A sad look at the legions of older ex-journalists

Scene

An increasingly rare scene.

I don’t want to be too depressing on a Saturday morning, but maybe if you never worked in the newspaper business this story will only be interesting, rather than terribly sad.

It’s about how tens of thousands of older reporters, editors and photographers have been put out to pasture in recent years as the newspaper industry has withered with accelerating speed.

Most of the examples deal with people who worked at much bigger papers than we have here in Montana, but their stories sound awfully familiar.

One trend mentioned in the article is that women are being targeted disproportionately when it comes to layoffs. “One woman downsized from the Post,” the writer said, “told me that she ‘always got good reviews and often got raises’ in all of her years at the paper. Then, suddenly, her rankings were one and two. The day after a manager told her she was being let go, she won a journalism award.”

If that sounds familiar, you might be thinking of what happened to Sherry Devlin, who is suing the Missoulian and parent company Lee Enterprises for wrongful discharge.

Here’s the heart of the story:

The term “seismic shift” is overused, but it applies to what’s happened to American newspapers. In 2007, there were 55,000 full-time journalists at nearly 1,400 daily papers; in 2015, there were 32,900, according to a census by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. That doesn’t include the buyouts and layoffs last fall, like those at the Los Angeles Times,The Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Daily News, among others, and weeklies and magazines like National Geographic.

For most of the past century, journalists could rely on career stability. Newspapers were an intermediary between advertisers and the public; it was as if their presses printed money. The benefit of this near-monopoly was that newsrooms were heavily stocked with reporters and editors, most of them passionate about creating journalism that made a difference in their communities. It often meant union protection, lifetime employment and pensions. Papers like the Sacramento Bee bragged to new hires in the 1980s that even during the Great Depression, the paper had never laid off journalists.

All of that is now yesterday’s birdcage lining. The sprawling lattice of local newsrooms is shrinking — 105 newspapers closed in 2009 alone — whittled away by the rise of the Internet and decline of display ads, with the migration of classified advertising to Craigslist hitting particularly hard. Between 2000 and 2007, a thousand newspapers lost $5 billion to the free site, according to a 2013 study by Robert Seamans of New York University’s Stern School of Business and Feng Zhu of the Harvard Business School. Falling circulation numbers have also taken their toll.

 

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