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)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

One Year Ago: Shutting Down the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

My phone rang as I walked into the empty newsroom before 9 a.m. on March 16, 2009. It was a New York Times reporter fishing for confirmation -- about something he wouldn't reveal. That is never good news.
My heart pounding, I ran to the managing editor's office but stopped short. The publisher was already there. I tracked down an assistant managing editor. The look on her face said it all: We were finished. Tuesday, March 17th would be the feisty, 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer's final edition.
What I remember most that day is feeling numb. It had been two roller coaster months since Hearst put the P-I up for sale. Yet I still could not believe this was happening. Condolence emails and calls poured in as I cleared out my desk and packed up three boxes of documents and unfinished work. 
 Reporters from other news outlets gathered in our lobby, clamoring for comment. A TV reporter couldn't resist asking, "Are you scared?" I stared into the camera. 
Damn right I was scared. Not just of losing my job -- but of losing journalism's heart and soul. Of the erosion of a profession that is paid to question authority and tell the truth. Of being left with reporters who do little more than wield microphones and ask "How does it feel?"
The dismantling of the newsroom went fast. Recycling bins filled to overflowing with stories that would never be told. Desks were swept clean for the first time in years. Everything about it looked wrong. 
The year since then has been a blur of survival strategies and piecing some kind of life back together. I got lucky and found work for a good cause. 
But it is not journalism. I still miss the newsroom like a lost friend. I miss uncovering and telling stories that matter. I worry about talented former colleagues who have still not found work.
Journalism is struggling mightily to remake itself. I'm cheering each new development. Getting rid of jobs is one thing. Getting rid of journalists--not so easy.
In my basement, the three boxes I packed on my last day at the P-I are stacked up on a chair, unopened. Waiting.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

More Dads at Home in the 'Hood

When my husband stayed home with our young son a decade ago, he was a novelty on the playground. The moms of our son's playmates weren't sure what to make of a guy who chose the home front over career. And my husband rolled his eyes at being exposed to daily conversations about stretch marks, breast-feeding difficulties and how to lose post-baby fat.
So I was delighted when I walked by an elementary school yesterday and saw not one but FIVE dads picking up their kids in the space of a few minutes.
One guy was skipping down the street, hand in hand with his young daughter, and singing -- I kid you not.
I overheard another dad asking his son what he did that day.
"Math," the little boy said.
"What kind of math?" his dad asked.
"Math sheets," the boy said.
"Adding and subtracting?"
"Yup," the boy said.
When I was growing up, dads didn't show up at school and walk you home while chatting about your day. Dads went to work early in the morning and came home late.
What's happened in the intervening decades is a cultural shift. Staying home to raise children is now something a  guy can choose without incurring social scorn.
Less than one percent of couples include a dad who stays home with the kids. But there are three times as many as a decade ago, according to the Census Bureau. This year the number increased to an estimated 158,000 fathers from 140,000 in 2008.
The bad news is that for some dads, it isn't a choice but the harsh consequence of this recession's high unemployment rates.
But for others, it's a chance to share more fully in the wonder years that slip by so fast.
(Photo: by Roland)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

When does Hyperlocal News = Hyper-Nosy?

I'm a fan of my neighborhood news blog. It tells me when new restaurants open, tracks coyote sightings and reports what caused the latest traffic jam on the bridge. If you live in the 'hood, that stuff matters.
The down side of hyperlocal news is that having a public platform can turn some folks into proverbial neighborhood busybodies of the worst sort.
Not long ago, a controversy broke out on after someone complained that a new homeowner was chopping down a large monkey puzzle tree. Soon a photo and story were posted on the blog -- minus an interview with the owner of the tree -- generating heated comments from all sides. The brouhaha attracted the local TV stations. A week later the owner was facing a fine for failing to get a permit before removing the tree.
 Welcome to the neighborhood.
Whether the tree's owner was right or wrong is beside the point. It's what this says about how we treat our neighbors that creeps me out. Whatever happened to knocking on the door and talking to someone who's doing something you disagree with? Why publicly out someone just because you can? 
When I worked as a reporter, there were checks and balances built into how we covered the news. Rule number one was get both sides. Fairness demands it. 
Stories also had to meet a certain level of newsworthiness to justify taking up space in the newspaper let alone dragging someone into the public spotlight. My editor would have laughed me out of the newsroom if I filed a story about somebody who cut down a tree -- on their own property.
But that was then, and this is now. Lurking on every corner is a wannabe reporter with a cell phone and the ability to turn a neighborhood spat or a mistake into a full-blown incident.
That's not hyperlocal news -- that's hyper-nosy.
(Photo: by Zimpenfish)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Seven New Year's Resolutions for Journalists Adrift

I spent my 20s searching for a vocation. When I landed in journalism, I knew I'd found my calling.
But after two decades, my calling left me when my newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, closed last March.
I'm not alone. Thousands of journalists have lost our jobs in the last year. How we cope after the shock wears off falls into two general camps. 
Some walk away and don't look back, launching new businesses and careers or returning to school. Others refuse to abandon their first love, risking it all to stay in the field (moving across the country, working for free for journalism start-ups) or accepting other kinds of work while dreaming of the day they can return to their true vocation. A survey of former P-I journalists I did three months ago confirmed this.
I find myself somewhere in between. Practically, I have had to move on, translating my considerable writing/editing skills into communications work for a very good cause. Emotionally, I still struggle with what I/we have lost.
 I miss the newsroom almost daily -- that lively, eccentric mishmash of talented colleagues who made up the P-I. I always looked forward to that first hour of the day when I fired up my computer, answered readers' emails and felt the hum of the newsroom coming alive.
Looking back, I marvel at the miracle of cooperation and productivity that it took to put out a daily newspaper.
And I still grieve over the death of my feisty newspaper and the team of journalists who poured our hearts and souls into so many of the stories we covered.
As we begin a new year, here are my resolutions for journalists adrift:
1. Take care of yourself, whatever that means, from exercising to eating better: there have to be some benefits to being freed from daily newspaper deadlines.
2. Take care of your family: there's no shame in accepting a non-journalism job to pay your mortgage and put food on the table while you figure out what comes next. The days of snubbing journalists who go to the "other side" are over.
3. Don't be afraid to try something new: what do you have to lose? This is the time to experiment and find out how your journalism skills translate to other professions.
4. Find other outlets for your passions: Your new job may be just a job. But you are still a writer or a photographer or an artist at heart.
5. Believe in yourself: Unemployment erases self confidence faster than a blackboard brush. But journalists are incredibly skilled. We know how to cut to the chase, size up a complex issue and explain it in simple terms. That's a valuable asset in the real world.
6. Don't bail on journalism: Support a journalism start-up, subscribe to a newspaper, blog. It still matters.
7. Tell the world what's happening to us: This isn't just personal. Journalists are witnesses and watchdogs -- and essential to a healthy democracy. Believe it or not, a lot of people still don't have any idea that newspapers are melting down or what it means to the future.
(Photo: by Adam Tinworth)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Don't be Scrooges: Renew the COBRA subsidy

Before I lost my job as a journalist, I specialized in writing about social policy. I would have spent this year writing about the Great Recession of 2009 if the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hadn't closed in March. Instead, I experienced the economic meltdown firsthand.
I soon learned more than I ever wanted to know about the federal law called COBRA. It requires employers who lay off workers to continue their health insurance for 18 months. The big catch is you have to foot the entire cost yourself. That added up to a staggering $1600 a month for a couple or family in the case of former P-I staff.
But we got lucky, if anything about losing your job and career can be lucky. The sheer numbers of unemployed prompted President Obama to include a 65 percent subsidy for COBRA premiums in his federal relief package last spring. The subsidy for laid-off workers lasted nine months and was a huge help.
Now it's about to run out.
Anxiety is running high among my many friends and former colleagues who have not found work. The kind of gut-wrenching fear that tears you from sleep and plagues you with "what-ifs." 
Meanwhile, Congress is debating whether to extend it
What is there to debate?
My plea to our elected representatives -- all of whom already have excellent health care plans subsidized by taxpayers -- is that they do the right thing this holiday season. For the sake of the millions of hardworking Americans who never thought they'd be living on the edge. 
For the sake of my friends.
Update, Sunday December 20: Merry Christmas! The Senate did the right thing yesterday and passed a bill extending the COBRA subsidy for six months.
(Photo: by gwydionwilliams)

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Voice That Mattered: Andrea Lewis, 1957-2009

Today brought terrible news: My friend Andrea Lewis, radio host of Berkeley-based KPFA, died of an apparent heart attack over the weekend. She was just 52.
We met two years ago when we were lucky enough to be awarded 10-month John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University. Andrea always arrived early on campus, commuting from her home in San Francisco. We'd chat most mornings before class, inevitably diving into matters too deep for a few hurried minutes. Soon we began meeting for leisurely lunches at our favorite cafe where we soaked up the the rays and talked for hours.
Andrea wore her heart on her sleeve. She cared passionately about everything: her lifelong work in alternative media, her friends, her family, singing, camping, writing, her beloved Bay area.
She never held back when it came to controversy, her husky radio voice cutting to the heart of an issue. Leave it to Andrea to name the elephant in the room. She spoke the truth, come hell or high water -- and I loved her for it.
Sometimes she worried about what the future held for a single woman in her 50s who had devoted her career to fighting racism, sexism, homophobia -- for next to no money. But ultimately, her work mattered more.
When the Seattle P-I closed in March and I lost my job, she was one of the first to call. An hour after we talked, her email popped up in my inbox: "This is the real March Madness!" she declared with her special blend of compassion and outrage-- and I had to laugh, despite it all.
Losing Andrea leaves a huge hole in so many lives. And it's more than personal. The world has lost a journalist who gave everything she had.