The thing about this job, I used to say, is that it’s 95 percent pain tolerance and five percent skillset. That was back in the late 2000s when my job was working the late-night breaking news shift in the Miami Herald‘s Broward County bureau. The office and the job no longer exist, but there’s no point in pretending that a reporter saying that a journalism job no longer exists is noteworthy.
At the time, I described my job as 95 percent pain tolerance and five percent skillset because much of my work was meeting people on the worst days of their lives and asking them to talk about it to me, a complete stranger, for publication in a newspaper read by thousands and on a website read around the world. I wrote about people killed by guns, people drowned in pools, and people dead in car crashes. I talked to grieving mother after grieving mother. Sometimes, a parent would ask me if the pain would ever go away. I told them it wouldn’t.
When I was assigned the night shift, my editors told me that I would do it for one year then be moved to days. One year turned into six, including two-and-a-half on the same gig in the Miami office. There were spurts when I was moved off the job, but they always ended a few weeks or a few months later with me being put back on nights because someone had to do it; and bringing in a new person wasn’t an option given the perpetual hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs; and I was good at it. Or at least that’s what management told me.
So I did it, then I did it some more, and then I got burned out and quit, another boring and average ending for a journalism story. I had hit my own personal pain tolerance, mostly due to the work but also because of the sheer amount of going-away cakes I ate, pay cuts I took, and retirement beers I attended. Lately I find myself turning over that time period again and again in my mind, as yet another economic collapse destroys yet another round of journalism jobs—many of which will be lost forever—and another round of pundits pontificate on what can be done to save local journalism. The economic collapse after 9/11 came during my first local newspaper job, working at the college paper. The Great Recession happened during my second newspaper job after college. And I long ago stopped counting the times I have been furloughed, given a pay cut, told to please not work for awhile, or nearly been laid off. My entire career has been marked by various stages of the journalism death dance.
When I first said it, 95 percent pain tolerance, five percent skillset meant the ability to hold space and have compassion for people in mourning, who were being asked to do so much when the world seemed at its worst, while still doing my job. But more recently, I find myself applying the formula to what’s left of local journalism itself. There’s only so much any human being can tolerate. At what point are reporters, and not just the night shifters, being asked to do too much? At what point is every reporter on the edge of all the pain they can take?
I read about journalism layoffs because that’s what journalists do. The New York Times estimates that 33,000 media jobs have been affected by layoffs, furloughs, or pay cuts since the COVID-19 crisis began. I check the layoff tracker on Poynter. I read story after story after story about how local news, where I started out, is dying. Everyone in every story or tweet proclaims they are very sad about the current state of local journalism and unsure of how to fix it beyond a pithy “subscribe to your local newspaper,” the journalism equivalent of “I’m sorry for your loss.” It sounds nice, but conveniently ignores the gruesome details of what’s actually going on.
Local journalism is disappearing right before our eyes. But you knew that. That’s been happening for decades now, with newspaper subscriptions plummeting for my entire life. There’s even a Wikipedia page titled “Decline of newspapers.” I know I should pivot next to an extended paragraph about how all this matters because who else will attend city council meetings and cover local elections and report on high school sports, all the building blocks of a typical local paper. But you know that too. And you know that local newspapers are, or at least for a long time were, where the vast majority of reporters actually learned how to do reporting (and that kid at the digital shop that seems pretty good was probably trained by an ex-newspaper person). Everyone knows what local journalism does and everyone agrees it is very important but so what? When I worked in local news, people were always telling me how “important” I was—and I hated hearing that because those words did not put any more money in my dwindling bank account. Prizes and pride are two things you cannot eat.
More than a decade ago, still working that night shift, I sat at my desk when I read Clay Shirky’s blog post Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. I have yet to see any piece of writing that so succinctly summed up what was happening to me, my colleagues, and our entire profession of local newspapers.
The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And, per Thompson, suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.
I have no doubt there will be a New York Times in the future. There will be a CNN. There will a Washington Post and a Los Angeles Times and an Atlantic and whoever else is fortunate enough to be owned by billionaire benefactors. Which isn’t to say those places have it made; they don’t. But nobody believes there will be a wholesale disappearance of national news. The White House Press Corps is not in danger.
But what about everyone else?
I can’t pretend to have an answer for how to pay for local journalism. I worked in it long enough to know that is a tough question to answer because the profit margins are not approximately a bazillion dollars and every community needs something different. If there were any easy answer that wasn’t “Gannett/Gatehouse owns nearly every newspaper in America,” people would have done it by now.
But what keeps me up at night is worrying about reporters, the physical human beings who do the work. On my good days, I feel like I could go on for hours about how much I loved working at newspapers in Florida. How much I learned from the old hands who had been in newsrooms since before I was born and the advice they gave me that I still turn to, more often than not. How much I learned from the other young reporters around me. The way I felt like a part of a long tradition, in a good way, that grounded me and gave me a sense of purpose and self. The way it felt during a crisis to be a lifeline for the community. I made lifelong friendships at local newspapers. I met my husband at one too.
But at some point, every human being hits the limit of what they can take. Lately, I’ve been remembering how hard it was to work in local news. Answering the newsroom phone and getting barraged with reader complaints about things I hadn’t done and couldn’t control. Going to the scene of a crime in a neighborhood that the paper had been ignoring and having no good explanation for why reporters only showed up when there was a homicide. Fumbling for words when someone asked why we hadn’t covered something, looking for the polite version of “we ran out of people.” Not just taking furloughs but once being told that I had to change how I picked my furlough dates because the way I was scheduling them was inconvenient for management.
Ken Doctor summed it up best back in January:
What’s the biggest problem in the news business? The collapse of ad revenue? Facebook? Dis- and misinformation? Aging print subscribers? Surprisingly, over the last year numerous publishers and CEOs have confided what troubles them most: talent. … Who wants to work in an industry on its deathbed? Especially in an already tight job market.
There will be some form of local journalism in the future. But will anyone be left who wants to do it?