The economics of the big daily, and why there will be lots of journalism jobs in the future

It’s a routine question from both journalism students and parents whose kids are interested in our program: if newspapers are going broke, am I crazy to be pursuing a career in journalism?

My honest and completely unequivocal answer is no, you’re not crazy. And if you’re willing to grit your teeth and make some tough decisions, live frugally and put off kids and a mortgage for at least 10 years after graduating, you can expect to look forward to a long, rewarding and fulfilling career in the field.

Unfortunately, those are tough words for young people to hear. And they may not be the most inviting advertisement for a career in journalism. But it’s true, proven so countless times by our graduates who have thrived in journalism careers, in good times and bad.

Despite what you hear, there are no shortage of jobs in journalism in the broad sense. It’s true that large metropolitan daily newspapers have been laying off reporters now for five or more years because print revenues have been declining, really since 9/11. But dailies have never been a big employer of our grads anyway for a simple reason: the well-paid, unionized journalists who work at them don’t leave unless it’s through buyout, retirement or forced layoff. They pay very well, there are great benefits and there is still prestige attached to working at a big city daily.

Unfortunately, those legacy costs salaries and benefits — which evolved when times were good in the industry and before digital advertising became a factor — are now considered to be a drag on the balance sheets of these companies, which have seen precipitous declines in advertising and circulation revenues. They own big buildings and printing presses that cost a lot of money to heat and run. They have car fleets, highly-paid executives, advertising representatives, clerical staff, circulation and press room staff. All of them need to be paid, and the overhead, covered.

And, of course, since most of Canada’s big-city dailies are owned by publically-traded corporations, they have to turn a profit for shareholders. These are the operations that have been most affected over the last decade.

And while these same newspapers are seeing quite astonishing increases in digital advertising sales, it has not been nearly enough to make up for the losses in print revenue. So they’re finding themselves in an in-between and highly stressful phase, watching the dollars blow out the window while the pennies and nickels stack up at the door. Nobody knows how long it’s going to take before the relative pocket change from digital reaches the levels to make big newspapers as profitable as they once were. It may never happen.

In the meantime, reporter turnover among smaller papers, where the traditional newsprint product is still king, remains steady. There are more openings at smaller newspapers, more frequently, as new reporters tend to use these entry-level jobs as a stepping stone to something bigger. At most, they stay at these papers for a year, sometimes two, before moving on to a better-paying job at a bigger paper. Or they leave journalism completely and get into communications, often as assistants for local politicans or comms officers for companies or government.

Unfortunately, the mood reflected in the mainstream media is downright gloomy, because that’s what the people who write those stories are experiencing themselves. All around them, they see layoffs, editors wringing hands, advertising reps coming and going with regularity. Quarterly financial reports are about as welcome as skunks at a garden party.

One of those daily reporters, Adam McDowell, called me the other day. He was among the lucky few who’d landed a plum reporting job right out of a Toronto journalism school years ago, at the National Post. When the layoffs came, as the new kid on the block, he was one of the first to be laid off. Today, he’s a freelancer, and was interviewing me for a story he was writing for OpenFile, a start-up that publishes stories entirely online.

He wanted to know why there were still so many journalism schools out there churning out grads when the industry was in decline. Ah, a burned journalist, I thought, one of those the city dailyists who have proclaimed the sky was falling.

You can see the story at http://ottawa.openfile.ca/ottawa/text/are-journalism-schools-doing-their-students-disservice and my comments in it.

Read it, and you’ll see I’m not fan of doom and gloom, and the headline really didn’t reflect the reality of the story’s contents. But that’s urban journalism for you.

 

 

 

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