, 2008, as the worst day of his professional life. That was when 150 of his journalists took buyouts and left the paper. “It was like a mass funeral,” Willse said. One of those departed reporters, Dunstan McNichol, was himself a panelist at the conference, and Willse acknowledged the reporter’s hard work. “Newspapers find things that people don’t want the public to know. It’s hard. Sometimes you get a story, sometimes you don’t.” A dogged reporter like McNichol (who has shared in two Pulitzer Prizes, “would read stuff that no one else would read.” With the buyout, Willse said, “all that went away.”
The assembled journalists were equally pessimistic about the prospects of serious investigative journalism being underwritten by Internet-based news outlets.
Someone referred to the “upside down supply and demand curve” of the Internet. Unlike the print world, where the supply of advertising space is limited by the physical size of a newspaper and the frequency of its publication, in the online world the supply of cyberspace never decreases. In fact, the space just keeps expanding, whether or not there is any demand for it. Under these circumstances the price for ads online has fallen to pennies per 1,000 page views. A company like Google can make millions by sharing those pennies with millions of websites; the individual websites get stuck with the pennies.
That certainly doesn’t pay for the kind of investigative reporting that newspapers used to support. The Princeton panel included two journalists who have left the print world to try to create some serious online journalism — at propublica.org and MinnPost.com. Think public radio, with a combination of grants, subscribers, and advertisers/sponsors. That model leads to great commentary and thoughtful analysis, but not much investigative reporting.
With the World Wide Web landscape looking as bleak financially as the old web press, some of us perked up when Willse, the Star-Ledger man, offered a scenario in which real journalism might flourish once again.
Newspapers have to get out of the printing and distribution business, Willse said. The frequency has to be reduced from seven days a week to three or four. The paper has to be trimmed in size. And the newsroom staff has to be restructured. “Of our 330 journalists,” Willse said, “half were involved in processing the news as opposed to generating the news. We have to concentrate on journalism that matters, and on good writing.”
Willse related that he had just hired two dozen bright young reporters at $700 a week. Someone in the audience asked a question: Where did Willse think those reporters, making $36,000 a year, might live — in a pup tent?
After the laughter stopped, Willse agreed that the new hires are “clearly not a long-term solution. We can’t survive by indulging in child exploitation.”
I didn’t catch the look on Dunstan McNichol’s face at that moment, but I doubt he was smiling.