Saturday, September 06, 2008

Journalism, red in tooth and claw ...

When it comes to building a financial foundation, few things are more important than the career you choose. How's mine working out?

June 2007: Mass layoffs decimate the magazine I work at. I stay employed, mainly by being the youngest and cheapest in my beat area, but the casualties include all the editors and writers who I took the job to work with.

Dec 2007: I take a new job.

July 2008: Mass layoffs decimate the magazine I work at.

Because most of my job duties were for another unit within the company, I dodged the bullet; I'm still employed. But many of my friends are not, and I'm once again reminded that journalism is an incredibly shaky career field. I keep seeing incredibly skilled, dedicated journalists who have put decades of service into a publication unceremoniously tossed out when they reach the higher echelons of seniority -- and salary.

The larger problem is that the whole field of journalism is facing a business-model crisis. Advertising revenue is plunging sharply, with newspapers taking the worst hit but pretty much every kind of news publication everywhere feeling the pain. Worse, this isn't a cyclical trend. Advertising revenue probably won't ever come back to the levels we previously enjoyed; there are too many other ways for marketers to reach audiences now. From a civic-discourse-and-communications perspective, this is a good thing. From the keeping-professional-journalists-employed angle, it's not exactly a win.

Even more problematically, I don't think any news organization anywhere has figured out how to solve the fundamental capitalist-system dilemma that good journalism is expensive, while superficial "content providing" is cheaper, and almost always gives you better gross margins. Putting reporters on the ground in Iraq is costly. Blogging Brangelina rumours is not. Guess which one is usually going to make more money for a publisher? (Yes, savvy publications have figured out how to do good journalism without losing money. But you can still make more money doing other things -- and investors are generally motivated to do whatever is going to give them the highest possible return.)

I'm incredibly lucky, as far as my career goes. While many of the publications I've written for have folded, I've never been laid off. I'm well-paid, especially for journalism. And unlike last time my magazine went blooey, when I immediately knew it was time to start looking for the exit, this time I have a job in a newsroom I love working with editors and reporters who do fantastic journalism. There are a very small number of news outlets I would actually want to work for right now, and I'm at one of them. That rocks.

But I'm also increasingly aware that no matter how much I love it, journalism may not be a career I can sustain for the 30 or 40 more years I expect to be working. I've been at this fulltime for 10 years, and I'm on staff job #4. I keep dodging bullets, but at some point, the luck runs out.