Note: Since publication, I have corrected a couple of typos.
You saw the news today: Postmedia has chopped at least two dozen jobs, killed some of its newspapers’ Sunday edition, temporarily suspended Monday publication of The National Post and stopped printing on most holidays.
You may have noticed, in the coverage, the reasons: the company’s last quarterly financial report contained an operating loss of $11 million, and Postmedia is carrying a debt more than $510 million. Revenue from ads and circulation is still falling, partly because of a slow-growing economy but mostly because of long-term trends.
What you may not have noticed is that last week, there was – every single day, from Monday to Friday – news of layoffs and cancelled print editions from newspapers in the U.S. and Britain. So, we are into our sixth straight business day of bad news for newspapers.
I don’t want you to think, though, that we’re seeing the death of newspapers or of journalism itself.
Newspapers are, indeed, changing and changing rapidly. They are becoming smaller (in pages and staff) and more locally focussed. They are putting increasing burdens on reporting staff: Your copy better be good and it better be clean, because it will be read by fewer editors. You better bring more to the office than the ability to report and write. If you’re not engaged with audience through social media, you had better get there and get there quickly.
As for journalism, in the 40 years I’ve spent working in and teaching about journalism, I’ve never seen it better. The explosion in different forms of storytelling, whether it’s data journalism, newspaper video or the seeming resurgence in long-form, has created a deep well that we can all draw from wherever we happen to be.
The whole thing is messy right now, though. No one knows exactly what’s going on or where this is all going to wind up. There’s a tendency to reduce it all to simplicities — if only people would pay; if only Google/HuffingtonPost/whatever would go away; if only…. Unfortunately, for you students, this all will stay messy for a while. Perhaps a long while.
But, you also may have noticed last week there were a few journalism job openings advertised at newspapers in the Lower Mainland, in the Interior and on Vancouver Island. Newspapers are still hiring, although not in the numbers they once were, and the competition for those jobs is stiff.
And I look back at the last couple of graduating classes and see that some of those students are working as journalists and others are active freelancers. We’ve even had students working as journalists — paid journalists — while they completed their degrees.
There’s no need to give up on journalism, or even newspapers, quite yet.
But all of this does have implications for you over the next two, three or four years.
I believe that the people who are going to be hired to do journalism, and who are going to build the successful freelance careers, are those who do it best. Fewer editors mean there will be a great demand for journalists who report solidly and write well and cleanly. Fewer bodies in the newsroom mean there will be a great demand for journalists with skills in all the varieties of storytelling and, conversely, for those who have deeply mastered such in-demand skills as data journalism (although more on that in a minute).
The continual conversion of the newspaper industry from print to digital, means there will be a great demand for journalists who bring with them knowledge of, and skill at, integrating social media into their work, and engaging directly and well with “audience.” And the rapidly changing nature of the beast, means there will always be a demand for journalists who are highly skilled today and who make a commitment to continually learning the skills they need to be highly skilled next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
If I were a journalism student, my bucket list would be something like this:
• absorb the fundamental skills of journalism — the reporting, the verification, the writing — and become not just adept at them all, but become the best I can possibly be.
• learn all of the storytelling modes and methods that I could, and practice hard and often to develop and hone the skills to use them.
• continue to learn not only in the classroom, but outside of it, taking advantage of the seemingly endless list of tutorials, webinars, online courses and workshops.
• practice these skills relentlessly, not just in response to an assignment, and seek feedback and guidance for all of my work, not just that which is assigned.
• press my instructors to teach me more, teach me more deeply, help drive my progress toward becoming one of those who does it best.
Here’s the thing: good people, people who can do the job well, will always have a future in journalism. They may not have the same type of career I had or work for the type of newspapers that I did, but they will do journalism.
Watch the news from the industry. Share in the laments over the downfalls and the exultations for the successes. Stay informed about what’s happening and what smart people are saying they think it means. Watch the developments.
Above all, be good.
Note: Right now, there are a lot of people who’ll tell you data journalism and journalism-related programming is the place to be. They’re right, of course. But five years ago, people would have told you the place to be was in multimedia journalism, 10 years ago that it was in web journalism and 15 years ago that it was in narrative journalism. And they were all right.
Times change. Newspapers (as we are seeing) change. Demands change. Which means two things, I think.
1. You need to stay as current as possible in understanding where the jobs are and what skills are being prized now and in the foreseeable future. (Four years or five from now, I suspect, there are going more computer science-journalism grads than there are jobs for them.)
2. You can protect yourself against those changes, by studying not only deeply, but widely, and in loading up your skills toolbox with as much as it can hold.
Oh, and did I mention that you can protect yourself by be being good.