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    The Difficulty of Putting a Number on Journalism Jobs

    by Mark Glaser
    August 26, 2007

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    My story on the shift of journalism jobs from traditional to new media has been causing a stir among media folks, who either see the same shift happening in front of them or think I’m being overly optimistic. Leading the charge against my story was author and blogger Nicholas Carr, who titled his critique, Mark Glaser’s dubious silver lining, and listed various statistics backing up the gloom-and-doom scenario for media companies.

    “When I saw Glaser’s headline, I assumed that he had some new data that would provide a counterweight to the mountain of depressing stats showing a steady draining of reporters, editors, and photographers from newsrooms across the country,” Carr wrote. “Alas, he doesn’t. All he offers is a string of cheery anecdotes, mainly about job listings, that add up to little.”

    While Carr links to various research reports counting layoffs at media companies, or gauging the entire workforce reduction at “Internet broadcasting and publishing,” he doesn’t point to anything showing the total gain of digital jobs or loss of traditional journalism jobs in newsrooms. When I started to work on this story, I was hoping to get those numbers, but no one — not the Newspaper Association of America, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Radio-Television News Directors Association — had those numbers.

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    The closest I found was the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), which does an annual census of newsroom jobs around the U.S. at daily newspapers. The problem is that they only started counting online and digital jobs in 2006. According to ASNE’s executive director, the growth in hiring for digital jobs and free dailies helped keep the employment number steady in the past year at newspaper newsrooms.

    Carr also points to the “State of the News Media” report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism — though it’s an older report from 2006. The most updated report for 2007 actually has a lengthy, nuanced analysis on hiring at newspapers, with lists of layoffs at major newspapers. But there’s also a section titled “Is the Sky Falling?” which points out some not so dubious silver linings for the newspaper industry:

    > Medium-sized and small papers are not experiencing the severe financial setbacks of the metros and are not cutting their staffs as deeply…

    > Cuts and threatened cuts get the notice, but stability is invisible. The co-author of this report on newspapers, Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, is given access to the paper-by-paper results on the condition that individual titles are not named. At the end of 2005 about as many papers with 250,000-plus circulation had increased staff size or held it equal since the end of 2001 as had experienced losses. In total, however, losses well outnumber gains.

    > The trims are being paired with development and increased staffing of online sites. Not even rough counts of online-dedicated news staff are available, and it is unclear whether the reports papers file for the ASNE census consistently include those positions. It is fair to say, though, that the increases in no way cancel the losses…

    > The industry still comfortably fields more than 50,000 full-time professionals. Losses for the decade are well under 10%.

    And further along in the report is this telling paragraph:

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    Unfortunately, there is a dearth of information on even such basic questions as how many full-time news professionals now work predominantly online. A fuller set of metrics paralleling print basics like staff, budget and newshole, is several years away. So is any measurement of combined news effort in print and online, though companies have been quick to add faster-growing online advertising revenue into their reports of financial results.

    Carr bases his thinking completely on surveys and studies that do not count the addition of digital jobs at traditional media companies in any meaningful way. He would like to paint me as “the optimist” while he retains the title of “realist” and doom-and-gloomer about the state of the news business. But I don’t think that’s quite right — even if it makes for a nice little blog spat. My story never stated that digital jobs were making up for traditional job cuts in newsrooms, or that newsrooms were growing in size because of digital hires. I simply asked people on the front lines — at journalism job boards, newsrooms, consultants, associations (and MediaShift readers) to tell me what they were seeing.

    What I heard was that yes, traditional media companies are still laying people off and they are not fun places to work at the moment. But the story is much more complicated, and isn’t all doom or all cheery. Newspapers, magazines and TV stations are hiring more people to work on their websites and shifting people in traditional roles to online ones or combined ones. The situation is not as dire at smaller publications in rural America, or overseas where audiences and ownership structures are different.

    “Media companies are all laying off journalists because of people spending more time online” is less accurate than “Some U.S. media companies in metro areas are laying off people because their audiences are spending more time online.”

    The Quality of Digital Jobs

    One of Carr’s other critiques was in the poor quality of the digital job openings at old-line media companies. He pointed out that the Tribune interactive jobs were for business, technology or internships, with no “reporters, editors or photographers.” Others chimed in with similar complaints. Tish Grier noted in the comments that some of the online media jobs she saw were asking for legacy and new media knowledge but not paying more than $30,000 per year, in some cases.

    MediaShift reader Josh Rogan noted that traditional media companies often assign web jobs to interns or people with little experience:

    Here in Australia, for instance, the vast majority of online journalism jobs are peformed by junior people — many just out of journalism school and some with only peripheral experience in a real media company. Many are not even journalists by training, the have migrated into these jobs from related areas. But they appeal to managers because they’re much cheaper to obtain than having to go out and hire working journalist. There are a few exceptions to this rule.

    I think it’s a valid argument. However, I also believe the traditional jobs of reporters, editors and photographers are changing. A person who used to do reporting by calling up some sources, rewriting a press release and filing it to a newsdesk for the print edition will likely be doing their job differently in the future. That person might write a blog, report stories, moderate a community of interested readers/participants, and edit the submissions of citizen journalists. Ditto for editors and photographers who will likely work with more part-time, freelance and citizen media contributors than full time staffers.

    And finally, many people have pointed out that the shrinking of traditional media newsrooms might be a natural evolution for media companies as they become less burdened with legacy infrastructure (newspaper delivery, broadcast vans) and more focused on digital delivery. If increased digital revenues aren’t going to make up for the loss in print and broadcast income, will it matter if the overall overhead will be less anyway? In other words, if a newspaper has to print and deliver less papers because of a shift in audience online, why shouldn’t they have a smaller staff?

    Simon Hinde, who blogs at Static Squid, wondered if the cutbacks at big metro newspapers in the U.S. were simply due to overstaffing in the first place:

    From a Brit perspective, it has long seemed that your biggest newspapers are — how to put this? — very generously staffed with journalists. How much of what is going on with print jobs simply a winnowing process that would have happened anyway, as a reaction to long-term overstaffing?

    One thing that rarely makes it into any story about job cuts is the growing number of freelance journalists, consultants, journalist/bloggers and other free agents who make up an important backbone of the media industry. Nicholas Carr himself has made a decent living as a freelancer and author, yet I doubt he’s counted in any ASNE or Department of Labor statistics for journalists.

    What I was hoping to do with the story was to dig up a larger truth about what is going on in the media industry. All I ever hear are the horror stories about layoffs and job cuts, and I rarely hear anything nuanced or optimistic. If the old-line media are going to evolve into the digital age, then it’s going to take more than doomsday scenarios. It’s going to take hard work and focus to figure out how to successfully compete (and collaborate) online with the Googles and Yahoos of the Net world — and cutting staff indefinitely isn’t a solution.

    What do you think? How much do you see traditional media companies contracting in the future and how will that affect the work they do? Are you an optimist or pessimist when it comes to traditional and digital media jobs? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Tagged: business journalism work
    • My cynical reaction:

      For every ten fact-gathers who are cut, that’s got to create a slot for at least one propagandist to replace them, another for an advertising person to sell the web eyeballs, a managing marketer, and an evangelist who has the job of saying how this is all emergent people-powered democracy.

      YAY!(?)

    • “For every ten fact-gatherers…”

      Well, there’s certainly nothing propagandist about this well-documented statement.

      The real cuts are not going to hit journalists. Although the landscape is certainly shifting, fact gatherers will always be necessary. The real hit is going to happen to the folks who operate the presses and deliver the printed product.

      Journalists are far too busy bemoaning the fact that the world changes (or else there would be no news) to stop and notice that there are folks who will factually become obsolete with the shift to online.

      My father ran a press. I work on a website. My daughter wants to be a paleontologist. So, maybe she’ll have the opportunity to dig up some of the newsroom dinosaurs who refuse to face the facts they are paid to gather.

    • mark, you remark: “All I ever hear are the horror stories about layoffs and job cuts, and I rarely hear anything nuanced or optimistic. If the old-line media are going to evolve into the digital age, then its going to take more than doomsday scenarios.”

      Okay… I agree, and I appreciate the call for optimism. But regarding working conditions and job opportunities for journalists, there just are not optimistic scenarios. The number of ethnic minorities in journalism is dropping, the number of women has been the same for more than 15 years (less than a third), there are more permanent fulltime jobs cut than new ones created.

      I would argue you need an effective support structure in order to be able to cultivate creative talent and an optimistic, “can do” work ethic. And that, as far as I can tell, seems to be lacking – generally speaking – across the media industry today.

    • great follow-up, Mark!

      and you’re right about the lack of data for certain kinds of jobs (online journalism in particular.)

      Right now, there’s tons of missing data on a whole host of web-related stuff (I’m thinking of the Freakanomics guys and full vs. partial feed.) We’ve got a long way to go to understand all of it, and not enough time to re-think the business models being affected by it.

    • Joe

      Subscribers and viewers are dropping off, and journalists are being laid off, because the internet has educated the news consumers as to how completely they are being lied to and manipulated by the media. The internet has also given news consumers a viable way around the constant stream of insulting lies. Even though reporters realize that the only thing they really have is their credibility, and even though they realize they have lost or will lose their jobs due to their constant liberal lies and distortions, they obviously would rather not be believed, and be unemployed, than change. It is a pleasure to watch them go.

    • ian

      We have found the new market for online journalism forces the issue of content creation onto the table of many organizations. As a company who creates custom content for print/online/2.0 the dissection of the marketplace is proving to be new but efficient. Some of our clients are entirely turned off by quality of UGC. Some find it a valuable part of their overall strategy, and others think UGC is the only way to go. In our experience managing all three avenues of content creation have their place and we are finding hiring more traditional writers, not less.

    • Yes, more interesting thoughts. It seems to me that in the UK at least, journalism is becoming more like the acting profession in that you have a relatively small number of well-rewarded people at the top and then a very long tail of people grubbing around to find what work they can. Like acting, journalism is a trade that people want to enter for reasons other than the financial, so they are prepared to put up with the lean times in the hope that they might get the big break, whether in the West End or Fleet Street (apologies for the London-centric references – US versions would be Broadway and….is there a US newspaper location that equates to Fleet St?).

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