The stark realities of 21st century journalism

There was a time when being a journalist was cool.  When it was honorable.  When you could introduce yourself as one at a gathering and people would think, “Gee, that’s a pretty important job…that guy/gal reports the news and watches our backs.”

These days when I see journalists out and about they have this blank stare of resignation and they are met by others with a look usually reserved for people who have lost a loved one.

The layoffs and severance packages keep lining up.  The folks left behind are overworked, underpaid and frankly being taken advantage of.

Contrary to popular belief, most reporters aren’t paid a great deal and because of the mistakes of bosses and managers who couldn’t see the future coming at them, they are now asked to do a lot more with a lot less.

When I worked in television about a million years ago, I was the reporter part of a reporter/videographer team and we did our traveling in a company car they were drove literally into the ground.  We drove in close to fires, into floods, through hurricanes, etc.

This week my travels took me to Washington, one of the top media markets in the country.  I already knew that in this market, as well as in many markets across the country, television reporters are now being asked to be “one-man bands,” meaning they are reporters who shoot and edit their own video.  It is hard work and asks you literally to do two highly-skilled jobs meant for two people at one time.  This is being done as a cost-cutting move and frankly takes a lot of the art out of both jobs because you just don’t have time for it.

In DC, one of my PR colleagues talked to an old reporter friend from WUSA-TV, the CBS affliate owned by Gannett, who told her that now not only was he a one-man band, but he was now driving the last company car to be bought by Gannett for his station.  In the future, all reporters will now be driving their own vehicles in the job. Gannett, trying to squeeze as much as it can because of the failure of the newspaper business, was crossing the line of no return.


For those either in or who used to be in the business, this is a major deal.   Now, I don’t know if they will be compensated for miles or insurance but the “news vehicle” or now lack there of is where most people in the newsroom that I know would draw the line.  To be expected to drive your personal car where most news cars go would simply be unacceptable.  There are many times where the vehicle and your life is at risk, and to ask this of reporters is incomprehensible to me.  I know this is likely a choice of having a job or not for many, but the line should be drawn somewhere.

As we wonder about the future of journalism, it is not the form or the delivery mechanism that should worry us.  What should worry us is how many future journalists will simply decide not to become one in the first place because of working conditions, bad pay, terrible hours and quality of support.

Newspapers, television news operations, radio news rooms may cease to exist not because no one reads, watches or listens, but because no one wants to become a reporter, writer, editor or producer in the first place.

Given what you are seeing and hearing right now…..would you?

Jon Newman

In 2002 Jon cofounded The Hodges Partnership and has helped to grow it into one of the country’s largest public relations firms (based on O’Dwyer’s annual rankings). Jon has taught communications as an adjunct professor at VCU, speaks regularly at conferences and meetings and blogs and tweets about public relations and marketing issues.

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