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Home > Publications > Quill > Our profession is just changing, not dying.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Our profession is just changing, not dying.

This summer, as I was about to become president, the staff asked me to travel to St. Petersburg, Fla., in November to speak to SPJ’s Reporter’s Institute. “Sounds great, I will be there,” I said cheerfully. Then they told me the topic they would like me to address: the state of the industry. Oh.

It is difficult to be cheery and optimistic about the news business at this time, especially newspapers. We are all susceptible to the possibility of layoffs in our newsroom. I work for the Gannett-owned paper in St. Cloud, Minn. The corporation announced in October that 10 percent of the workforce had to go. My paper eliminated 12 positions during the summer. It was difficult watching one of my colleagues walk out the door. And it would be really difficult doing that again. Or I could be the one saying goodbye. I can empathize with all of those who are going through it.

Those who survive the reductions are left to cover the same community with fewer resources. The demands to produce a daily or weekly paper and continually update the Web site are there for all of us. It is legitimate to wonder whether the reduction in reporters, editors and support staff has hampered the ability to do the job and continue to place a high premium on solid reporting, accuracy and writing.

To say the state of the business is good right now would probably generate polite chuckles if not full-throated laughter. The news business continues to struggle with a bleak economy and an industry evolution that is seeing people’s advertising and news consumption habits shift at a pace that has us struggling to keep up.

And while turmoil surrounds the business operations at our workplaces, we the working journalists continue to do our jobs and do it well. We are covering our communities, our city councils, our schools boards, and national and local elections.

A Pew Research study released in July said this about American newspapers:

It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened, and investigative reporting remains highly valued.

That’s right, coverage of local issues is better, and investigative reporting, the cornerstone of our business, has “high value.”

I believe there is reason for hope. The fact is people’s demand for news is not going away. People are hungry for information about what is going on in their town, in their state, in their world. The need to get information from credible sources will always exist.

Newspaper circulation and network news viewership is sliding, yet millions of people are still watching the network news — and cable TV news is showing growth. Thousands of people are still buying newspapers, and thousands more are reading stories online or getting them sent to their phones. News sites are among the most trafficked Web sites in the country. CNN and The New York Times rank in the top 25. The most popular Web pages are search engines and social networking sites.

Despite the rough economic news and trends, there is some belief that things will settle and the reshaping and restructuring that has shaken our faith will pay dividends. The role journalists play in democracy is far too important to give up on it.

We chose journalism for a variety of reasons. We like to be in on the action. We like to tell stories, and we like to share with others what is going on and what we have learned. We know that we are the critical link between what is happening in government and the citizens who need that information to make sure it is operating correctly. That role will never change.

How we share that information, however, has changed. And it will likely continue to do so.

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