Paper Cuts: Is Working in Journalism Still Worth It?

A longtime journalist ponders whether to recommend a reporter’s life to the young.

In fall 2015, I was asked to give a talk by the Midwest chapter of Junior State of America, a national group dedicated to preparing high school students “for life-long involvement and responsible leadership in a democratic society.” It was a big-deal event, held on a Saturday in the Wisconsin state Assembly chambers, with even the balcony seats occupied.

My talk centered around a list, “Top Ten Good Things About Being a Reporter,” that includes being plugged into current topics and having a solid grasp of how government operates. I noted that reporters are, in my experience, fairer and more broadminded than the politicians they cover, because we are trained to see both sides.

After the talk, a student approached me outside the chamber. She was considering going into journalism and wondered if I had any advice. I told her something about getting real-world experience by writing for student papers, but perhaps I should have given a different answer: “Don’t.”

I’m reluctant to recommend journalism as a career not just because our profession is maligned and misunderstood. That’s an old issue, though there are many fresh examples. In the current presidential sweepstakes, for instance, Republicans in particular have turned bombastic attacks on reporters into applause lines – and ways to avoid answering tough questions.

Here’s my perspective: Journalists are, as a group, extraordinarily trustworthy. I told the JSA gathering about a scene from HBO’s “The Wire,” in which a newspaper reporter wakes up in a cold sweat, wondering if he may have misstated a statistic. It’s too late to change it; the paper is already rolling off the presses. But he calls the copy desk to check. Turns out he got it right. That obsession with accuracy rings true to me for every reporter I know.

If you enjoy finding fault with reporters, try it yourself. Go to any event in your community you know will be covered: a debate, a day of court testimony, a press conference, even a baseball game. Pay close attention and take copious notes. Then write a story about what you’ve just seen. The next day, compare what you’ve written to what appears in the paper. You’ll never look down your nose at newspaper reporters again.

Reporters must also contend with disrespect from within their own organizations. Ours is a rough-and-tumble profession, populated by unsentimental bosses. Think Lou Grant times 10.

Some years ago, I wrote a biography of journalist Erwin Knoll, who worked at The Washington Post from 1957 to 1963, under the reign of city editor Ben Gilbert, a legendary tyrant. Gilbert once chewed out a woman reporter so severely for misidentifying a bird in a photo caption that a male colleague who witnessed it threw up. When I interviewed him in 1995, Gilbert told me he would “not quarrel with anyone who said I was too tough.” When I sat with Ben Bradlee, then the paper’s vice-president, and asked him about these mistreated workers, this was his reply: “Poor babies.”

Today, though, journalists have more severe worries than brusque bosses; they can be canned simply for being too loyal and accumulating too much experience. Even Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters have gotten the ax, including four-time winner Sydney Freedberg, whom the Scripps Washington Bureau deemed expendable. That’s because longer-tenured employees get paid slightly less poorly than their greener counterparts, so cash-crunched newsrooms go trolling for older workers.

Today’s newspapers have become places of pain. I laughed as I typed that, but it was a sad laugh. Look at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a place known for winning Pulitzer Prizes in recent years whose parent company is being sold to the Gannett chain. Can you imagine the anxiety staff there must feel?

The change will likely mean more staff cuts, facilitated by content-sharing with Gannett’s 10 other Wisconsin papers. The paper already has gone through multiple rounds of buyouts or layoffs. The editorial staff is now about one-third of what it was in the combined newsrooms of the Journal and Sentinel in the early 1990s. And despite management’s protestations to the contrary, the Gannett sale may affect who runs the newsroom and how.

Last summer The Capital Times of Madison offered buyouts to staffers ages 40 and older who had been at the paper at least 10 years. Meanwhile, at the jointly owned Wisconsin State Journal, the ax fell on three veteran journalists. Columnist Doug Moe’s layoff was the most shocking. A star among Wisconsin journalists, he was consistently picked by the paper’s readers as their favorite.

When I interviewed the exiles for an article in Isthmus, a Madison weekly, I was stunned by their graciousness. None had an unkind word to say about the paper that spat them out. Yet I heard the sadness in their voices, and it felt familiar. Shouldn’t I have told that high school junior who expressed interest in my profession that if she works hard and stays with a media outlet for many years, she’ll eventually enhance her expendability to where she’ll be pushed out the door?

Yes, I probably should have.

Still, I would counsel optimism. While journalism has suffered drastic job losses in recent years, ours is hardly alone as an ailing industry. More than 10,000 people in the state lost jobs as part of mass layoffs in 2015 – the highest total since 2009 – with Wells Fargo, Oscar Mayer and GE among the companies shedding employees or packing up shop altogether. Long-term employment prospects seem far from certain in any field.

Working in journalism – being a part of people’s lives in times of tragedy or triumph, shining a light on how the world works – is worth it, even if it may not last. Those who get kicked out may look back not with bitterness but with gratitude, wishing they could stick around for just a few more stories.

‘Paper Cuts’ appears in the April 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the April issue on newsstands beginning March 28.

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