June 17, 2015

We’ve talked endlessly about the future of journalism. It’s time to talk about the future of journalists.

The Orange County Register’s new owner thought the way to turn the paper around is through better reporting to lure new and former readers to a revived product. He has since stepped away from managing the paper. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Orange County Register’s new owner thought the way to turn the paper around is through better reporting to lure new and former readers to a revived product. He has since stepped away from managing the paper. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

People who observe and report on others’ lives have a built-in sense of shame about navel-gazing. Maybe that’s why, amid all of the study and conversations about the future of journalism and business models, remarkably little attention has been paid to the plight of individual journalists.

They have the skill sets to do this work and the passion for it. In theory, there could be journalism without traditional media companies as we’ve known them, but there won’t be without people who do the job of journalism. So why isn’t the economic, mental and physical well-being of individual journalists, their adaptability and resiliency, a bigger part of our conversation?

Regardless of what comes next, the messy disruption of the newspaper industry, one of the biggest employers of journalists, will cause long-term damage if we don’t start focusing on the human beings doing the work.

We’re already dealing with life after thousands of layoffs and having fewer – a lot fewer – journalism jobs at traditional media organizations.

Are these people lost to the business for good? Or are we creating a journalism role in the digital world for those who are losing newspaper jobs? And have we properly prepared them for it?

Those who remain have suffered from industrywide wage stagnation, with journalists at many traditional media companies not seeing real pay raises since the 2008 recession and classified ad revenue crash. Health insurance cost increases, furloughs, and 401(k) and other benefit cuts have actually meant a pretty significant pay cut for most.

And the news business was pretty stressful to begin with, exacerbated by newsroom cultures that tend to minimize or ignore the toll that covering some of society’s most horrible crime and trauma can have on a journalist.

So more and more people who were good at exposing the secrets of those who abuse power have found job security and a better life in public relations – in some cases, helping the powerful keep those secrets.

Digital news startups and bold experiments at new business models are a necessary and encouraging attempt at sustainability. But in a transition where there will be fast failures, they offer little more security to the individual journalist. Just ask the people who signed up to work at the fast-hiring expansion efforts of Patch, Reuters, News Corp.’s “The Daily,” Digital First Media’s “Thunderdome” project and the Orange County Register.

So why aren’t we focusing more on the preservation and well-being of individual journalists instead of the companies that have traditionally employed them or we hope will in the future?

Progressive companies could replace the next round of layoffs with a voluntary – even competitive – buyout program that offers seed money for journalists who want to launch independent sites that might partner with their former employer.

Perhaps journalism could become a more ubiquitous technique in serving the mission of nonprofit causes. If better journalism is a key to better public health, for example, more health care funding should go to journalism. The underwriting model of public media is something to build upon.

Better technology and networks are needed to support a freelance economy in which independent journalists can earn a living. Crowdfunding and the concept of journalist-as-an-API (in which freelance content might live on and be monetized by a number of different platforms) are promising starting points.

The journalism schools who are adding entrepreneurship programs to their curriculum get that students must prepare to fend for themselves. But there is also tremendous opportunity for colleges to assist mid-career journalists with retraining in nontraditional partnerships with media organizations and associations.

Even professional organizations whose mission is to serve individual journalists tend to focus on what major employers are doing rather than equipping journalists to survive and be well regardless of what happens to big media companies and local newspapers.

Let’s continue the urgent conversation about sustainable journalism business models. But it’s past time to put more focus on journalists themselves.

Matt DeRienzo is a media industry consultant and interim executive director of LION Publishers, a national organization that represents the owners of local independent online news sites. He worked as a newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news for more than 20 years, most recently for Digital First Media in Connecticut.

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