About two years ago, publisher Ann O’Neal watched as the dot-coms siphoned off the best applicants with offers of stock options, telecommuting and other perks.
“It was a major opposition of mine because they were so well-funded,” said O’Neal, who runs The Dealmakers, a real estate trade publication in central New Jersey.
But six months ago, she started to see the pool of applicants grow as dot-com companies instituted lay-offs or went under. Former dot-comers and recent graduates are back to looking at more traditional media and are “more humble,” O’Neal said.
Industry-wide, there is a feeling that now may be a good time for those lucky enough to be hiring – but it couldn’t be a worse time for journalists seeking jobs.
“Right now, it’s as slow as I remember it in 18 years,” said Tim McGuire, editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “When I hear someone is being hired now, my eyebrows go up.”
In November 2000, newspaper editors began to see an advertising drop-off that “got profound” in January, McGuire said. As ad revenues declined, newspaper companies stopped hiring or instituted layoffs.
In March, Dow Jones began trimming its staff at the Wall Street Journal and other business units, eventually laying off about 200 employees and cutting at least 300 more by not filling jobs when people quit or retired, according to a memo from CEO Peter Kann. In the middle of June, Knight Ridder said it would cut 1,600 jobs; Tribune Co. said it would cut 1,400; and The New York Times Co. said it would eliminate 1,200. The majority of the positions eliminated were not in newspaper editorial departments, and some cuts were made through early retirements, but the effect was felt throughout the industry. Since March, more than 60 print, broadcast and interactive news organizations have implemented staff reductions through layoffs or buyouts, according to information compiled by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
As this issue went to press, Hubbard Broadcasting’s KSTP-TV had just cut its weekend morning newscasts, and its sister station KSTC-TV aired its last weekday morning and 6:30 p.m. newscasts Nov. 2. Both stations cover Minnesota’s Twin Cities. In addition, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., said it would cut 20 additional employees, including 14 in the newsroom, by Nov. 30.
McGuire said that, as the economy slowed, other industries stopped hiring. As a result, fewer companies bought help wanted ads, which is a large source of revenue for metropolitan dailies. The large metros, in turn, began to cut back on their hiring.
The job market was bad before the terrorist attacks, said Peter Bhatia, executive editor of the Oregonian and secretary of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and things aren’t looking any better. “Post Sept. 11, things seem to have gotten worse,” he said.
Consumers are being more cautious with their money, Bhatia added, which affects a variety of industries and, ultimately, news organizations’ advertising revenue. Across the West, “everybody’s got things tied down pretty tight,” he said.
In the East, the attacks have had a direct impact on the job market in some areas.
“I’ve had more people calling from New York City wanting jobs than you can imagine,” said O’Neal, who has found her central New Jersey location become suddenly more attractive to applicants.
Broadcasters who were dealing with a slump in advertising before the attacks have seen even greater reductions as companies cut back expenses. At the same time, overtime and news gathering costs have increased as broadcasters scrambled to cover the Pentagon, World Trade Center and anthrax attacks. All of this combined makes broadcasters’ financial situation “more difficult than usual,” said Wayne Lynch, vice president of news and programming at News Channel 8, the 24-hour cable news service covering Washington, D.C., northern Virginia and southern Maryland.
The conventional wisdom at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism was that graduates have to leave New York City to find their first jobs, said Melanie Huff, director of career services. But in the past several years, that has not been true. In fact, so many people wanted to hire Columbia graduates last year that in April 2000, the school scheduled a second job fair to accommodate all of the new media companies that wanted to recruit on campus.
“It was just a boom time,” Huff said, noting that in 2000 the number of students who walked out the door with a job was the highest it had been since the school began keeping records in 1995.
While Columbia’s graduates may have benefited from the school’s location, prior work experience or having master’s degrees, studies showed that undergraduates from around the nation also reaped the rewards of the roaring economy.
According to the 2000 Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates, 82.4 percent of the journalism and mass communication students who received their bachelor’s degrees in 2000 had at least one job offer when they left school. The survey was headed by Lee Becker, a professor at the University of Georgia and director of the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research there.
“This was the highest level since the measure was first included in the graduate survey in 1988,” Becker and his colleagues reported. They also noted that:
• The average number of job offers undergraduates received was 2.3, again the highest number since 1988.
• Nearly 90 percent of the journalism and mass communication students who received master’s degrees that year left school with at least one job offer.
• Two-thirds of journalism and mass communication graduates found jobs in the communications industry, the largest proportion recorded in the survey’s history.
• The median salary of students who received bachelor’s degrees in journalism and mass communication in 2000 was $27,000, up $2,000 from the previous year.
Overall, Becker and his colleagues reported, “The year 2000 graduates of journalism and mass communication programs entered a very dynamic job market in the months immediately after they left the university. Most of those who wanted jobs found them. Those who took jobs were well compensated in comparison with graduates in the years immediately before them.”
Then the economy began to slide.
“This year was dreadful,” Huff said. “It was a completely different scene.”
In the months leading up to Columbia’s job fair, she monitored news organizations’ announcements of layoffs and braced for cancellations from recruiters. “I could look at my phone and wait for it to ring,” Huff said.
Jennifer Wilford, assistant director of Career Services and Undergraduate Recruiting at The Missouri School of Journalism, said she saw the economic slowdown’s effect at her school’s job fair in October. This year, about 15 companies participated, a decrease of about 50 percent from last year.
Recruiting continues, but it has been scaled back across the nation and in all aspects of the newspaper industry, said Michelle Duke, the Newspaper Association of America’s manager of diversity outreach services. For news organizations, the bottom line is that they can now afford to be – perhaps have to be – more selective than they were even six months ago.
In the late 1990s, newspapers were flush with advertising dollars and were adding staff positions. Todd Pratt, editor of the 30,000-circulation, twice-weekly Bonita (Fla.) Banner, found himself bidding against several larger dailies for an applicant whose only experience was one good internship. He began flying people down in the middle of winter and tempting them with seafood dinners.
“You had to; they knew how desperate you were,” Pratt said.
Last month, however, he began looking for a reporter who will write for his weekly and its sister paper, the 50,000-circulation Naples Daily News. Given the current market, Pratt said he expects to get 50 to 60 applications and will hold out for someone with a year or two of experience at a smaller paper.
With anecdotes like this in mind, many college advisers are preparing prospective graduates for a changed job market. Both recruiters and career counselors are telling recent graduates to be more flexible, patient and persistent.
Job prospects for young journalists will brighten in the long term, said Joe Grimm, recruiting and development editor for The Detroit Free Press. With baby boomers retiring and a relatively low birth rate, the United States’ native labor pool is shrinking. And after Sept. 11, Grimm predicts the nation will probably increase restrictions on immigration, reducing the pool even more.
“So then the big question is: how do you get started?” Grimm said. He recommended young journalists be willing to relocate and be open to a wider range of job possibilities. “Are you going to be a business reporter, rather than a features writer?”
At the approximately 75,000-circulation Bakersfield Californian, assistant managing editor Lois Henry said she’s noticed that applicants are now a bit more open-minded about their beat assignments. She’s received 30 to 40 applications for an education reporter, which is to be expected, she said. But she also received about eight “really strong” applications to cover the newspaper’s oil beat, which historically has been difficult to fill.
Another common recommendation is for young journalists to seek jobs at smaller newspapers to gain experience while waiting for the larger dailies to rebound. If there is a recovery, McGuire said, it might be seen first at smaller and mid-sized papers because “they are not held hostage by recruitment ads.”
Reginald Stuart, corporate recruiter for Knight Ridder, said new graduates may want to consider moving home to cut costs. Then prospective journalists can free-lance or work part-time for newspapers in the area so they continue to gain experience and gather clips while they engage in what could be a long job search.
“When the baseball season ends, players don’t stop exercising or practicing,” Stuart said. Graduates also might take research or editorial assistant positions to get a foot in the door. “This is not the time to be picky,” he said.
In broadcasting, new graduates should look for work as writers or production assistants, Lynch said. Recent graduates with more experience might find work as producers on assignment desks in smaller markets.
“So many college students want to be on-air reporters,” Lynch said. “They should abandon that, temporarily.”
Another option may be extended internships.
At the 75,000-circulation Bucks County Courier Times, executive editor Patricia Walker recently began interviewing candidates for two internships. At any given time, the newspaper has four reporting interns and two copy editing interns who work for the company for up to two years. The suburban Philadelphia newspaper, which normally requires three to five years of experience for staff reporters, created the internships because editors realized applicants can’t get experience if no one will give them a job, Walker said.
While the Courier Times makes no guarantee of permanent employment, “the last six months of the program, I actively participate in helping the person find a job,” Walker said.
Today’s applicants also have to be more realistic about their working conditions and salary expectations than they may have been in recent years.
As companies competed for journalists in the late 1990s, they also raised applicants’ expectations about their work conditions and the flexibility of their hours. More than 50 percent of her applicants express an interest in telecommuting, said O’Neal, whose recent job ads have explicitly ruled that out as an option.
And after a small dip during the hard years of the early 1990s, salaries increased steadily during the past decade, according to the Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates. In 2000, journalists starting work with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $27,000, while those with master’s degrees earned $31,300. Even adjusting for inflation, recent graduates were ahead, with a real gain of about $2,600 from 1986 for those with bachelor’s degrees. Salaries for master’s degree recipients vary from year to year, depending on their prior work experience and making comparisons unreliable, the study reported.
Most of the salary gains for new graduates – and those further along in their careers – can be attributed to movement in the field as companies try to lure and retain workers, McGuire said.
“It’s all about supply and demand,” he said. “As demand softens, I don’t see any big increases.”
Much of the advice for finding a job is not new, said Marcia Debnam, placement director for the Indiana University School of Journalism. Most of her students were not walking out the door with a job – even in the boom times. The school never sent a lot of its graduates to new media companies, and in traditional media “jobs occur on an as-needed basis,” Debnam said. When editors get two weeks notice from a reporter, they need applicants who can start right away, not students who have a month or two to go until graduation, she said.
Debnam tells IU graduates to keep their job search in perspective: “Even in the best of times, jobs are very competitive.”
The good news, she said, is that most journalism graduates who are patient and persistent do get jobs. Each fall, Debnam surveys IU’s spring graduates. Usually, about 45 percent respond. This year, as in previous years, about two-thirds said they found the job they wanted. Another third said they got a job close to what they wanted. Every year, Debnam said, six to a dozen graduates express dissatisfaction.
Other career counselors also said their students were eventually finding jobs. The difference this year, Huff said, was “they’re taking longer to get them, and they’re having to hustle.”
If he were an applicant who wanted to work in Florida today, Pratt said, he would take some vacation time and drive the state, calling on editors at his five or six best prospects. The job market at the millennium was good, he said, but “I’m not so sure we’re going to see a mountain that high again in the next couple of decades.”
Nationwide, Duke said, newspapers must continue with recruitment efforts – even if they have no immediate openings.
“Once the economic downturn has changed, we are going to have to have a talented pool to hire from,” she said.
If all recruiting efforts stop, editors risk losing a generation of journalists, Duke said, noting that the risk is particularly acute with minority journalists. The most recent ASNE study on minorities in the newsroom found that the percentage declined from 11.85 percent to 11.64 percent in the past year, primarily because the retention rate for minority journalists was poor. In addition, the Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates found that, even in 2000, the employment rate for minority graduates continued to decline from its high of about 78 percent in 1998.
Of course, not all applicants attract the same interest from recruiters.
“I pay more attention in areas where talent is hard to find,” said Grimm, who noted that The Detroit Free Press recently hired a 20-year-old Web designer he had been tracking since high school.
Other specialties that recruiters and career counselors said remain in demand are business reporters and copy editors. But even in those areas, recruiting is not what it once was. Rich Holden, executive director of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Inc., said his program placed 138 copy editing interns at more than 100 newspapers this year. Next year, he expects the number of participating newspapers to drop by 10 percent to 15 percent, although the number of applications seems to have remained stable.
“It’s either they’ve lost advertising or they’re trying to develop a higher profit margin,” Holden said of the cuts. But both he and corporate recruiters said the decline in advertising is the most likely culprit.
Everyone foresaw the slowing of the economy, Knight Ridder’s Stuart said, but most thought it would be temporary. No one anticipated the freefall that resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs in a few months and what now looks like a long recession.
“The job market has changed in ways hardly any of us would have imagined at the start of the year 2000,” Stuart said.
Michelle Johnson is an assistant city editor at Greenwich Time in Greenwich, Conn. A former journalism professor, she holds a doctorate in communications from the University of Washington. Greenwich Time is a Tribune Co. newspaper.