A long time ago, when I was deciding what to do when I grew up, I gave some thought to being a newspaper reporter. I liked to write, I was good at it, it sounded fun. I have always been a practical person though, so when I read that many journalism jobs paid poorly (and recognizing I wanted to be paid well) I went in another direction. As it happens, I have been able to write plenty of things (for newspapers and other media) anyway, so all has been good.
All has been very good, actually, when I think about the plight about those who have made their living exclusively as newspaper journalists.
Newspapers are money-losing dinosaurs. I know, I know, that’s harsh but that seems to be the opinion of those companies that have papers on their books. Company after company seems to be willing to make cuts, or close up shop or sell the assets. Sometimes everyone gets lucky and a friendly billionaire like Jeff Bezos of Amazon thinks it would be fun to own a paper and do something with it, as was apparently the case when he bought The Washington Post. More often, its death by a thousand cuts, and in particular cuts to journalists.
Apparently the journalist-layoff trend is large enough that there is now an academic paper about it. Written by a group of academics led by Iowa University professor Brian Ekdale, the paper describes the plight amongst those who survive redundancy. They divide survivors into four different groups:
1) Hopeful: Those who perceive greater job security and assist in achieving future goals
2) Obliging: Secure in their jobs but more likely to accommodate rather than instigate change
3) Fearful: Insecure in their jobs and feel helpless in the face of industry changes
4) Cynical: Insecure in their jobs and actively challenge change
Honestly, I think the researchers left out one more category which is ‘realistic’ and which I hope captures a lot of workers. This group would be something like (3) in that they are realistically insecure in their jobs (because the last round of cuts is not really the last round of cuts) but different in that they do not feel helpless. More likely, they feel like they have to update their resumes and find another venue – probably out of the newspaper business – to use their talents. That is easier said than done, of course, since many veteran writers have decent benefit and pension packages, and their best most is to hold on and hope for generous severance down the line.
Reading the report, it also seemed that it could apply to really any industry rather than just newspapers. Post-layoffs, the workers left do not really have the same attitudes that they did pre-layoffs, and it probably would be a good idea for companies to acknowledge that. The authors note that all types of survivors with the exception of the ‘Hopefuls’ are potential problems, and should be cultivated before they turn ‘Hopefuls’ over to their views. Call me a ‘Cynical’ but I think in many cases the ‘Hoepfuls’ are in denial anyway, so for their own sakes they would be better off being converted.
The newspaper industry is only one example of a sector going through a re-organization, but it is a particularly interesting one. If we are focusing on writers, we are talking about a well-educated group of white collar employees, whose talents are always going to be in some kind of demand. Trouble is, with every no-talent blogger able to publish with the click of a mouse (no comments please), there is plenty to read without having any kind of printed papers available ever. You can charge for online news content of course, but finding the correct price and delivery mechanisms is proving to be a challenge for most outlets.
Still, even if few companies are likely to take note of their recommendations, I think it is useful that the researchers are paying attention to what is happening to workers in the wake of layoffs. Yes, the employment figures in the U.S. and elsewhere are getting a bit better, but we are the same labor force we were a decade or so ago. These days, the ‘Fearful’, ‘Cynical’ and ‘Realistic’ are starting to out-number the ‘Obliging’ and ‘Hopeful’ and the net result may not be a positive one for business or the economy.