When the assistant managing editor trundled over to summon me to my “involuntary separation” from the Denver Post, I was working on an exclusive column about the Crips and Bloods’ turf war at the city’s supposedly family-friendly “Jazz in the Park” series. The timing came to symbolize for me what has happened to the news business. My scoop didn’t matter. Neither did the ten writing awards I won in four years and three months as a metro columnist with the Post. The late nights and occasional weekends I put in, the blog I maintained in deference to the burgeoning online audience—none of it counted.
I had a decent-sized salary and no union protection. Post owner Dean Singleton had bought a bunch of newspapers on credit and needed to shed payroll to get his financing. Circulation and ad revenue was declining. In the newspaper industry’s ongoing struggle to cut costs, I qualified as low-hanging fruit. So, in an office of the Post’s new $85 million building, editor Greg Moore took thirty seconds to pluck me from a branch that had sustained me for thirty years.
My sacking became news on Romenesko. Denver’s alternative weekly, Westword, covered it, too. I meant to die at my desk. Instead, I became a pathetic curiosity.
Today, more than a year later, I feel like an exile. I still want journalism. Journalism just doesn’t seem to want me—at least not enough to pay me a livable wage with benefits and job security. That pretty much sums up the state of the industry.
I have learned a lot in the past year. I have learned that exemplary work at the Virginian-Pilot, the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, and the Denver Post carries little weight where profit margins rule. I have learned that friends at other papers—even those with executive titles—are powerless to help me, because of the state of the industry. I have learned that being a columnist apparently keeps me from being hired as a reporter or feature writer, even though I was both before I took up commentary. I have learned that a six-month temporary assignment running a newsroom of sixty-three reporters and editors does not count as management experience.
I finished in the top three for a job as editorial page editor of a large Midwestern paper. Coming close helped my ego, not my bank account. Another editorial page editor told me he couldn’t hire me because I was “too liberal” and my voice was “too strong.” A third editorial page editor invited me to interview, but his paper was for sale, and when I asked the human resources person about my post-sale job security, she answered honestly that her job might not even exist. If you look up the Daily Press—owned by the Tribune Company—on Wikipedia, it says, in part, “Between 1988 and 2003, award-winning metro columnist Jim Spencer was the paper’s most prominent voice.” What it doesn’t say is that, amid Sam Zell’s current personnel pogrom at Tribune Company, I can never have my old job back.
Over and over I hear the civil language of rejection. I am not “a good fit.”
After the Denver Post laid me off, two friends built me a Web site, SpencerSpeaks.com. The Web site incorporated blogging software for readers to converse with each other about the columns I posted. I learned enough HTML to place copy, photos, slideshows, and podcasts of my radio appearances on the site. I parlayed the Web site and my reputation from the Post into an offer from a young ex-newspaper journalist, named Jake Harkins, to write a monthly column for $450 a month for the Yellow Scene magazine, a 67,000-circulation glossy give-away circulating in Denver’s north suburbs. I also negotiated a $3,000-per-month stipend from David Bennahum’s Center for Independent Media, a nascent national chain of online publications with a “progressive perspective.” I co-published my SpencerSpeaks columns on David’s Colorado Confidential Web site, which is now called the Colorado Indpendent. At $3,000 a month I earned twice as much as my co-workers in the online future of journalism.
The nonprofit model for funding media sounds alluring. In fact, it struggles as much or more than for-profit companies to pay its employees and its bills. Foundation-based journalism may not come with subject-matter expectations, but other forms of nonprofit funding do. Nonprofits on the left and the right support Web sites that have preselected their points of view. These funders don’t have to dictate what gets covered or how it gets covered, but they get the results they want. If this is the future of journalism, then the future lies in advocacy reporting fed in bite-size morsels to true believers.
ProPublica, the investigative reporting service started by former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger and financed by donations steps far in the right direction. But with a staff of only twenty-seven, ProPublica will never fill the need for quality reporting and writing left by the demise of local coverage.
The Politico, an online publication underwritten by Albritton Communications, seems like another good model for the “new journalism.” It compensates its employees fairly and produces quality results. But The Politico has yet to have to pay its own way.
Meanwhile, too much of online journalism values presentation over product. Philip Anschutz’s new chain of online publications, Examiner.com, advertises $100,000-a-year jobs with benefits for those who can build and maintain “content channels.” It pays the “national examiners”—the journalists whose reporting and writing fills the sites—based on the hits their stories generate. Editors who supervise those national examiners make a middling salary. However, when I inquired about such a job, I was told the editors don’t get benefits such as health insurance because the business is considered “a start-up.”
Journalism should be more than a spiffy, interactive forum from which to vent. Interviews with newsmakers and their constituents, and access to documents and other primary sources, should define journalism. So should the respectful, but constant questioning of authority. Where you lack either the investigative resources or the skepticism, you get lies of omission or propaganda. That doesn’t change—no matter how slickly you package things.
A decade ago, I gave a speech at a college graduation. I told the graduates that corporate ownership of media, particularly publicly traded media conglomerates, had changed the equation for journalism and its consumers. You could have an excellent product with adequate profits, I said. Or you could have an adequate product with excellent profits. Perhaps that is no longer the case. Maybe online niche publications represent the future. However this proceeds, it is the content, not the platform that delivers it, that represents the greatest challenge. As long as economic uncertainty, unreasonable profit margins, staff cuts, and low wages mark the boundaries of journalism well, you get what you pay for.
As for me, I now earn my living doing public relations for the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. I work for great people and an important public institution. Yet I still dream of returning to journalism. Literally. My post-traumatic stress doesn’t manifest itself in nightmares from which I awake sweating and screaming. My PTS comes in the near-constant images of reporting and writing that haunt my sleep.
The dreams tell me something. Whether anyone ever again chooses to pay me professionally, I will always be a newspaper columnist.
The steady drip of layoffs and buyouts, slowly desiccating once-vibrant newsrooms around the country, has also produced a reservoir of anger, sadness, fear, uncertainty—even some cautious optimism here and there—among reporters and editors who invested years, decades in some cases, of their lives to print journalism. We’ve asked anyone so inclined to channel these emotions, not into rant—although there will be a bit of that—but rather into reflection on what went wrong, and where we might go from here. We will publish one per day, under the headline “Parting Thoughts.” All of the letters we publish will be collected here.