Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vision of future newsroom bleak

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
Imagine a newsroom, my friend said, where there are just a few editors, and maybe just a reporter and a photographer — you know, just in case something happens.

There would be few other full-time employees — someone to assign and edit stories as they come in, post them online, add photos, video, audio, links. Everybody else, he said, would be freelancers, people who write stories or shoot photos on a fee basis, or citizen journalists who aren’t paid a dime but are willing to write or take photos just to see their byline or photo credit in print or on a website.
No way, I said. A newspaper can’t run like that. You need professional reporters and photographers, people who know how to shoot video.
Why? he asked. Anyone can write. Anyone can shoot a picture or video — look at the Internet — there’s stuff like that all over already, and people look at it. Look at the poor quality of some of these videos that have gone viral. Do you think anybody cares about the quality? Besides, with the Internet, you don’t need the quality, high-definition photos you needed for the newspaper, because the computer screen displays the images better than you ever will see in print.
But what about quality? I asked. You still need to have journalists who know how to write while adhering to journalistic standards? You still need photographers who know how to frame and compose an image as opposed to someone else who might just point and shoot the camera.
Who really cares? he asked. Whether it’s a photo, a video or a story, it’s only up there where people will see it for a day or two — nobody cares about quality. You can see that on the Web already — in emails and in text messages.
Grammar’s not important anymore – heck, spelling isn’t that important anymore, he continued. … Journalistic standards are something only journalists care about.
It’s the information that’s important to people — they don’t care if it’s written well or spelled right or is reported fairly. Shoot, people already shop around for information that caters to their point of view, he went on.
Who would be willing to work under circumstances like that? I asked. I could never do that. I cannot imagine many would want to sell their work piecemeal rather than working as a full-time employee, a traditional reporter or news photographer being paid an hourly rate, I told him. Who would want to work that way? There’s no health benefits, no 401(k), no paid vacation — look at everything you give up when you’re not a full-time employee.
People already are willing. They’re called freelancers, he said. And news companies will like it because instead of paying one person $120 a day to write a couple of stories, they can use the same money and get four stories from freelancers — more if they can get some citizen journalists involved.
At that point, as I realized this cold logic was well-reasoned, I experienced a sinking feeling in my gut that never really left for more than two years. The vision he was sharing with me, which someone ostensibly had shared with him, was inconceivable to me then because it represented such a radical departure from the way I’ve worked my whole life.
Up to that point, I had searched for about a couple of years for something I could do, outside of Sun-Times Media, that paid well enough to support my family and made use of my skills as a copy editor and writer. To this day, as I sift through the job boards, I still struggle with questions like, “Can I redefine myself as this?” or “Do my qualifications align with that?”
Sometimes weeks go by where, judging by the lack of response to the resumes I’ve shipped out, the answer to both questions is an emphatic, “No!”
Today, I work three journalism jobs as a freelancer — something I never, ever had a desire to do. I have a consulting agreement that I expect will pick up soon as well. And I am grateful to have the work.
But I have never wanted, not since I was something like 12 years old, to own my own business and all the encumbrances that represents. I’ve seen the ugliness that can wreak on families and I want nothing to do with it.
Except that, for the moment, I have no choice. Bills must be paid and, more importantly, children must be fed, sheltered and clothed. And, for the moment, people are willing to pay me to do something at which I am talented.
So I do what I have to do to get by.
But lately, I keep coming back to that conversation I had a couple of years ago with that co-worker, as I consider the present and the future of a news media industry being torn asunder by a paradigm shift which may see the newspaper industry on the brink of a mass extinction.
Already, my hometown paper, which just 15 years ago had perhaps a dozen reporters and maybe again as many editors, is down to just three full-time reporters and one photographer. The handful of remaining editors no longer are devoted to The Courier-News, but out of the company’s economic necessity must divide their time editing for newspapers in towns whose streets are not familiar to them, whose elected officials are faceless names on a computer screen.
Perhaps that newsroom of the future we spoke of a couple of years ago is nearly here.
If so, maybe what I do now is the best I can hope for, under the circumstances: Divvying out my days among as many “bosses” as I can find to ensure there is enough cash coming in to keep my family sheltered and fed, to ensure the bills are paid. And let’s not forget the taxes: Independent contractors/freelancers like myself are responsible for paying their own taxes and Social Security.
If this is it, the future, more than likely I will grow to hate it — of that I am nearly certain. I am too inclined to work too hard — time means nothing to me when I sit down to write, edit or tweak a website. I sat down at noon today to edit until 5 and was surprised when I took a break at one point to learn it was 7 already.
That single-mindedness and dedication is something employers used to value. But it is the kind of thing that can poison the well at home. My career and my love for it has damaged that enough, perhaps to a point that already is beyond hope of healing.
Still, I remain grateful for many things — I am using the talents God gave me, both as a writer and as an editor, and I am doing this for people who are kind and appreciative of my work, and who say so regularly. That’s far more than the 20-something word sendoff I received in December.
Finally, I am working from my home, which has both advantages and disadvantages. I am available to my young daughters whenever they need Daddy — and likewise, they are always nearby when I need to step away for a few minutes and be utterly ridiculous, both for their amusement and for my own sanity. Conversely, it might prove to be too easy to give in to that kind of fun and neglect the work I need to do.
So I’ll continue doing what I am doing, and shipping out resumes, too, in hopes of landing a decent full-time job with decent pay. And I’ll hope that the newsroom of the future we discussed a couple of years ago will end up being only a temporary situation.
Time will tell.