I was the keynote speaker at the Midwest College Journalism Convention in Minneapolis this morning. It is a group a students and advisers passionate about journalism. At the same time, they wonder whether they will find work when they graduate. It was a pleasure and an honor to be asked to speak to this group and to get a chance to meet some of the students after my presentation.
Here are my remarks:
There is no getting around it. These are extremely difficult times for the news industry. I am not going to tell you anything different because you would roll your eyes and laugh. Maybe walk out of the room, realizing that this guy, president of the nation’s largest journalism organization or not, does not know what he is talking about.
So let’s get it out of the way. Yes, this is an extraordinarily, probably historically difficult time for the news business. Before you rush out and change your majors this afternoon, I’ll give you some reasons why shouldn’t do that.
But I would like to try to share with your some of the realities of where we are and where we might be going.
Things are very difficult for all businesses right now. It is not just the news media companies that are gasping for air. The automotive industry, the banking industry and even the coffee shop chains are taking a hit. Only four of the 30 leading companies on the stock exchange are performing well. The news business already was confronting the challenge of additional pressures from the Internet draining revenues. The recession that started in December of 2007 has been like a kick to the ribs. Key and reliable advertisers such as car dealers and real estate companies aren’t selling cars or houses and they aren’t buying ads. The national unemployment rate is approaching 8 percent. No one is buying employment ads, another constant lifeline for newspapers.
Newspapers, TV stations, radio stations and magazines are all struggling. Staff has been laid off. Papers are smaller. Things that people used to rely and count on to be part of a newspaper such as TV schedules, bridge columns, lifestyle sections and even Monday metro sections are gone; probably forever. It’s not just the professional papers that have been hit, either. Many college papers are changing how they do business, cutting staff and eliminating editions.
What is happening is affecting everyone. The downfall in the financial side of the news business has hit me in a number of ways. My paper, the St. Cloud Times, which has been the leading mid-sized daily in Minnesota the past five years, according to the Minnesota Newspaper Association, has had two rounds of layoffs. I’ve watched friends walk out the door for no reason other than the company could not afford to have them continue. I’ve lived with thoughts in the back of my mind that I, the president of SPJ, could be the next one to go. Just yesterday I took an unpaid day off, one of five that I and my co-workers throughout the corporation that owns our paper will take in the months of January February and March. It was that or more layoffs. Our pension plans have already been frozen. The stock, which is significant part of our 401K plans, has lost 70 percent of its value in the past year.
Friends have lost their jobs. A reporter friend who worked at WCCO radio in Minneapolis, the largest commercial news operation in the state, lost his job two days after returning from medical leave. My friends at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, one who is the state SPJ chapter president, voted to take one week unpaid. That or face more layoffs.
The Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy in January, asking a court to protect from its debts while it reorganizes. The paper has had layoffs, closed the St. Paul bureau and shrank its product.
The Chicago Tribune and the papers it owns are also in bankruptcy. People are counting the days until the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and Post Intelligencer in Seattle close the doors for good. The Detroit papers are cutting delivery back to three days a week.
A friend work works for a paper in Missouri learned in an e-mail from me that his company would no longer be providing a match in their retirement plan.
The down turn has hit my national SPJ colleagues. Last Friday, the man who was SPJ’s president just last year lost his job. In the past few months, the chairs of our awards committee and Legal Defense Fund lost their jobs. The vice chair of Legal Defense committee lost her job two. A member of the Public outreach committee, who had worked at his paper more than 20 years, lost his job. A former Wells Key winner, the highest honor an SPJ member can receive, and the organizer of one of our spring conferences, lost his job at a Montana TV station.
Membership in our organization has remained stable but is showing signs of taking a hit as more and more journalists lose their jobs.
It’s not a coincidence that I was asked to talk about this today. In the past six months that I have been SPJ president, it comes up often. It comes up in my public remarks, it come sup in my meetings, in my press interviews and I feel compelled to address it in my column in Quill, SPJ’s monthly magazine. It should come up often. It is important not to ignore the trying times news organizations confront. There are reason’s to carry optimism. There are reasons to carry hope.
There are signs that newspapers are not dead and that people are as hungry for news as ever. Cable networks celebrated record ratings during the 2008 presidential campaign. On Nov. 5, people waited in line for hours for copies of the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times, willing to sacrifice to preserve a piece of history chronicling the election of the nation’s 44th president and its first black president. Papers in New York, Washington and Chicago doubled and tripled press runs. Papers in other cities sold souvenir editions and press plates.
The public seems to grasp that it is important for them to receive credible, accurate and timely news. That the failure of newspapers, TV and radio stations is not in there best interest or in the best interest of a democracy that relies on an informed public to make decisions.
Each of us chose to pursue journalism for different reasons. We love to tell stories. We love to know information. We love to play that important role in democracy.
It’s not easy to fall back on those reasons, as budgets tighten, colleagues leave and coverage suffers.
Our role is too important for us to simply give up. And we have not. Freedom of the press is included in the First Amendment for a reason. The press plays a vital link between citizens and its democratically elected government.
We cannot lose our heart for journalism. We cannot lose our will. We cannot give up the desire to tell the truth, to tell compelling stories and to fill that vital role.
The problem confronting the news media is not an audience problem but a revenue problem. Thousands of people still read the paper, click online or tune into a nightly newscast or cable news program. More and more people are getting immediate news updates through their phones or hand-held devices. More people are using them to check out news Web sites.
The number of people visiting news sites in 2008 went up 12 percent from the previous year. Almost 20 million unique visitors went to the New York Times website. 11 million went to the USA Today and 10 million the Washington Post.
Those of you in this room, committing journalism at the college level, are the future of this business. I’m certain there will always be a need for journalists who do things the right way. The public will not tire of reporting that is accurate, fair, compelling and timely. I’m sure you heard about the tragic plane crass near Buffalo Feb. 13. How did you hear about? Some reporters from Buffalo left their homes after 10 p.m. and went to the scene and confirmed it, added details and context and stayed there through the night to give updates. Coverage of those events don’t just happen. It takes a reporter to go out and gather the information and turn it into a report.
For those of you teetering on whether to continue as a journalism major or wondering if they should see if they have an opening in the business department, don’t just be patient but be prepared. Don’t just expect the news business to be ready for you. You should be ready for it. Develop a broad list of skills that you can offer a potential employer. Today’s journalist does not just work for one medium. The newspaper reporter also does video and audio. The radio reporter does video and online and the TV reporter blogs and writes for online.
Make sure you have those skills when you leave college.
I know I have not provided the most uplifting of messages and frankly, those of you who graduate this spring it might take you a longer than normal to find work. Journalism is a passion and a calling and those of you who do the things necessary to stand out will do well. As for the news business, that’s going to be around too, not because we journalists want it or need it to be, because the country needs it to.