News that Fox Sports Net is laying off all its web writers — including Tyler Mason, a respected Twins reporter who was a colleague of mine for a moment in Faribault back in 2010 — sent me down a path of Google searches that led to a recent Washington Post piece entitled, “Why the PR industry is sucking up Pulitzer winners.”
Now, it’s not exactly breaking news that we don’t live in a golden age of journalism jobs. But a local angle emerges from the Post story that indicates just how much the market for those gigs has slumped here in recent years.
The numbers show that from 2004 to last year, reporter jobs in Minnesota declined by upwards of 30 percent, putting the state in the category of those that have experienced the deepest cuts.
(Another article along the same lines appeared in the most recent Sunday Star Tribune — “One Twin Cities neighborhood paper closes, others fight to hang on.” Check out the comment section for some interesting perspective from the publisher of the Southwest Journal, a Minneapolis community paper I used to write for that continues to truck along despite the unfavorable media environment.)
The Post cites Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicating that outside of New York, D.C., and LA, 25 percent of the reporter jobs that existed ten years ago are now gone, or about 12,000 total. But the news isn’t all bad for those seeking employment in the communications field. Over that same timeframe, 20,000 new public relations jobs came into existence in cities outside the three aforementioned ones. PR work may not be as exciting or satisfying as journalism, but those jobs at least give reporters (and journalists in general) an opportunity to remain gainfully employed while in all likelihood making a better living than they did in their past profession.
There’s an interesting paradox here. Anecdotally, it seems people are hungrier for news media than ever. My social media feeds are filled everyday by friends sharing loads of content from an endless array of sites. But unlike the printed newspapers people consumed 30 years ago or even the TV news of today, online content isn’t a scarce commodity — you don’t need to have access to a printing press or satellite to generate, publish, and disseminate it. That, in turn, puts downward pressure on advertising rates, which reduces the revenue of media outlets and leads to stagnant or declining incomes, job cuts, and a bigger pool of unemployed journalists.
In the end, you can see why PR ends up being an attractive career option for accomplished reporters who decades ago might’ve stuck with journalism. There’s just more money to be made in other fields of work — and while life certainly shouldn’t be all about chasing greenbacks, at a certain point it’s nice to not repeatedly find yourself in a spot where you pay rent and have less than $20 left to your name until the next payday.
There’s a flipside to this coin. The advent of the social media age has made it possible for independent writers, reporters, and bloggers to reach large audiences outside of the traditional media outlet paradigm — Uni Watch and Romenesko immediately come to mind — and the ease of setting up advertising infrastructure on personal sites even makes it possible to make a buck along the way, assuming your content is compelling enough and published in sufficient quantities to drive significant traffic.
That path, of course, is much more daunting and difficult than the traditional route of getting paid a salary by a news outlet, but it at least represents a way for journalists to continue doing what they love, even if there are less jobs available from which they can make a living doing it these days.
In the end, perhaps the biggest losers are news consumers. After all, doing responsible, thorough reporting often requires full-time effort, but the jobs numbers indicate it’s increasingly a part-time pursuit.
So while social media and the fact most everyone totes around a smartphone these days means more incidents of police misconduct get filmed and posted online for the world to see and discuss, the decline of reporting as a viable profession suggests there’s less people around with the training needed to pull the right documents, with the access and time required to ask officials the tough questions and flesh out the story. That’s a societal loss that’ll continue to sting, at least until someone figures out the magic formula to monetize digital news to an extent where some of the reporters who have left for PR gigs can be lured back to the Fourth Estate.
— Image credit: niclas on Flickr