Mar 7, 2012

News Journalism: Worst Career Move?

“I wanna buy you lunch”
is usually code speak for “I wanna pick your brain.” But there's a trade I'll pretty much take anytime, as it more often than not presents a chance to catch up with an old and (often) rarely seen pal. Thursday's yak-fest was just such a case, with my old school chum Mark at some bland Manhattan sandwich joint.

It seems that former BMOC and unofficial titleholder as the world's fastest beer shooter is a few months removed from watching his oldest daughter don the old cap & gown and strolling up to some college president in an upstate gymnasium to receive her undergrad degree in a field of study he mentioned but I don't recall. After the requisite “geez, we're getting old” kicked and subsided, we moved onto his more pressing matter, the primary reason for our midday rendezvous.

His dilemma: said daughter is now considering Journalism School, and asking dear old Dad for his guidance in making that final determination. Although not mentioned, I also sensed his being not only the guiding light but also the potential banker for such a venture — but I didn't press on that theory.

So what could I add to this exploratory, Mark asked? Surely my background on either the fringes or deep in the epicenter of the world of the news media industry – both old and new media varieties – would be of value in ascertaining the girl's (err - lady's) dream of starting out as the ace investigative reporter for some local daily and eventually moving on to being a renowned columnist for some prominent media brand. Worth that sandwich and lager tab, at least.

My advice was simple and right to the point: DO NOT, under any circumstance, aid and abet such a suicide mission, one that would only lead to years of poverty, frustration, disillusionment and quiet desperation for the kid. As for the big guy himself, years of guilt were an equally likely future as a direct result.

Overly dramatic on my part? No, not by any means

“The first job of the writer is to be interesting”
Henry James

“My job was to write stories that met the Lowest Common Denominator test”
A former reporter for an upstate NY daily paper

Mr James would not be a happy camper in today's typical local newsroom. His interesting writers might exist in certain quarters, but not there. In former times, back when local communities had a sense of identity and purpose, the local paper served as the network hub for the local citizenry. Through its pages, one was able to get a daily sense for the pulse of the city. Relevant news was interspersed with sage commentary and big-pic meanderings on the state of said city. The newspaper's staff members were well-respected and usually had a deep interest and understanding of the community, often based on the simple fact that most of them were natives. The publisher was a leading mover and shaker, managing the business as a local enterprise and as a trusted communal asset.

Those days are long gone. Industry consolidation has resulted in the dominance of chains or groups (their own preferred term). Locally owned papers are a rarity. Working personnel are hired nomads, pushed from one corporate outpost to another, from one strange town to the next. The concept of a “publisher” itself has disappeared — there is actually no one at any given location who fills that traditional role. The title still exists (as a charade), the person holding it is typically just someone from the sales department. A larger and larger percentage of the news is syndicated from outside sources, and most of that is of the 'lifestyle' variety with zero unique connectivity to the locality. Very few local papers even bother with quality local commentary any more.

So where does this leave a fledgling news journalist? Start with an assignment of covering the mundane city council meetings, zoning boards and police blotter and he or she is off to the races. 60+ hours a week at $22K per year should do it. With a little luck, that person might soon be asked to cover whatever can pass as local scandal, like a politician's son being arrested for DUI or another's alleged affair with a staffer. For that is what it's all about today; scandal and conflict. But that kind of work is the glass ceiling; there is no longer a plum column heading with his or her name on it, because they don't exist any longer. Or, an assignment to the paper's online portal is possible, where the requisite skillset is not in solid reporting, but in article search engine optimization.

The bottom line is that an English Comp degree from a community college will land a job at most daily and weekly newspapers in this country today. An advanced degree has no payback path within that environment. Simple supply and demand economics dictates such. Furthermore, there is no premium paid for any sort of subject matter expertise.

Now back to my buddy Mark in the restaurant. His head is hanging low after this reality check. But he now knows what he needs to do: tell his precious princess “no” to the J-School funding. The right move, for sure. She'll hate him for a bit, but somewhere down the road will thank him … immensely.

Hopefully she doesn't come up with some creative scheme to go do it without his aid.

In other Media/Journalism news....

Good Riddance, Andrew Breitbart

Alleged new media journalist Andrew Breitbart has left this earth. The right-wing tent pups act as if we just lost a Founding Father — literally! That's right; the neo fascist rag called the Washington Examiner ran a deadline this past week crying that “We Have Lost Our Samuel Adams.” Uh-huh. Memo to the Examiner: Sam was the brewer, you were maybe thinking of John? (or are we missing some clever joke here?)

For those not trapped in the mindless lunacy of the propaganda machine run by the modern day conservative and libertarian movements, Mr Breitbart's legacy is simple: he did nothing more than further degrade both the American political dialog as well as the profession of journalism itself. Truth was never the priority or the goal in Breitbart's world; outcomes were. His agenda was clearly staked, and his faux-journalistic endeavors from that point on existed to do nothing more than to serve that agenda.

His lesson: if one can't match a philosophical opponent on merits, merits are to be ignored and Plan B is unleashed. As examples, we are told that hacking a Twitter account to pry into a personal relationship is a valid strategy, given the outcome of destroying that person is met. Or the fact that a supposedly damning undercover video is found to be heavily edited is equally irrelevant for the same reasons. Or that taking a short clip from a public interview completely out of context, thereby leading an observer to believe that a point was being made that was totally the opposite of reality, is simply a tool of doing biz in the hardball world of new media. Well, all of that is just peachy.

The conservatives have their new martyr. He's probably a good one for them, give their “race to the bottom” mentality. Meanwhile, anyone with even a minimal concern for the proper (and disappearing) role of journalistic integrity and excellence in this nation has spent the last few days struggling to hold down the puke each time this cretin's name gets mentioned.

Of note: the Net's alt-reality (aka tinfoil) division is already alive with conspiracy theories on the cause of his death....yep: Obama took him out.

Local Media Wars

It's entertaining to witness the current pissing contest between the two competing papers in the city of Glens Falls: the daily Post Star and the weekly Chronicle.

It started when the Chronicle took its hometown neighbor to task for referring to itself as a “30,000 Circulation Daily” in a Help Wanted Ad it has placed for its own personnel need. The Chronicle made a big deal out of this, publicly pointing out that the P-S's actual number is a bit over 26K.

Two points here: first, big freaking deal. This was a Help Wanted ad, not a sales pitch to potential advertisers. Second, this is obviously an important distinction to the Chronicle because its own front page claims a circulation fig of 28K for itself. It seems like someone needs to be known as the bigger rooster in this 'burgh.

The Post Star answered nicely, with a counter of “but our 26K is verified.” Touche! The Chronicle's response was a wimpy “but we have lots of advertisers because it works.”

We'll play the role of referee in this scratch-off. Here is our ruling:

The Chronicle is full of shit.

It claims a “Circulation” of 28,000; and does so on the front page of each and every issue. This publication – not quite a full-fledged newspaper while not quite a shopper either – is available to all readers at no charge. It is a freebie. That's all fine. That being said, a paid copy is more valuable than a free copy (it's more likely to be both read and shared) to potential advertisers. Whether the ad rates for the two papers reflects this distinction, we do not know or care.

But, in the newspaper industry, the word “circulation” assumes PAID. If Chronicle management were to deny that, they are denying fact. Similarly, if they argue that their placing the word “free” above it in a different font color gets them off the hook, they are similarly mistaken. Their 28K papers are the number they print and then distribute to drop-off/pick-up locations throughout the region.

Their 28K figure is defined in the news publishing industry as DISTRIBUTION, not circulation. Therefore, they are the party that is mis-leading the public to the greater and more harmful respect here.

We hereby call on them to correct this inaccurate statement.



Anonymous said...

3rd worst, to Photographer and Musician.

Anonymous said...


Need proof?

Just come ask me.

Anonymous said...

My wife worked at a small paper for two years. It was the worst two years of her life. No money, no time off, crazy hours, no brains needed. I see where cheap newspaper chains are starting to import foreign kids to write local coverage, like as an internship. Get a year out of them for minimum wage and get stories that suffice for the new standards of quality.