The “flattening” of the American newspaper journalist
”] From an occupational career [and organizational structure]standpoint, the shifting tides of cultural production have altered the lives of thousands highly trained journalists employed by mid-sized and large daily newspapers – particularly those owned by corporate chains.
For much of their careers – certainly until the last 10 years or so – these professionals were accustomed to the decades-long establishment of what Peterson and Anand referred to as “vertically structured” organizations. Seniority had its privileges [in terms of pay, pensions, vacation time, often job titles and assignments] and experience was valued – often through the institutional knowledge that reporters, editors and photographers added to a quality product. At papers where unions were established, a transparent system of salaries was in place [at least for “top minimum” pay] and over time, union journalists earned more money than their non-union counterparts.
With most of these factors in place – along with management whose prime concern was the production of quality journalism – a certain “espirit de corps” could be found in many newsrooms. In some cities, it was not uncommon to see established, talented – and most of all trusted – journalists spent their much [if not all] of their career at the same newspaper.
All of this began to crumble during the 80s and 90s – picking up speed at the turn of the century – as corporate chains gobbled up newspapers and media organizations increasingly became horizontal in nature. Given the profit-driven pressures of any business, particularly those beholden to Wall Street, cost concerns not only began to supplant front office concerns about quality journalism – management itself came less from the newsroom ranks and more from finance or accounting.
Over time, newsroom life revolved not so much around the quality of journalism provided to audiences, but how cheaply and efficiently this could be done. Rather than spend money to investigate, write, and report stories of high public import, newspapers saved money by asking audiences – through focus groups and other research – what they preferred to read [as opposed to what they needed to read]. Travel budgets were cut. Circulation areas were trimmed. Eventually, jobs were eliminated or alternative measures [such as pay cuts, buyouts or furloughs] put into place.
Such measures were not a solely a function of cost. Another key enabler was media-related technology that became faster, cheaper, and required fewer people to operate. Such systems ranged from improved printing, layout, and image technology to the internet itself, which allowed instant dissemination of news without press runs, distribution trucks and delivery routes. While such advances gave news outlets unprecedented capabilities to gather and disseminate news, the same held true for their customers. Rather than rely on a single vehicle containing news designed to appeal to as many interests as possible, audiences could pick and choose which news they wanted to read – but who they wanted it from and when.
The result? More job cuts, pay cuts, buyouts and furloughs. For those who remain in newsrooms, the good news is that digital technologies allows them to exercise “functional flexibility” in many ways – in some cases applying images/video, text and audio to the same story. The bad news? The time demands of such multi-tasking rarely allow workers to excel at any aspect of their job – and such work is often of poorer quality if submitted by “citizen journalists” with little if any training.
The worst news [depending on one’s perspective] may be yet to come. As technologies continue to improve, the need for key operations at each paper is less critical. In some cases, increased functional flexibility results in reporting, copy editing, or the creation of display ads shifted to a central location in a large urban area. In other cases, they are “farmed out” to cost-effective facilities outside the city, state or in some cases – outside the country.
Could the day come when a “survivor reporter” – lighter in the wallet, but freed from the newsroom’s shackles to perform their reporting duties at home – loses work to a reporter in India covers a city council meeting via Skype for a fraction of the pay?
The question may sound ridiculous. But before you laugh, you might take a gander at some of these links:
— Bill W. Hornaday
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