The journalist’s lament: does it ever get better?

11 Apr

Old typewriter keys. ©Robin NelsonAnother day, another layoff. That’s the life of a journalist in today’s world. And it’s depressing as hell.

The latest involves 657 full-time jobs being axed at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation over the next two years, mainly thanks to the loss of NHL rights to Rogers. With hockey accounting for about a third of the CBC’s revenue, the cuts were inevitable. Many of the layoffs will be from sports and sales, but some will be coming from news operations too. I’ve lost count of the total jobs lost in Canadian journalism over the past year or two.

Whenever students or young people ask me for advice about getting into journalism, I earnestly tell them, “Don’t.” Why anyone would want to subject themselves to this kind of non-stop barrage of doom and gloom is beyond me. At this point, being a crack dealer has more appeal (especially in Toronto).

It’s not just the layoffs. If you’re a freelancer like me, there’s also the constant stream of rejection. Sure, that’s a fact of the job and you somehow learn to deal with it, but it doesn’t help when editors turn down your pitches because their budgets are continually being cut. On top of it all, there are the oh-so-joyous reader comments. Journalism is one of those few fields where you rarely hear from people who actually appreciate your work, assuming they’re out there, but boy do you ever get a steady dose of commentary from people who don’t.

Put all that together and it’s no wonder that esteemed journalists, including well-respected and highly paid newspaper editors, are fleeing the business. Meanwhile, surveys are naming “reporter” as the worst possible job one can hold – worse than being a lumberjack or fighting on the front lines as a soldier, apparently. It’s a highly stressful and underpaid field to be in at the best of times, which is why there probably isn’t a journalist around now who isn’t thinking of an exit strategy. (If anyone is hiring professional Lego builders, please get in touch.)

The internet is to blame for all this, of course. Online has decimated the advertising revenue that media outlets have traditionally relied on, while a plethora of other sources and options from Twitter to Reddit have in some ways obviated the need for journalists. And let’s not even get started on robot reporters. Even the NHL deal that provoked the CBC cuts is rooted in internet disruption, with Rogers correctly worrying that live sports is the only thing TV viewers are still willing to pay for.

Far be it from me to be curmudgeonly about this development – I do believe it’s actually a good thing for society. The business of journalism is being transformed before our very eyes and, like all creative destruction, the end result will likely be better than what came before. But just like our teenage years, there is still that awkward and painful transition to get through.

It’s possible for journalists to rise above this negativity and to lay the ground work for what comes next; to become leaders of this next wave. In some ways, we’re in a very exciting time because it’s one that invites experimentation and entrepreneurialism. But the fact is, many of us aren’t equipped for this new reality. We learned how to report and write and many of us don’t know how to do much else.

We can learn new skills and become entrepreneurs, but that calls into question the very nature of technological advance. If it’s supposed to make life easier, then why are things getting tougher? The easier thing to do, as many journalists and indeed people in many fields are finding, isn’t to try and find a new way in an unproven world but rather to move into something safer and more concrete. It’s a natural human instinct that technology is rubbing up against, at least in this case. Technology is making it a lot easier to find movie showtimes or hail a cab, but it sure is making it trickier to earn a living.

It’s going to take some time to figure this all out. In the meantime, if you happen to know a journalist, give him or her a hug. I guarantee they need it.


Posted by on April 11, 2014 in internet, journalism


Tags: ,

7 responses to “The journalist’s lament: does it ever get better?

  1. Courtney Williams

    April 11, 2014 at 12:13 am

    As a journalism student of 3 years, this was a very tough read. Nothing us young journos didn’t know when we chose to take this path with our lives but today has been a sad, sad day for us, for Canada, and for seasoned experts like yourself whom we all adore and aspire to be like. Please don’t lose faith in yourself, in journalism, or in us. The future is ours to change and to improve. Much love from Ontario.

    • Peter Nowak

      April 11, 2014 at 9:46 am

      If it makes you feel any better our profs used to also give us nothing but doom and gloom, and that was nearly 20 years ago! Just in case, though, learn how to make apps. ; )

  2. Shane Schick

    April 11, 2014 at 11:42 am

    There’s no denying how difficult the industry is right now, but I can’t contain my unbridled optimism for this life and this work. Whenever I realize I have a story worth telling — and have a chance to tell it somewhere — I can’t believe my good fortune. And I will do whatever I can to help whoever I can to enjoy the kind of career I’ve had so far.

  3. parridox

    April 11, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Ya all need to become more linked, in media or news & such. Good luck being better then the big business men out there.

  4. Simon Cohen

    April 11, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    Hit the nail on the head Pete.
    It’s getting harder and harder not to snort derisively when someone glibly says “content is king.” If that’s true, how come we’re surrounded by paupers?
    Guess it’s time to go create that future you alluded to. Who’s with me!?

  5. Ottawaboy

    April 13, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    CBC is inevitable. They’ve been dissing the convservatives , and after 3 terms the conservatives are not going to keep paying people to rise up against them.
    I have always thought government owned broadcasters should stay away from politics. There are three languages in this country and a lot of imigrants in need of language training (english , french , chinese in BC) . there should be language lessons on CBC. There should be a bunch of constumes and stages and props owned by the CBC that it loans out to students and the like can produce shows as part of their education. First aid coarses , canadian history drama’s . Things like that.

    But don’t diss the current government for 10+ years and then wonder why you’re getting mass layoffs. That’s just self inflicted.

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