Thursday, August 28, 2008

I read the news today, oh boy...

PhotobucketI don't talk an awful lot about behind-the-scenes stuff in newspapers, well, because I work in them and it's easy to turn the wrong head. But if you've been paying the least bit of attention, it's hard not to notice it's kind of grim days to be in the newspaper industry, no matter where in the world you live... Layoffs and "right-sizing" have been the trend in the industry through much of the '00s.

If you read websites like Poynter, it's been job slash after job slash (sorry, "buyout packages"). Papers I know or have worked for have just been chopping staff left and right. The tally according to one web site: More than 8,000 jobs. Just yesterday, Fairfax Media which owns like half the papers in Australia/New Zealand, announced massive cuts. Y'know, in the name of synergy and stuff like that.

Websites like thrive off the frustration in the industry these days. I'm better than I used to be, but I still get angry myself. I remember one paper I worked at where over the course of about a year I went from having 7 employees in my newsroom to having 2 1/2 (one part-timer). It sucked, to be honest, and left me worn-out and bedraggled at the end. But newspapers have problems, and for the bean-counters, cuts are often the way to effect change. Not always the right way, but a way. The problem is when staff is cut but management doesn't change the amount of work to reflect that – bodies are eliminated, but you also need to rethink how you're delivering news when you have a "leaner, meaner" staff. Instead too often the mentality is "less people, same work," which inevitably results in "burned-out staff, crappy, error-ridden and uninspired newspapers."

I keep seeing things about few people under 40 read papers any more, and it's hard to disagree. Newspaper audiences often seem fossilized to be mostly the 50+ age group, and well, when they're gone...

Still, I like to think positive. I firmly believe we're in the middle of big changes in the newspaper industry. Newspapers are not dying, merely transforming. It's truly impossible to see a massive shift when you're in the middle of it, but I think this whole decade has been about newspapers mutating. We're "old school" media but when you get down to it, newspapers are at their core the best-reported, best-produced and most influential kind of media there is. All others tend to follow our lead, not overtake it. We're changing into something smaller and tighter, but hopefully also of value. But anyone who thinks newsrooms are going to operate like it's 1988 still are living in a dream world.

But y'know, for a field that's all about being 'Next," newspapers are often very conservative, and yes, slow. Smaller papers in particular will happily putter along with things like old crusty "Alley Oop" comics because they don't want to offend the older readers by dumping 'em. And papers big and small alike often tend to be run inefficiently, either with excess staff, overpaid "marquee" journalists or just plain mismanagement. Owners often just start chopping away randomly because they do see some of the inefficencies embedded in the system. It adds up to the kind of journalistic "perfect storm" we're seeing these days.

It's all made for a fearful time to be a journalist. I like to think my own job is fairly secure, partly because I am part of a company that's looking ahead and rethinking the traditional way things are done. But you never know. Journalism is at its height a noble calling, producing great thinkers, great inspiration and great headlines. But when it comes to newspapers, it's also a calling that's rather hobbled, heartsick and uncertain right now. We are better than TV, and the best of the Internet follows our lead, I firmly believe.

I want to stay in this industry, but I recognize that print 'n' ink is just part of what we do now. It's exciting times. It's also kind of scary ones.

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