If you follow the world of traditional journalism, you can’t help but notice the seemingly constant stream of layoffs and buyouts at news organizations. But media observers don’t often emphasize the flip side: As newspapers and broadcasters slice their senior-level workforce, they are also quietly building their digital and online teams.
For example, when I heard about job cuts at the New York Times Co. last winter, I took a quick look at the company’s online job listings, and saw a healthy supply of digital jobs still up for grabs. And while Tribune Co. has been in the news for all its devastating cuts to the L.A. Times staff, there’s still a selection of 85 interactive job openings at the parent company, including a handful at the Times. Similarly, the MTV cable networks have had far-reaching cuts and reorganizations, yet there are dozens of digital job openings listed online.
The staffing situation at traditional media companies is much more fluid than the simple cut-and-slash horror stories that play well in the press. The dire layoff scenarios at major news organizations are not as dire in smaller rural communities, where local newspapers and TV stations still perform well, or overseas where competition, audiences and ownership structures are different than in the U.S.
Sites such as JournalismJobs.com and mediabistro.com are far from hurting when it comes to media job listings. Dan Rohn, a former reporter for the Washington Post who has run JournalismJobs.com since the late ’90s, says he is contacted by reporters doing the same stories on layoffs in the newspaper industry about every six or eight months. But the reality is that job openings are still plentiful — including print jobs at newspapers around the country.
“Right now we have 628 newspaper job openings in the U.S., from Alaska to Massachusetts to Florida to Indiana,” Rohn told me. “It’s in small towns, and I think that’s because they’re owned by families or small chains that are successful and not being hit as hard. The big compainies, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, they are publicly traded and it’s a whole different ballgame. The small papers are still serving a need in their communities.”
Rohn says that big public media companies in tech-savvy and affluent areas like Boston and Washington, DC, push more tenured employees toward retirement and buyouts to save money, the better to please Wall Street investors and analysts.
“You see the buyouts and that’s what gets the headlines, and then they hire digital folks because they’re trying to get the younger set, the technologically savvy journalist who doesn’t have the pay built up yet and has the skills of the next generation,” Rohn said.
mediabistro.com founder Laurel Touby recently sold her media job board and training service to Jupitermedia for $23 million, proving that media employment is still going strong. Touby told me the level of digital job openings she’s seeing on mediabistro.com equals what she experienced back when the site launched during the dot-com heyday in 1999. At the moment, there are 645 job listings under Online/New Media at mediabistro.com, more than in any other sector on the site.
“Most people sit there and bemoan the sorry state of traditional media companies and notice how positions are being cut,” Touby said. “But there’s another side of the trend. They might be cutting print jobs, but they’re also adding digital positions, and they’re having a hard time finding those people because — guess what? — no one has those skills.”
Touby was floored when a large magazine publisher came to her recently for help in hiring a whopping 400 new digital positions over the next year, a prospect she says will be difficult because of the lack of tech-savvy applicants.
Re-Training and Shifting Resources to Digital
While many traditional media companies believe they’ll save money by pushing out tenured staff in favor of tech-savvier newbies, Touby thinks that’s a wrong-headed notion. She said media companies are pushing out talented people who could easily have been re-trained, and that training new hires can be just as time-consuming and costly. mediabistro.com offers classes for journalists to get digital training, and the site is reaching out to media companies to help re-train people, but is facing resistance.
“It’s a hard sell because media companies have traditionally not invested in people, they don’t invest in management training programs, they don’t invest in any kind of training of people,” Touby said. “It’s a talent industry, so it’s like ‘if you’re not good enough when you get here, you’re out!’ You swim or die, and they don’t treat their people that well. They don’t invest in human capital.”
One source at a medium-sized chain newspaper, who wanted to remain anonymous because of his position, told me his paper simply didn’t re-hire print positions that were vacated over the past year, rather than do layoffs. The newspaper has pushed people to take unpaid sabbaticals, and plans to hire seven digital positions in the next year. The source said that the decision to re-train print people for digital jobs depends on the person.
“Re-training someone who isn’t interested doesn’t make sense,” the source said. “People have to be naturally curious about it, and most reporters are. Unfortunately [the people who get the re-training] end up being who’s been here the longest and who has the best political ties in the newsroom.”
Many newspaper newsrooms are giving print employees more digital duties, or shifting them outright to work on the web. Robb Montgomery, a new-media consultant for various newspapers who runs Visual Editors, says that he’s seeing more shifting going on than outright layoffs lately, including at his old employer, the Chicago Sun-Times.
“They are planning to move four people from their online operation down into the [print] newsroom this fall,” he said via email. “I don’t know that they have laid anyone off — but neither are they really hiring either. The same crew was there when I left two years ago. What seems to be happening is that some people are getting new jobs to support digital journalism initiatives. This shifting tactic is happening in other places, too. Just about all the Canadian newsroom folks I talk with have been doing this internal shifting as well.”
But with the layoffs, digital hiring, and shifting, are newsrooms getting bigger, contracting or staying the same size? At USA Today, executive editor Kinsey Wilson said the overall staff has “declined slightly” through attrition since the merger of the online and print divisions in December 2005. The biggest change has been in the duties of print people, who now do more filing for the web, more blogging and more combined print and web work on big stories.
“In real terms, reporting and editing resources that were once devoted exclusively to producing the paper have been shifted selectively to combined print and online production — while the dedicated online staff has remained constant,” Kinsey said via email. “We’ve experimented with different models in different parts of the newsroom. Our Tech and Travel staffs are completely integrated. In news, we rely on a real-time news desk to prepare stories for the web; and we’re planning to do the same in Sports. In our Life section, we’ve had tremendous success combining our print and online graphics efforts.”
While Kinsey wouldn’t speculate on how big (or small) the staff might get as digital gets more attention, he did say that there was “no question” that print and online editorial duties would continue to converge rapidly in the next couple years.
Scott Bosley, executive director of American Society of Newspaper Editors, says that his organization does a job census each year at daily newspapers in the U.S. If it wasn’t for the growth in online jobs and new free dailies, Bosley thinks job numbers would have shrunk; instead, they’ve remained steady. As for hiring trends in the future, that depends on how well newspaper companies come up with successful business plans online.
“There are a lot of tries and experiments going on, but there’s no clear answer yet,” Bosley said. “I believe that there will be a clear answer, I’m an optimist about it, and I believe there will end up being more people practicing journalism — not journalism as we know it, but journalism which is good journalism.”
On the TV side, newsrooms might well contract in headcount if audiences continue to move toward online video and digital consumption. That’s the take of Steve Safran, managing editor of the Lost Remote blog and senior vice president of Media 2.0 at television branding company, AR&D. Safran says reorganizations toward digital have happened at MTV, Discovery Networks and NBC, but not as much at the local TV level.
“Most stations still fail to invest adequately in their web strategy and prefer to focus most of their efforts on TV,” Safran said via email. “This is especially odd, since there is so much overlap. Local affiliates should be hiring people who can work on the web and TV…More people are losing their jobs in TV than are gaining web jobs in the traditional media. That’s not altogether bad — there are so many inefficiencies in TV production and that process was long overdue for a mucking out. The challenge will be whether the traditional media companies can invest in themselves where the growth is now undeniable — online.”
While various U.S. markets, such as San Francisco, Seattle and Boston, have heated competition among traditional media and Net-native companies for online ad dollars, the same doesn’t hold true on other continents. Martha Stone, director of the Shaping the Future of the Newspaper Project at the World Association of Newspapers said that North America is unique in the world by having print newspapers losing circulation and ad dollars — as well as the pressure of Wall Street for huge profit margins.
The dark predictions of newspapers dying that plague the American media are non-existent in many countries such as India and China, where print editions have had increased circulation and ad sales. Even in Europe, Stone says, the push toward digital consumption hasn’t hurt newspaper companies that have had a different mentality and ownership structure than those stateside.
“In Europe, not as many media companies are public, and the profit margins have never been as high in Europe as in the U.S.,” she said. “Gannett not long ago was making 30% profit margins and in Europe it’s more like 10%. In Europe, the government has a role and there are multiple owners [of media companies], plus the competition is not as great in Europe as it is in the U.S…We don’t see the same layoff situations in other places.”
However, Stone said there were some markets, particularly in the United Kingdom and Australia, where digital ad growth was booming and print ads were dropping off — though not as bad as in America. I interviewed Stone on the phone while she was in Oslo, Norway, where she pointed out that media giant Schibsted had laid off 90 people last year from its print operation at the newspaper Verdens Gang, while also hiring many digital people for its news site, VG Nett, the leading news site in Norway.
Stone said Schibsted was getting an eye-popping 50% profit margin for its online products. Poynter reported that Schibsted jettisoned ownership of TV stations in Norway in favor of launching online video sites, including a Norwegian competitor to YouTube called Snutter.no. Svenska Dagbladet, a Schibsted newspaper in Stockholm, Sweden, is actually hiring both print and digital people as its print circulation and online readership grows.
“The actual trend is that we try to mix our people more and more,” said Ola Henriksson, project manager and editor of Svenska Dagbladet’s website, SvD.se. “We have kind of a ‘superdesk’ serving both print and the web, but two different news organizations…I think the overall trend among big as well as small newspapers in this country is an increasing hiring of digital people. Some print jobs may be cut but most will be new hires for their digital editions.”
So with news organizations here and abroad wanting to hire more versatile, multi-platform journalists, how are journalism schools reacting? Paul Grabowicz, assistant dean and director of the new media program at the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California-Berkeley, said that so many students were taking the Intro to Multimedia Reporting elective that the school decided to make it a required course for everyone.
“This year we’re also going to have students in our core intro reporting class, which is required of all incoming students, do more multimedia and blogging,” Grabowicz said via email. “And many of our other courses are adding a digital component as well. So digital media increasingly is becoming embedded throughout our curriculum, rather than as a separate track. I think that trend will accelerate in the future, because it reflects the approach news organizations increasingly are taking, integrating multimedia into the newsroom rather than having a separate, stand-alone online operation.”
Rather than complain about the job cuts at media organizations, J-school graduates are actually finding themselves in plum positions if they have digital skills out of college.
“Students who are well versed in digital media often find themselves being placed in key positions in news organizations that are trying to ramp up their multimedia or online operations,” Grabowicz said. “So it’s not just that it’s becoming a requirement for a job; for many students it’s an opportunity to help lead a news organization in the transition to digital media. Which is pretty exciting.”
What do you think? Are digital job openings counterbalancing some of the job cuts at media organizations in the U.S.? How does the situation differ from place to place, including overseas? Share your thoughts or first-hand experiences in the comments below.
Photo of Steve Safran by Brittney Gilbert.
UPDATE: I’ve summed up some of the reactions to this article — including the swipe by Nicholas Carr — at a follow-up post on MediaShift titled The Difficulty of Putting a Number on Journalism Jobs. Carr’s general critique is that I didn’t have hard numbers showing the number of new digital hires of “reporters, editors and photographers.” But while he offers up some typical doom-and-gloom numbers, they are outdated, generalized and don’t actually gauge reporters, editors and photographers in newsrooms either.
That’s because those numbers aren’t being tallied by anyone outside of ASNE, who only this year started counting digital jobs in its census of daily newspapers in the U.S. So it’s hard to see any trends yet, and that’s only one media sector in one country. I’m much more curious about the state of journalism jobs all over the U.S., in print and broadcast and magazines, and overseas. If anyone has those types of numbers, please share in the comments.