Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Snapshot of the Newspaper Industry

I spent the better part of the last week in another state, judging a newspaper contest for a company I haven't worked for since college. It was an odd experience given that -- after more years than I care to admit -- I no longer work at a newspaper. And it proved to be an interesting snapshot of what's happening in the industry.

As I was checking into the hotel, I ran into another judge -- an editor I haven't seen in more than 20 years. Back then I was a reporting intern, and he was the assistant city editor assigned to make certain I made it through the summer without getting into too much trouble. He must not have held my inexperience against me since he seemed happy to get reacquainted.

When he heard I'd joined an Internet startup company, he wanted to talk more about my experience. Why? The newspaper company he works for is for sale. He -- and another judge who works at a sister paper -- will find out next summer who their new owners are.

While we examined the quality of visual, written and online journalism for a group of papers none of us worked for, the state of the industry was the backdrop for discussion. Using the numbers, this picture of the profession emerged:

1. Of the 16 judges, one was a long-time journalism educator. So for the purposes of accuracy, 15 judges had been working at a newspaper in the last year.

2. Of those 15, three were no longer in the industry. One now teaches college journalism. One works for a government agency. The third (me) works for an online company. All three of us left the industry in the last year. All three of us had worked for the same newspaper company for a long time.

3. Of the other 12 judges, two editors (as I explained earlier) are working at a newspaper company that is on the market.

4. Of the 10 remaining, one -- who manages a digital department at a newspaper -- lost an assistant who took a buyout. This happened two days into the event. That manager won't get to replace the position.

At dinner one evening, we were visited by several editors who worked at the company's largest newspaper, which is located in the same town where we had converged. A friend, who lives in the city, e-mailed me a copy of a recent article about the executive editor, which was published in a regional magazine. In it, the writer described how the editor was fighting against a declining newspaper circulation by focusing more on its online site. The article gave her efforts mixed reviews.

And today, a few hours after an editor at another newspaper told me he was asked to buy equipment on eBay to save money, I read that newsprint companies are increasing their costs again. Given the recent buyouts, layoffs and declining stock prices of newspaper companies, it makes you wonder -- what will happen next?

Before I returned home from my stint as a judge, one editor at the event explained that the increasing pressures on the industry were hitting his newspaper, too. He simply isn't hiring much these days. He added: "It's not going to get better anytime soon."

But with all the talented people in the journalism industry, I still have hope that he's wrong.

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