Monday, January 3, 2011

Eighteen Months Later: What's happened to Seattle P-I journalists

Six months after Hearst shut down the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I surveyed my former colleagues to find out how they were faring. Most were still looking for work, reeling from the shock of losing their jobs in the depths of the Great Recession and grieving the death of the P-I in March 2009.

I recently repeated my survey to find out what difference a year has made. There's good news and bad news. More are working, more have found their way back to journalism. But almost 60 percent of those who are employed say they're earning less than at the P-I.

We are moving on, some faster than others. But many still wonder: How do you measure what's missing when stories go untold? Or when those with power and money operate with less scrutiny? Or when reporters who once filed public disclosure requests and uncovered corruption now earn a living writing press releases?

Eighty-two of the 140 former P-I staff who lost their jobs responded to my survey in November/December. Here's what I found:
  • Half have new fulltime jobs working for employers, as compared to less than one-third of those who responded a year ago. Just over 50 percent are working as journalists and the rest are in corporate or nonprofit communications, business etc.

  • Almost 25 percent (19 people) have started their own fulltime or part-time ventures (InvestigateWest, PostGlobe, commercial photography, freelance writing/editing/graphics)

  • Five work part-time for employers and several of them also freelance

  • Nine are in school (web design, MFA, business, art)

  • Twenty percent (17 people) are on unemployment benefits, most nearing the end of their eligibility. Several are also students, freelance etc.

  • One is a fulltime parent and two retired

(Note: The numbers don't total 82 because some people are in more than one category. The statistics do not include the 18 or so newspaper staff who now work at

Overall Trends?

Back on deadline: Twice as many are working as fulltime journalists now as compared to a year ago -- up from 15 percent to 30 percent. Most (23) are working for employers (newspapers, online news, magazines, broadcast) while the rest freelance or work for start-ups such as InvestigateWest. At least 10 people moved away from Seattle to stay in journalism, including one who now lives apart from his family.

"There's no longer panic or a feeling of desperation in not having a job, but it's hardly how I envisioned my life -- 3,000 miles away from my family, away from the P-I, away from Seattle...But I've been a survivor, ready to do what I have to do." (Dan Raley, former P-I sports journalist, now editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

"Life has been a roller coaster. After spending more than a year freelancing and on unemployment, I'm working again in media -- new media, social media. It's interesting to learn new skills and be inside the revolution. But I remain saddened and concerned about what the demise of the P-I and so many other newspapers means for journalism. I'm not sure the public fully appreciates what's been lost and what has yet to replace it." (Tom Paulson, former P-I science reporter, now global health blogger at KPLU)

Longer hours, less pay for journalists: Two-thirds of those working as journalists said they were earning less than at the P-I. Almost half of them said they were earning more than 25 percent less. Despite lower wages, almost 40 percent said their job satisfaction was about the same as the P-I and 25 percent said they were happier. The rest said it was worse.

"There are still days when I long for the security of the P-I, and God knows I had a hell of a lot of fun doing that job. What I'm doing now is even more challenging, and yet also more fun. But also scarier in a will-I-have-enough-to-retire-some-day department." (Robert McClure, former P-I environmental reporter, now chief environmental correspondent at InvestigateWest)

"I'm glad to say that I have been able to pay the bills doing what I love best -- writing and editing." (Athima Chansanchai, former P-I features writer, now runs Tima Media)

"I hate to see our region with so few watchdogs on patrol. I'm glad I can still write for a living, and in my chosen specialty, but if I didn't have a partner with health insurance and a reliable salary, there's no way I could keep going on as a freelancer." (Rebekah Denn, former P-I food writer, now freelancer)

Better pay, less satisfaction for others: Half of those working outside of journalism reported lower job satisfaction than at the P-I -- even though almost 60 percent are better paid. One-third are happier in their new gigs, while the rest feel about the same.

"I know I shouldn't complain. I've landed an interesting job that doesn't pay that much less than the P-I and I see so many others struggling. But I miss my true love, journalism. And life feels less rich than before." (former P-I journalist working in communications)

Long-term unemployment: Twenty percent are still relying on unemployment benefits to make ends meet, and are nearing the end of their eligibility. Most who haven't found work are more than 50 years old. They're struggling to pay for health insurance, hang onto their homes and cope with the psychological and financial toll of economic hard times.

"I will soon run out of all benefits and am not looking forward to foreclosure, or living in my van...Like most -- or is it all?-- the over-50 women at the P-I, I am still unemployed despite applying for several jobs for which I would be ideal." (Marsha Milroy, former P-I library researcher)

"I guess I feel "poorer" than I've ever felt in my life." (Grant Haller, former P-I photographer)

New Horizons: For a few, the turmoil of job loss turned into an opportunity to pursue other dreams, from starting a business to going back to school for a teaching degree or MFA. Almost 20 percent said they'd attended school at some point since the P-I closed.

"The more time that goes by, the more removed I feel from my career as a journalist...I knew I wanted to make a difference in some other way, and am happy to have that opportunity at World Vision. Instead of writing newspaper stories about social issues, I am helping to directly address them, specifically as they pertain to children in need. And that's a wonderful feeling." (John Iwasaki, former P-I news reporter, now doing nonprofit communications)

Gone but not forgotten: Most still miss the collegiality of the newsroom, the special mix of people who made the P-I a great place to work, and being part of a team doing journalism that mattered.

"I miss the people, but I miss the mission more: to give voice to the voiceless, to hold the powerful accountable, and to defy gravity while doing it." (Kristen Young, former P-I news reporter, now MFA student)

"My new job is great, and I'm very grateful to have it, but there are times when I miss the crazy atmosphere of the P-I, and the funny, smart, talented, sassy, aggravating, insane people I worked with. As I tell people: It was a helluva ride!" (Curt Milton, former P-I web producer, now doing communications)

"The P-I was an extraordinary place to work. And Hearst threw away a lot. Let's not pretend that they tried to keep anything substantive, beyond an experiment in how a veneer of professional journalism could be used to create a profit center built around clicks, photo galleries of models and animals, and vanity blogs for the would-be local celebs. In contrast, it was a newspaper where people weren't afraid to care about the community, report fearlessly and comment forcefully." (former P-I journalist)

"There was something special about life under the globe. I miss it. I suspect I always will." (John Levesque, former P-I columnist/editor, now managing editor, Seattle magazine)

(Photo: by M.V. Jantzen)