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Bye, Bye Byline
Is there life after the news? Ex-journalists look back in anger, ambivalence and with a smile.

Walk through any newsroom – print or broadcast – and you’re likely to come across three types of people.

For some, the job’s just the lightly-trod bottom rung on the ladder to the ranks of media management: editor, publisher, broadcast executive. For others it’s a stepping stone of another kind, leading out to careers in marketing, advertising and public relations.

 

Then there are the lifers who want nothing more than to spend their careers digging up stories and delivering them to readers and viewers – or working on a copy desk or at a producer’s telephone, helping to shape them behind the scenes.

 

Over the last two decades, the ground has given way under all three groups as technology, cultural change and no small amount of corporate hubris ripped apart the media business. The funnel to the top ranks is narrower than ever, and the entry-level opportunities that would help season a prospective PR flak are diminishing.

 

But the simultaneous explosion and implosion of media may be especially dispiriting for the would-be lifers: If journalism is all you ever wanted to do, what happens when the craft changes so much it seems unrecognizable, or the ranks of working journalists become so decimated that you have no choice but to explore something new?

 

I pondered that question while perusing Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis (McFarland & Co., 203 pp.), by Celia Viggo Wexler. Wexler, a newspaper reporter turned lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, produced the book from probing interviews with 11 journalists who found themselves forced by conscience or circumstance to leave the profession. (Disclosure: Nearly 30 years ago in Rochester, N.Y., Wexler and I knew each other while working for competing newspapers.)

 

Probably her most prominent subject is David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of acclaimed TV shows including The Wire, which devoted one season to the struggles inside an urban newspaper. But the other 10, virtually all from the top ranks of media organizations, have stories just as compelling.

 

As the subtitle of Wexler’s book says, those stories add up to a picture of crisis in the news industry. Yet they also hint at a more hopeful narrative: that from the ashes of journalism as we knew it, something new and in its own way better, however different, could yet emerge.

 

Reading their stories got me to thinking about colleagues who have found their way to new lives outside traditional newsgathering. Some returned to school to join the ranks of lawyers, clergy, accountants, teachers and a host of other trades. Others have found a bridge between what they once did and what they do now.

 

Shortly before Christmas, I invited some to share accounts of their lives since the newsroom. The email responses I got were gratifying and both sobering and inspirational.

 

When he started at the Milwaukee Journal in 1984, “I don’t think I ever expected to leave,” says Mark Ward. Covering City Hall he relished the hard-fought competition with the  Milwaukee Sentinel. He took on investigative projects digging into disability pension rip-offs and the use of the insanity defense. “It was exciting, and with an editor on your side, you got good length and strong play.”

 

Looking back, Ward sees that the forces undermining traditional journalism were already at work. As resources shrunk in the newsroom, he migrated to a collegial and congenial editorial page. After the 1995 Journal Sentinel merger, Ward returned to the newsroom as a science writer, but that didn’t last long: “They had created too many jobs and decided they couldn’t continue that.”

 

Reassigned again as a copy editor (“entirely the wrong work for me”), Ward decided the time had come to go. A lifelong and active Unitarian Universalist, he earned a degree in ministry and has been the head minister at a church in Asheville, N.C., for eight years now. “I don’t regret it for a minute,” he says.

 

Continued industry turmoil had been nagging Bob Helbig to move on after 20 years at the Journal and then the Journal Sentinel. A 2011 buyout offer at the JS just as he learned of an opening for a proofreader at ad agency Bader Rutter cemented his decision.

 

Helbig, who had risen to deputy business editor at the newspaper, is now a content editor at Bader, helping writers shape their work. “It’s incredibly gratifying that the skills I honed in the newspaper business have translated to the advertising and marketing world,” he says. “I help tell stories. Bader Rutter generates a lot of content for many clients, and the focus is on conveying information accurately, succinctly, persuasively and creatively.”

He remains grateful both for his time at the paper (“Journal Communications was very good to me”) and for the ease of his transition. “I know it's been smoother for me than it's been for many people,” he says, “and I think about that every day when I go to work.

 

David Steinkraus left the Racine Journal Times with a much more jaundiced perspective. Crushing debt at the paper’s owner, Lee Enterprises; its “intransigent demand for short-term profit” despite dwindling revenue; and a failure to mount a robust and sustained strategy to invest in the digital future all contributed to his pessimism.

 

“I saw no future with the corporation which employed me, and I doubted there would be a future with other news corporations because I'm in middle age – not young, inexperienced and cheap,” says Steinkraus.

 

His decision to leave crystalized after he was reassigned from his passion – writing about science, health and the environment – to covering the courthouse. Ahead he saw nothing but a continued devolution leading to “only the most basic news-gathering functions.” So Steinkraus decided he was willing to accept both the greater freedom and creativity, but also the greater potential instability, of being an independent writer and photographer.

 

“The irony is I now feel more secure among the vagaries of self-employment than I did as part of a large company,” he says. “My success or failure is in my own hands and is based more on my ability than it was when I was subject to the capriciousness of corporate priorities.”

 

Former WISN-TV, Fox6 TV, and Wisconsin Public TV producer Jerry Huffman left after a run of increasingly grating assignments. “Instead of doing work I could be proud of for Milwaukee television, I was being assigned fluff, and often offensive fluff. ‘The Best Value in Pantyhose’ was topped only by ‘Do Kids Pee in Public Pools?’ (Answer: What do you think!),” Huffman reports.

 

Huffman spent a couple of years coaching newly emerging democracies in the former Soviet Union on how to establish independent news operations. “It was inspiring, exhausting and occasionally dangerous work,” he says – “pure journalism in an environment where you often couldn't tell the difference between the local crime boss and the local mayor. ‘Why?’ was a question that could get you killed.”

 

Returning to TV news in Wisconsin, he found the question “why” just as unwelcome – from his bosses. “When I was criticized for asking ‘Why?’ far too often or aggressively of state politicians, I knew the ride was over,” he says.

He did public relations for the state and later a nonprofit group and has started Go2Guy Communications in the Madison suburb of Fitchburg. “I work with clients who have a story to tell, and I connect them with the journalists nationwide who love a good story,” he says.

“There are days I miss the camaraderie of a newsroom. But there are the other days when I see a Madison television station lead its 10 p.m. newscast with a report on the rising price of hot dogs at a local restaurant. That's when I know I did the right thing by leaving. Boy, did I do the right thing.”

Anne E. Schwartz – the first reporter to see the inside of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment after the notorious serial killer’s 1991 arrest – sometimes wished during her eight years as communications director for the Milwaukee Police Department that she was covering the big crime stories as they broke, in her old career as a newspaper and TV reporter.

“But most often I found great personal satisfaction in working with good reporters who served victims and police officers well and told the story fairly, accurately and with just a bit of flair,” says Schwartz .

Her reporting background “helped me predict how certain issues would be covered and helped me design a response strategy” and gave her the skills “to analyze the problem without emotion and to provide strategic solutions,” she observes. She will need those skills more than ever now as she faces another career change; the Common Council defunded her police department position effective Tuesday.

To some of these migrants, the industry’s future looks troubling.

“I hear people say that newspaper journalism isn’t fun anymore,” says Ward, “and from what I see that appears to be so.” He finds news outlets increasingly are narrowing their scope and genuflecting “to local economic interests” instead of crusading on behalf of the reader and the public. “That always happened to some extent,” he allows, “but it’s gotten far worse.”

With the exodus of experienced journalists who know their communities and can explain complex topics, readers and viewers lose, says Steinkraus – even if they don’t know it. “More than one publisher I worked for uttered this slogan: ‘You cannot cut your way to prosperity,’” he says. “Sad to say, established news organizations have been busy proving that true.”

Citizens need good information to make good decisions, Steinkraus continues, “and despite loud assertions to the contrary, most of the online news and blogging crowd proves every day it is no replacement for dedicated, trained journalists.”

But another veteran who found a new life outside the newsroom has a different take. Well before the trends that would upend journalism really took hold, Milwaukee Journal feature writer Fannie LeFlore left the paper in 1991 to earn a master’s degree in counseling and worked for 10 years as a social worker and psychotherapist.

LeFlore had chafed under newsroom life. “I had found it too restrictive for the activist in me who wanted to scream every time I saw mainstream media perpetuate racist and sexist stereotypes and various systems of oppression, rather than challenge them,” she tells me.

In August 2005 LeFlore formed a communications business, advising a variety of clients. “I would never want to return to a corporate newsroom,” she says – and she champions the rise of alternative news sources and new information channels.

“Whether the ‘Fourth Estate’ might return to its original mission of promoting the common good is highly unlikely due to the extreme influence of moneyed interests, but at least the public has more options for news,” says LeFlore. “With more competition around, people are able to distinguish more between bad reporting (the extremely biased kind) and the best that journalism offers … I really appreciate the diversity of voices made available these days.

*

A Kalmbach Update: It turns out Discover magazine wasn’t finished with its personnel changes when it announced the bulk of its new masthead last month. Another former JS staffer, health and sciences editor Becky Lang, joins the magazine on Jan. 8 as a senior associate editor.

 

“We’re excited to have her join us,” says Kalmbach’s Kevin Keefe. Lang is notable among other things for having been part of the editing team on the JS Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2010 project, “One in a Billion.”

 

*

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(Milwaukee Journal image from Google News)




1 Comments
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Jay_Warner Posted: 1/4/2013 8:19:53 PM
 0   148    

. “With more competition around, people are able to distinguish more between bad reporting (the extremely biased kind) and the best ..." :trouBle is, the 'bad' reporting is far more vocal, insistent, and inflammatory. I don't think most of us readers do (or can) make the effort to locate the rational reporting, enough. including me.
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