Bye Bye Byline

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…

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)

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.