July 15, 2008
Buyout offers are on the table now for hundreds of veteran newspaper journalists. Alas, more are doubtless on the way with intense revenue pressure unlikely to improve anytime soon. So if you get the offer, how do you weigh your options?
 
My colleague Joe Grimm treated the nuts and bolts of the question in detail in one of his “Ask the Recruiter” columns last March, and I won’t rehash all that he covered well. The amount of the offer matters, but your own ability to obtain health coverage through a spouse or partner or ease into Medicare may matter just as much.
 
From my Biz Blog perch, I would offer these additional considerations:
 
The next offer is unlikely to be as good as this one. The 2008 buyouts are typically less generous than those of three or four years ago. Many organizations are now on their third or fourth round of newsroom cuts. And few managers are saying anymore, this is it.
 
The short buyout window and the formal context of a group offer may not be the ideal time for a heart-to-heart with your supervisor about what awaits you if you stay. But typically a few people will be asked to stay if they are “essential” or if too many from one work group apply to take the buyout. Other places let departing staffers wind down as contract contributors. The Washington Post has been particularly open to this sort of arrangement, though my sense is that the current pinch will make most buyouts a clean break.
 
So are you ready for that clean break? Some hard-core journos cannot imagine doing anything else and would shudder at work that had even a tinge of PR. A few may have trouble finding a job, and those who cobble together a mix of teaching and freelancing will rarely earn as much as before.
 
My sense, though, is that most will find journalistic skills surprisingly portable, opportunities abundant and rewarding. Research and analytic ability travel well into an assortment of policy work. There are all kinds of people from memoirists to principled interest groups who want something written or edited and can’t do either of those as well as you.
 
The non-profit sector is booming, and that is unlikely to change short or longer term. Academic journalism, raking in some nice endowments, is prospering, in odd juxtaposition to the business itself.
 
I spent some time with the life-after-journalism crowd last weekend at a reunion picnic of Philadelphia Inquirer newsies from the Gene Roberts era (1972-1990). An unscientific sample to be sure, but I found the bitterness quotient over cuts and ownership turmoil surprisingly low, the job and personal satisfaction level pretty high.  
 
The fully retired seem content sitting by the lake and bouncing grandkids on their knee. We have a couple stalwarts who have become rich and famous book and screen writers — H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger of “Friday Night Lights” fame and Mark Bowden, who wrote “Black Hawk Down.” The top three current Inquirer editors are back after a decade each at other papers. Many, many more of my cohort, though, are engaged in more ordinary, low-profile pursuits.
 
My friend Mark Wagenveld, who took the buyout and was closing in on retirement age anyhow, divides his time between working on his old house, raising two teen-aged daughters and volunteer work. He told me, “I’m so busy, I don’t know how I found time before to go to work.”
 
But he added, “I do miss the camaraderie of the newsroom.” That may be the rub when you’re thinking buyout. The professional transition and winding down may be more manageable than you imagine. The company of smart people with shared purpose can be tougher to replace.
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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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