I remember when I had my first layoff scare five years ago. It was the most stressful, nerve-wracking thing I’d ever experienced. I had not been at the newspaper for a year at that point, and to see so many veteran reporters and editors let go was intimidating. I spent the next few months watching my back, even though I knew that since I was at the bottom of the food chain (and pay scale), my job was probably safe.
My memory is a little fuzzy as to when we had layoffs versus buyouts versus different people being “forced out,” but over the next four years I saw at least one a year. In 2007, there were three, with two more early in 2008. Now, my old newspaper (I left voluntarily earlier this year) is about to lay off more people this week or next. I am scared for those who are left, because it has become clear that no one is safe.
The Hits Just Keep on Coming
That’s true of all papers. Just look at what’s happened over the past few weeks:
Choosing to leave, as I did, is better than being forced to leave — but only slightly. I can see newspapers reaching a tipping point now that so many journalists have left. They have taken the heart of the newspaper business with them.
The layoffs have created a lifestyle of fear and paranoia. Who will be next?
Will I lose my job because I’m paid too much? Because I’ve been at the paper too long?
Because the boss doesn’t like me? Because I didn’t kiss up to the right people?
Or — perhaps — because my job can be replaced by free content from readers or wire agencies?
No One Is Safe
People aren’t losing their jobs because of incompetency. In fact, often the opposite is true. We’ve seen layoffs claim award-winning, hard-working, passionate people, while leaving inferior employees in place. This does terrible things to morale in the newsroom — not to mention work quality. Who can focus on writing in-depth stories, or working a little bit harder to get a better photo angle, when you are constantly thinking about who’ll be next?
I feel compassion for all of those in the midst of this crisis, and I think that journalism students need to pay close attention to what is happening. When I graduated college in 2000, the job market was good. It was still competitive and difficult to get a job at a good “photo paper,” but there were opportunities, with the promise of moving up as your skills improved.
That is no longer the case. Job openings are scant, and cutbacks ensure even fewer openings in the future. If I were a student now, I would not be looking to newspapers for a job. I would study something else and continue to feed that passion on the side, so I would be able to support myself after graduation.
It’s sad to see a profession die right in front of our eyes. Many journalists have told me they think the newspaper industry will “hit bottom,” and that then things will slowly start to improve. Unfortunately, each time I think we’ve hit bottom, we’ve had more cuts.
A Void to Fill
When you eliminate half the news hole, it’s not so difficult to lay off half the staff. In fact, I’m dreading the day when corporate owners decide that they only need a handful of editors and can get reader-submitted content, so there is no need for any of us. Europe has been there for years.
That would be truly tragic. Now more than ever, we need journalists to be our watchdogs. We need credible sources. We need news.
But if newspapers ultimately choose to abandon this responsibility, I am hopeful that grassroots organizations will emerge to dig through the crumbled remains and take over the role of the fourth estate.