By John Gordon Miller
It's official: Working as a reporter is the worst job you can get -- if you can get one, that is, and if you are lucky enough to keep it.
That's what the American-based career guidance website CareerCast.com says anyway. Thanks to shrinking newsrooms, dwindling budgets, the stress of deadlines, low pay and competition from online news organizations, newspaper reporter ranks last among 200 jobs -- behind enlisted soldier, lumberjack, dairy farmer, meter reader and roofer.
Some of us remember when being a reporter was considered daring and exotic. We need only look at the bad news swirling around Canadian newsrooms to understand how things have changed for the worst.
Even the publisher of The Globe and Mail says his newsroom is full of "too many skills that we don’t need any more." He'd be "happy," Phillip Crawley told his reporters and editors earlier this week, if 60 of them walked out the door and never came back. That number would represent about 8 per cent of The Globe’s 770 employees.
As if that wasn't enough to wreck anyone's zeal to work in a newsroom, now we have this remarkable letter to staff by Crawley's counterpart at the Vancouver Sun and Province, Gordon Fisher. It begins ominously: "The first note of a new publisher to staff is obviously one of significance (to the writer at least) and would normally be of good cheer and much hope. So how to begin this one?"
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That's known in the business as a buried lead -- something Fisher says he learned as a young reporter not to do. Buried nearly half way down in his verbose four-page letter is news that not only will reporters and editors be encouraged to take a "voluntary staff reduction program," but that "it is likely that the program will be followed by an economic layoff of other employees."
The reason, he says bluntly, is that "these two wonderful brands are in serious difficulty. The situation is much more challenging than I would have anticipated."
This is where my finely tuned bullshit meter hits red. Fisher has for 30 years been a top executive at the paper's corporate owner, Postmedia Network Canada Corp., and its predecessors CanWest Global, Hollinger and Southam. He would have had first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing the Sun and Province. Moreover, he has a reputation as a corporate hatchet man, having presided over many staff-reduction programs starting with the mass firing he carried out as new publisher of the Kingston Whig-Standard in 1994. Twelve of the paper's best and most senior reporters and editors were summoned to Room 532 in the local Holiday Inn, where Fisher personally sent them packing (I describe this in my book, Yesterday's News, in a chapter titled "Drowning the Kittens." The circulation of the Whig-Standard today is about half what it was before Fisher swept his scythe through the newsroom).
It is usual when things like this happen that the publisher tries to polish the turd and say that the quality of the paper won't suffer.
Here's what Crawley said: "We have the brand, the content, the audience, and the ownership. That’s why we’re planning for the future by doing this now.”
Here's Fisher on the same point: "So please do your best to ignore the noise and put aside the fear of change. The mindset within our universe should always be consumer facing: we need to all the thinking of the reader and the advertiser as a first priority every day."
Fisher is wise enough to have absorbed the findings of the recent U.S. report on State of the News Media: Nearly one-third of poll respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to. The evidence seems to suggest that downsizing newsrooms is a strategy that has reached its limit. Any further cuts will cannibalize the audience and hurt the bottom line.
What I don't like about corporate bullies like Fisher is they're blaming the problems of the newspaper industry on reporters and editors, and not management's own failure to find a more sustainable business model. He ends his letter to employees this way: "Please understand that we need your help. And if you do anything every day of the week let it be this: ask yourself if you are part of the solution or are willing to be part of the solution. If you aren't part of the solution, ask yourself why that is."
Right. Not only are you in a shitty job, we want you to feel guilty about staying on.
It's executives like these who are leading Canadian newspapers down the garden path to oblivion, looking mostly for convenient places to bury the bodies.
This post was originally published on The Journalism Doctor and reprinted here with the permission of the author. Miller is a professor emeritus of Ryerson University and he held various senior editorial positions at the Toronto Star.