President Barack Obama won the White House by promising to change Washington. Now he will try to revolutionize a place that historically has rewarded convention over innovation.
Almost six months into Obama’s hope and change presidency, a part of Washington has already changed; recent news bureau closings mean fewer reporters covering this president. Fewer resident watchdogs nipping at the heels of power may have been the dream of every president who preceded Obama, but the electorate should sleep less soundly.
Today, news organizations’ operating budgets are being slashed and personnel axed to compensate for plunging profit margins. We know how we got here. Traditional newspaper readership is down; so are the ratings for the television networks’ nightly newscasts. Fewer eyes mean fewer ad dollars. Consumers prefer the immediacy, convenience and mobility of the Internet and cell phone alerts for information.
Erica Smith, a St. Louis-based journalist, is quantifying and mapping the nation’s journalism layoffs on her Paper Cuts Web site. The numbers for 2008 alone are daunting: nearly 16,000 jobs cut due to layoffs and buyouts. And the number of pins already piercing the 2009 map indicates another bad year. We’ve been down this road before.
In the 1980s, locally owned newspapers were gobbled up by large media conglomerates that restructured newsrooms and forced competing newspapers to merge or go out of business. TV network news, also under new corporate ownership, had to become money-makers. Technology allowed news to be produced by fewer, more adaptive and less specialized people. Some in the news business refused to expand their skill sets. Others had the skill sets but lacked experience and seniority. Both lost out when news bureaus closed (largely overseas, but some domestically). Sound familiar?
Parallels exist today. Studio production crews are getting smaller, forcing technicians to compete for a handful of jobs in a single market. Field reporters in top markets are now MoJos (mobile journalists), today’s term for one-man-bands. Newspaper reporters are being handed cameras and told to think visually. Reporters across platforms are reminded to blog early and often.
Susan Kirkwood’s job as a special projects producer for WMAR-TV in Baltimore was eliminated in the fall. She produced the 5 a.m. newscast before leaving the newsroom for a corporate communications job. She occasionally teaches journalism classes at nearby Towson University. She says that although managing a full-time job and teaching is tough, teaching opened up an alternative career and allowed her to tell it like it is to the students.
“I tell them how everything is so Web-centric now, and I stress the need for Web skills,” Kirkwood said. “I tell them how [producers are] required to post a certain number of stories to the Web every day. They always seem surprised to learn it’s not glamorous. I told them about working overnights, and they couldn’t believe that schedule existed.”
Kirkwood plans one day to get her Ph.D. and enter academia. Other producers may want to take note; many TV stations are eliminating their early-morning newscasts to save money.
Universities change course like aircraft carriers: slowly, methodically and never without a number of tugs. But college and university programs can improve with the addition of new media educators like Kirkwood who are fresh from the trenches. These faculty members could help invigorate stale curricula, spearhead a review of skills courses and contribute to academic research.
Sandy Banisky teaches an urban reporting class one floor below the Baltimore Sun’s newsroom, which has been hard-hit by layoffs and buyouts. She left the Sun after 19 years to become the first Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Banisky says her students still hope to have careers as traditional print reporters.
“Even I know, someone who has spent their life in print, these students need to think more broadly,” she said. “I want them to think in a more complex way about the various forms news reporting takes today.”
So, for the foreseeable future, news will be covered by fewer traditional journalists using multiple platforms under tight deadlines and tighter budgets. For those journalists forced to trade bylines for unemployment lines, anger and frustration are natural, immediate reactions. But, after the sting wears off, maybe these journalists will turn to academia to pass on the tenets of journalism to the next generation and help redefine the news industry of tomorrow. We’ve already seen what happens when the fourth estate is missing on the job.