Future of newspapers impossible to predict, but it’s possible to be part of the solution

Newspapers are dying: True or false?

True if they don’t adapt to the digital world. Maybe still true even if they do.

What’s your answer?

To have a chance at survival, newspapers must stop thinking of themselves as a newspaper. Newspapers are (or at least should be) multi-platform newsgathering organizations. That’s a long and clunky title, so call yourself a newspaper if you want, but don’t think of yourself that way. This is old news, I know, but the truth is that most newspapers dabble in digital (especially mobile) and don’t jump and play in the deep end. They’d rather tread water in the shallow end where they can touch bottom once in a while and feel secure. This is where the analogy breaks down. That bottom won’t be there forever.

So what is the future of newspapers (multi-platform newsgathering organizations)? There are a few obvious things we could state, but overall we can’t know for sure. It’s not just the under-30 crowd that rarely buys a newspaper. The 45-and-overs are leaving it behind. At some point it will be completely counter-productive to print a newspaper.

As an educator I am always aware of the job market for aspiring journalists. A journalism degree prepares you for many jobs outside of a newsroom, but for those who want to work in one the news isn’t always great.

The American Society of News Editors released its annual newsroom census this week. The big number was net job losses of 3,800. The industry is down 50 percent in 2006. Some losses have been made up in digital-only newsrooms, but there is insufficient data to clearly measure that. Follow the link in the tweet below to see a full story on all the numbers.

The survey also indicates that large newspaper have increased employment by as much as 14 percent. Those numbers are a bit wobbly because of the amount of data, but it makes sense.

The big outfits are finding new revenue streams and stabilizing. Many are beginning to rebuild. Medium-sized papers, however, are the ones pulling down the overall numbers. These papers face unique challenges of trying to be bigger than they are and not wanting to look smaller than they are. They are the middle child. Medium-sized papers often have competitors bigger and smaller. They want to grow in digital but struggle to do so financially. And when a medium-sized paper gets someone good at digital there are higher-paying jobs ahead at the big papers.

Small papers are what they are. They don’t have the audience to make big money in digital, so they amble along and customers tend to stay with them more. And it’s hard to downsize a newsroom that probably only has just enough people to begin with. The link in the tweet below provides more details on the ASNE census/survey.

The re-invention of covering local news has made strides, but hindrances to growth are mostly generational. The older folks still see print and digital as competing factions in the newsroom. The youngsters see it more seamlessly. What must happen is that the older folks, like me, who are teaching the youngsters, must make every effort to be forward-thinking and forward-teaching. We must continually prepare them for digital so, first, they can find a job, and, second, they can be part of the solution for job growth in the multi-platform newspaper world.

As the faculty adviser for Cedars, I consistently talk about and push digital. But we need more. Most students who come to journalism do so because they like to write. That’s great, but teachers need to broaden that focus into other forms. All of it is storytelling, so selling them on that is the first step.

I don’t have the workforce that Steve Buttry has at LSU, but his vision and goals are like mine. With more students we could do more. Finding ways to get them excited about the possibilities is the goal.

So the future of newspapers and their descendants is really in our hands. People will go where the news is being produced. In an increasingly global world, we have to put local news where they are and make it relevant. And we have to instill that in students now. Local news can’t grown without it.

Freelance work should be part of your journalism career

My advice to any journalist, especially aspiring ones and young ones trying to distinguish themselves among the crowd of writers, is take on any freelance job you can get.

There are three key reasons to freelance.

1) It builds your network.

When I left a newspaper job at The Roanoke Times to pursue a teaching career at Cedarville University in 2009, I immediately contacted the Springfield News-Sun about helping with high school sports coverage. They had a need at the time, and I began covering high school football games. As that paper moved away from full-time writers and more toward freelance writers I got more and more work.

Then when the sports departments at Springfield, the Dayton Daily News and the papers in Hamilton and Middletown merged under a single section editor and high school sports editor my opportunities grew.  This summer I am covering a lot of Dayton Dragons minor-league baseball games for them. They assign all of the game coverage I do and some feature stories. My relationship has grown to the point that if I suggest a feature story they let me do it.

The relationship with the sports department has spread. I have done two news features, most recently one on a World War II veteran that was tied to this past Veterans Day. And now I am beginning work on my third monthly feature in a row for the Springfield B2B Magazine that the business editor oversees.

This relationship with Cox Media has allowed me to develop a working relationship with them that has helped some of our students work for their newspapers to gain practical experience through a practicum credit and internships.

I also write regular features about local people for a free publication that is distributed in Cedarville. I have gotten to know several people in town that I otherwise might not have ever met.

And someone at SBC Life, a publication for the Southern Baptist Convention, contacted me this spring for freelance work. I’ve now done two stories for them. This could lead to finding work with others and possibly opportunities for my students.

Even if you work full-time in media, take advantage of an opportunity if it comes your way. You never know where it might lead.

2) It expands your skills and knowledge.

Most of my life I have written about sports. But the other types of stories that I mentioned above have been educational. There were learning curves to overcome, especially on the business and SBC stories, but it was worth it.

It’s good to write about what you like, but don’t be afraid to take a story because you’ve never done one like that before. If you know how to write, interview and research, you will do fine. The first sports story I ever wrote as a college student was a soccer game. I didn’t know much about soccer then, and I still don’t. But I still cover soccer when I’m needed. And the first lacrosse game I ever watched was the first lacrosse game I covered.

3) It pays.

A little extra money now and then never hurts. God has provided me with a lot of freelance work. It’s not enough to make a living on (I couldn’t handle that much along with the full-time teaching job I already have), but it helps the family budget and allows us to be a little more generous.

So take on those freelance jobs. There are lots of no-pay to little-pay blogging jobs out there. If you need experience and clips, go for it. But once you gain some experience go for the paying jobs.

And don’t just Google “freelance writing jobs.” That doesn’t get you much in the way of good freelance jobs. I’ve had no success with it. Contact local media and ask them if they need help. Contact websites that publish content in your areas of interest. It only takes one person to say yes to get you going.

You can be a part of journalism’s future with hard work

What is the future of journalism?

Translation: Can I get a job with a journalism degree?

I hear this question all the time from prospective students and their parents. The answer is yes.

Momma used to say, “Life is what you make it.”

Translation: If you work hard and prepare yourself well, you will make it. If you depend on only classroom experiences, the easiest internships you can find and expect to be hired just because you have a degree, you won’t make it in journalism.

Don’t wait until you have the dream job to be a passionate employee. Be a passionate student, or you will always be looking for that job to be passionate about. There are dues to pay, and you must pay them with a passionate pursuit of the career God has called you to. If you are a Christian work as unto the Lord, and let the words of I Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:23 ring in your ears. Be ambitious.

This subject came to mind today when my friend and journalism colleague Kermit Rowe emailed a link to an editorial on Editor and Publisher’s website that offers advice to young journalists.

The editorial exposes some bad advice. Then it gives some good advice from others. It’s worth your time if you are a journalism major, a recent journalism graduate looking for a job or if you are considering journalism as your major.

The advice comes from journalists under 35. Read it, learn from it and apply it.

The business of news has a present and a future. Work hard in the present so you can be part of the future. The disruption of the past several years is creating new ground floors. It’s an exciting time to become a journalist.


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