With layoffs and outlet closures now commonplace, the fate of many journalists is unclear. Those determined to stay in the profession are working more than ever and learning new skills, according to the 2009 PRWeek/PR Newswire Media Survey.
Under the pressures of the recession and a changing media landscape that includes considerably less ad revenue, 50% of journalists are considering careers outside of journalism, according to the 2009 PRWeek/PR Newswire Media Survey. The survey polled 2,174 journalists across newspapers, magazines, online news sites, TV, radio, and blogs.
“I think [those statistics] probably strike at the uncertainty of being a journalist and... of being at the same desk in the next year,” says Sarah Skerik, VP of distribution services at PR Newswire.
The fact that half of their industry peers are considering switching careers came as little surprise to many journalists interviewed by PRWeek. Many reported varying levels of desperation, depending on their market sizes, media types, and ownership structures.
“I know several people who have changed careers or have considered changing their careers because they don't want to feel like rats on a sinking ship anymore,” says Doug Elfman, entertainment columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Twenty years ago, people got out of newspapers because they got burned out. Now they're getting out because the industry is such a mess.”
Over the past year, staff cuts at daily papers have gained the lion's share of headlines about the changing media world. One longtime newspaper reporter to lose his job is David Kronke, former TV critic and pop culture writer at the Los Angeles Daily News. After 20-plus years in the newspaper business and stints in LA and at the Dallas Times Herald, he saw his Daily News gig downsized in February, along with other entertainment beats.
“They just decided to ax the entertainment coverage, which would be like Detroit newspapers saying that they are no longer going to cover the automotive industry,” he says. “You would think that the newspaper was in such bad financial shape that they had to do something... It's tough to know what the newspaper is even going to be in six months or a year, or if it'll even be around.”
Kronke, of course, is not alone. Newspapers across the US, which traditionally had monopolistic holds on local and regional news and entertainment coverage, as well as being prominent platforms for local ads, are seeing print circulation and print advertising numbers consistently shrink.
Classified advertising, under attack for years by Craigslist and other services, is also dwindling. And once promising online ad revenues are yet to show publishers that they will replace their print counterparts. Layoffs, buyouts, and a recent round of print closures – including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Ann Arbor News – are the clearest barometer of the shifting media landscape.
“There is a whole news hole that has diminished,” says Skerik. “There is no question... that newspapers are using narrower formats, more graphics, and less editorial.”
Journalists across various media are more than aware of the economic situations facing their colleagues and competitors, and are anxious about their own futures.
“We hear about colleagues at other outlets and networks and the changes they are making, and we're wondering what, if any, changes are on the horizon for us,” says Al Johnson, planning editor at WJBK TV in Detroit. “Suddenly, there's a lot of apprehension.”
Unsurprisingly, traditional journalists are increasingly bearish about the future of their profession. The numbers of print journalists expecting a decline in their circulation and an increased focus on the Web at their outlet in the next three years is 62%, up from 55.8% last year, while the number expecting staff reductions is 42%, compared to 26.2% last year. In addition, 8% expect a shuttering of the print title and a future online-only existence, up from 2.9% last year.
Newspaper reporters are “scared to death,” adds David Poole, veteran NASCAR reporter at the Charlotte Observer.
“Everyone knows that news-papers are folding, jobs are being cut, and people are being laid off,” he says. “Most people I know are trying to find something that allows them to write information, deliver information, and they are looking at [the Internet] and saying, ‘Can we figure out a way to do this?'”
During tough times for media, questions inevitably arise about the so-called church/state divide between editorial and advertising. When asked about the relationship at their outlets, 50% of respondents say there is a clear line between editorial and advertising, while 33% note editorial coverage is slightly influenced by advertising, and 8% say it is heavily influenced. Asked about how that has changed over the past three years, 24% say editorial coverage has become much more influenced by advertising, while 61% note that advertising's relationship with editorial is the same.
Yet, journalists asked about the subject say their outlets' editorial coverage is not influenced by ads.
“I know lots of people in the business, working at small, medium, and large newspapers,” says Elfman. “Not one has complained that they have been shoehorned into a story that helps an advertiser. That would be really surprising.”
The compacting size of newsrooms is also impacting news-gathering operations, even beyond employee morale. Journalists are working harder for their publications, due both to smaller staff levels and a rising emphasis on online content. According to the survey, 70% of journalists say their workload is more this year compared to last; 25% are working “about the same,” and only 5% say they're working “much less” or “slightly less.”
The reason for the additional work is a combination of fewer colleagues and a greater online emphasis. Asked what has affected their jobs most in the past three years, 33% of journalists cite tightening budgets, 22% blame staff cuts and layoffs, and 20% note more responsibilities outside of their official duties.
“Journalists are being asked to do more now than they've ever been,” says Skerik. “The demands on their time are growing infinitely. It's not just the newspaper and the Web site anymore, but the blogs and the videos, and someone has to do the Twitter entries... [There are] more demands than ever.”
Elfman writes about five columns per week for his newspaper, creates weekly video projects, interviews with a local National Public Radio affiliate, and serves as a bar quizmaster for a newspaper promotion. He says that journalists' workload has steadily increased in recent years.
“I'm doing twice as much... as four years ago. I'm easily working two full-time jobs, and I'm fine with that,” he says. “If journalists were working this hard 20 years ago when I got into the business, they would be starting a Frankenstein's mob. Now we couldn't be happier just to be working, getting a paycheck, still having a community around us of other journalists, and feeling like we are still part of that family.”
Journalists are taking on additional work in the platform where publishers feel they have the best chance of recouping lost revenues: the Web. Among traditional media respondents, the online news section is the area outside of their regular duties to where most (68%) contribute. Significant numbers also contribute to blogs (36%) and videos (26%), while 13% contribute to podcasts.
Eva Chen, beauty director and blogger at Teen Vogue, says that periodicals are taking their staff members' talents to the Web, where consumers are looking for content between print issues.
“I do think that online has been a continuing push for magazines and for Teen Vogue, as well,” she says, adding that she and her colleagues produce numerous daily online-only items and blog posts. “The magazine comes and goes. To tide [readers] over [between issues], they go online.”
If the current string of newspaper and magazine closings continues, that practice at working online could come in handy.
Many print journalists say they are unsure of the future of their print products. According to the survey, 58% of print media respondents expect their outlet to publish a regular print product indefinitely, compared to 64% last year; 11% say one to three years, compared to 9% last year; and 9% expect it to remain for another four to five years, similar to last year.
Even TV outlets, long ahead of the curve in creating and producing video for consumer consumption, are emphasizing a selection of daily online content for viewers. Therefore, an expanded skill set, including a variety of online editing and production skills, is required for journalists in the broadcast field, notes Chandra Bill, anchor at WPTV in West Palm Beach, FL.
“The basic skills to be a good TV journalist remain the same: genuine curiosity, attention to detail, ethics, and the ability to communicate well, but some things have changed. If we were considered multitaskers before, now we must be mega-multitaskers,” she says via e-mail. “A good TV journalist is now a multimedia journalist. That's someone who can shoot and edit, as well as write and anchor. It's someone who knows how to research stories so he or she can post links to his or her Web story.”
Reporting gets social
Though the tools that journalists used in the past were often created specifically for members of the media industry, journalists are now more often reaching their audience with decidedly consumer-focused technologies. In fact, respondents indicated increased participation in social networking Web sites.
According to the survey, 77% of respondents have a social network profile, up from 54% last year. Of those who participate in social networking, 58% have profiles on Facebook, 51% on LinkedIn, and 28% and 22% are on MySpace and Twitter, respectively. Of those with a social networking presence, 25% publish content to those pages several times a week, while 13% do so several times a day.
Chen adds that although she keeps her Facebook profile restricted to her friends, readers have pinged her on the social networking Web site. Her magazine, she says, has a considerable presence on Facebook, MySpace, and other sites because research shows its readership spends a considerable amount of time there.
Eric Berger, science reporter at The Houston Chronicle and author of its SciGuy blog on Chron.com, says he finds Twitter useful for both connecting with sources and readers and finding story ideas.
“For the blog, the people I follow [on Twitter] are a steady stream of interesting tidbits about science, and it's also useful for identifying breaking news,” he says, citing a recent instance of monitoring news about astronauts on the International Space Station dodging space debris. “At first I thought, ‘What's the purpose of this?' But there are a lot of people out there doing serious things. There are a lot of science writers out there and a lot of scientists using it. So it's a really interesting way to get into people's minds. If you see something interesting, you can follow up with someone.”
PRN's Skerik adds that social media can serve as a testing ground for reporters to judge what stories grasp the public interest.
“There is the idea that a lot of story [concepts] come out of these networks, and people are talking and asking questions and solving problems on subject matter that they are really interested in,” she says. “If you're writing a story, there is probably no better way to vet your idea, or to get some sort of litmus test, than to get engaged with... or listen to a group.”
Journalists can also use social networking tools and other Web-based technologies to drive a considerable amount of traffic to their outlet's Web site. In a recent example, Tony Gonzalez, reporter at The (Waynesboro, VA) News Virginian, wrote a story about how glider training may have helped US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger land his commercial airplane in the Hudson River off New York in January. After a Sullenberger Facebook fan page linked to the story, it became one of the outlet's top online stories ever.
“I think we had about 14,000 hits come from that,” he says. “It was one of the top five stories we've ever had... [A reader] said the reporting was impressive enough and it was the kind that a niche audience would want to read.”
And as the Web has accelerated journalists' interaction with the pubic, reporters and editors are more often getting their feedback from online sources. When measuring the value of their work, 47% of reporters and editors cite links from other media sources and blogs as important, as opposed to 42% last year; a place on the most read or most e-mailed lists jumped from 38% to 43%; and comments from readers online increased slightly from 50% to 52%.
“The majority of my interaction with readers comes through comments on the blog,” adds Berger. “I try to interact with readers a bit and make it a give and take for both me and the readers. It does give me people's opinions or reactions to [stories], and the reaction is much more immediate.”
Of traditional media respondents, 43% are the author of a blog; 28% say it is for their traditional outlet, 16% blog as their own hobby; and 9% write a personal blog for the industry they cover.
Journalists are also using blogs for their own personal research. Asked what tools they use to generally acquire information about a company, 20% say they use blog searches, while 17% say they often employ company blogs. In the course of researching a story, 29% use general blogs, 25% use company blogs, and 24% use social networks. Yet, when asked how often blogs are part of research, 39% say always or sometimes, while 61% say rarely or never.
Bloggers' connection to traditional media is inevitable, yet there is an indication that they are seeking distance. Of bloggers who once worked for a traditional media outlet, 24% left because they wanted independence, 11% were laid off or feared layoffs, and 8% say that they no longer enjoyed their jobs. In addition, 63% of bloggers do not consider themselves journalists, and 68% do not expect their blogs to be acquired by a traditional media company.
Asked if they expect to work for a large traditional media company in the future, 58% of bloggers say they do not, 28% say they don't know, 9% say yes, and 5% say they already work for a large media company.
Anne-Marie Nichols, who writes for the blogs A Mama's Rant, My Readable Feast, and This Mama Cooks! On a Diet, says that she'd be “open to the possibility” of seeing her blog acquired, but doesn't anticipate working for a mainstream media publication.
The use of social networking Web sites, and the individualized pages they provide, is also helping journalists create their own brands, apart from the outlets they serve.
“A lot of us are fighting to be personalities, or at least recognizable figures, among the readership,” adds Elfman. “I think a lot of papers used to frown on that, but now they realize it's good for the newspaper and for the writer. We are now accountable and ingrained in the public, which is great.”
However, the self-branding of individual journalists is mixing with their personal lives, according to David Dudley, editor of Urbanite magazine in Baltimore. Although journalists use social networking sites as a way to communicate with their readership, those readers can also glean information about the journalists via the networking tools.
“I am seeing a blurring of the civilian and on-duty lives,” he says. “I'm not so sure if that's a good or a bad thing, but it is an amazing thing.”
Despite journalists' presence on social networks, they still prefer to interact with PR pros via more traditional methods. Unsurprisingly, e-mail is still the preferred method of reporters and editors, as 90% of journalists say they prefer the medium to receive unsolicited information about a company, and 80% say the platform is the best way for PR pros to reach them. Asked what the ideal PR pitch looks like, 62% of respondents reply “a personalized, concise e-mail” while 22% say a traditional press release. Only 3% say phone calls are the ideal pitching technique.
Nichols says PR pros approach her “all the time,” but she tends not to review or endorse items that don't fit the scope of her blog.
“[For PR pros], it's really about the companies approaching the bloggers who are the best fit,” she explains. “As a health and diet blogger, I don't think I'm going to be invited to visit the Oreo factory.”
Dudley adds that he conducts a high number of his correspondences via e-mail.
“When I was starting out, it was all faxes and telephone calls,” he says. “It's all on e-mail now, which on one hand is immensely useful, but on the other hand you do get overwhelmed with clutter.”
And it seems PR pros are expanding the ways in which they pitch. The survey finds that 31% of journalists have been pitched via a social network. Of those who responded that they had been, 62% say they've been pitched via Facebook, 42% by LinkedIn, 18% by Twitter, and 13% by another network.
“I'd be bugged if I got a pitch through Twitter,” says Berger.
Nichols adds that she often gets pitched via e-mails with many attachments and links, but rarely if at all via social networking technologies.
Unfortunately, journalists still give PR pros mixed grades for accuracy and relevance, as well as how often those pitches lead to stories. The survey finds that 45% of journalists say that zero to 25% of pitches are related to what they cover; 26% say that 26% to 50% are relevant; 17% note that 51% to 75% are relevant; and 8% say 76% to 100% are relevant.
Respondents also note that un-solicited pitches rarely lead to stories; 61% say that unwanted pitches lead to a story 1% to 20% of the time; 20% say it occurs 21% to 40% of the time; and a total of less than 10% say unsolicited pitches lead to stories more than 41% of the time.
Dave Raffo, a senior news director at the TechTarget IT media brand, says over the past year he's been pitched “about the same” as in the past and that about half of the pitches are relevant to his work.
“It's about half and half,” he says. “The people in tech PR focus primarily on the storage space and they know the types of stories we want. We also get a lot of e-mails where they send stuff to everyone. Half the time, it doesn't really interest me.”
Chen adds that she gets numerous e-mail pitches per day for items that are not applicable to her audience, including “Botox in a bottle” products and plastic surgery.
“It happens at least once an hour that an e-mail is blind-as-a-bat inaccurate,” she says.
PRN's Skerik notes that journalists have long complained about PR pros' accuracy.
“Journalists have always told [communications pros] to read what [they] write or listen to the show, be familiar with the subjects and topics that they cover, understand the newsroom, and have some base knowledge,” she says. “A longstanding complaint has been that people don't do that, and that pitches are irrelevant or right at deadline.”
Journalists also report a high reliance on online sources when re-searching topics and writing stories. According to the survey, 90% use company Web sites to gain information about it; 85% use Google/search engines; 20% employ blog searches; 17% read company blogs; and 13% use RSS feeds. And while 77% also say they routinely use conversations or e-mails from PR contacts, 38% look at opt-in press releases from commercial newswires, 31% use opt-in press releases from an organization's virtual press release, and 27% prefer Web sites of commercial newswire services.
“Without a doubt, the proliferation of online information and indexing... has obviously been impacting research,” says Skerik.
So with digital skills becoming more vital to reporters, the next generation of journalists, including those who hang on from this era, will depend on their online skills to keep them ahead of the curve, as well as possible budget or staff cuts.
While learning new media skills is extra work for traditional journalists in the short run, those with Web skills are better positioned to show their value to outlets and avoid being a part of cutbacks, adds Berger.
“I think that the adapters will find a way to thrive and survive,” he says. “The people holding on to the old ways will find that they have a much harder time surviving.”
The PRWeek/PR Newswire Survey was conducted by CA Walker. E-mail notification was sent to about 115,502 traditional journalists and 1,462 bloggers. A total of 2,174 respondents (2,091 traditional journalists and 83 bloggers) completed the survey online from January 15 through February 9, 2009.
The results are not weighted and are statistically tested at a confidence level of 90%. At this sample size, results are associated with a ±2.0 margin of error.
This article offers selected highlights only. More complete results – with raw data – are available to purchase for $150. Please contact Beth Krietsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where are they now?
A lot can change in a year. Here, PRWeek catches up with some of the journalists interviewed for last year's Media Survey to find out how the past 12 months have affected their careers.
Former editor, The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog.
On March 23, Hensley blogged farewell from the Journal Health Blog that he helped found two years before. He said via his Twitter account, linked to from the blog, that he'd been laid off on March 18.
Former staff writer and blogger, Los Angeles Daily News.
The former Out in Hollywood blogger was laid off by the Daily News the day after the Oscars in February. He immediately launched the Greg in Hollywood blog, which covers gay celebrities and entertainers.
Former columnist, Radar.
After Radar magazine was shuttered last fall and its Web site sold to American Media, Kaiser's Full Court Press commentary moved to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Former reporter and blogger, Talking Points Memo.
Keil now works for ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization, as a reporter. Among his most recent bylines are reports on banks giving back bailout money to the federal government.
Former columnist, The Huffington Post.
Sklar is listed as a contributor to The Daily Beast Web site. She also works with Abrams Research, the media strategy firm launched by former MSNBC anchor Dan Abrams.