Keeping your job in journalism

A veteran journalist wrote me via e-mail not long ago. An award-winning print reporter and editor, he has taken, in recent years, to writing for the Web.

“I do not understand how a young person, or an older one, can make a living this way,” he wrote. “I think journalism is returning to what it was when I started, very low paid, opportunities only to the best, the luckiest and the most intense workers, chances of hitting it big minimal.”

My correspondent lamented the meager payment now available to many beginning journalists, online and off, questioning whether any young reporters will have the time and resources to pursue the complicated public interest stories upon which he built his career.

“Not until the papers, blessed with profits, increased their salaries (thanks to the Newspaper Guild) and began attracting the brightest people did journalism improve and really accomplish something in public service,” he wrote.

He is far from alone in his concerns. I’ve heard variations on this theme at dozens of industry conferences and informal get-togethers over the years. While I know a few individuals who have built their web work into six-figure, or more, incomes, I know many more who struggle to crack four figures in annual income for their online work. Not to mention the newspaper-dot-com managers panicked at the thought of more high-margin print classified and display advertising evaporating in the face of the hypercompetitive new media market.

Yet I remain optimistic about journalism’s future, as well as the future awaiting many individual journalists.

How? Because journalism’s failure began many years before the arrival of the World Wide Web. The end of newspaper competition in most markets left the winners to get fat off monopoly profits, with little incentive, or reward, for providing exceptional coverage. The lack of another paper in town undercut Guild leverage, as remaining employees were happy to take what they could get. If a newsroom did strike, there was no other paper for readers to take, leaving many of them to drop the newspaper habit. On the broadcast side, the end of the Fairness Doctrine and the beginning of the laissez-faire FCC launched the race to the bottom for commercial broadcast news and comment, eliminating another source of factual competition for the local newspaper.

With the Web, however, competition is back. While that is crushing profit margins and leading newsrooms to pay even lower salaries for some right now, competition provides the medicine that promises to wipe out the disease of complacency that has been killing this field.

So how do you help ensure that you will be one who survives this competition? The key lies in abandoning any expectation that an employer will protect you. It is *your* responsibility to create enough value around your individual work that employers will want to pay you and readers will want to read what you have to report. Part of that responsibility requires you to do good, honest, accurate and insightful journalism. But another significant part will require you to go beyond reporting and to promote both your work and your name as a trusted media “brand.”

I could teach an entire course on preparing yourself to compete in online media (and I do work this topic into every course I do teach here at USC Annenberg). But for those of you staring at imminent layoffs and buyouts, here’s the quick guide to what smart journalists need to do to survive, and do great work, in the Internet era.

Step One: You must create content that readers will value highly.

Readers “pay” for your content in several ways:

  • First, with their time to read it.
  • Second, with the time to read other, related content on the site, including relevant ads.
  • Third, with their effort, such as clicking to forward your work to others, to vote in a poll, to comment on your work and, ultimately, to blog or file some other original report on your site.
  • Finally, if they really love it, they might even “pay” you with… money.

    Unfortunately, much traditional news content provides little value to anyone. With so much content available, from hundreds of TV channels, thousands of movies and millions of websites, people do not want he-said/she-said stenography that leaves them to have to sort out who’s lying or telling the truth. Nor do they want thoroughly reported straw man stories that try to gin up controversy where, actually, not enough exists to be worth readers’ valuable time.

    Two of my favorite models for success online publications are Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated, two firms that have built lucrative websites based on reader subscriptions, not advertising. Yes, even that can be done, but one must to create substantial value for those readers to do it.

    Today’s successful reporters need to be experts on their beats, with the ability to help readers by sorting truth from spin, and the important from the trivial. This doesn’t mean an end to objectivity, just a recommitment to following the facts where they lead, instead of stopping short out of fear that someone won’t like that.

    Some journalists won’t be comfortable making those calls. Others will blow them, time after time. Don’t be one of them. Read, talk, study; embrace journalism as a continuing education that enables you to become, and remain, the expert that your readers want to guide them through the mass of information they face. And don’t expect an employer to pay you to do that. You must be willing to make that investment in time.

    Step Two: You must promote your content to individuals most likely to value it highly.

    Most established news organizations remain clueless about how to promote their work in the social medium of the Internet. Make it your personal responsibility to do better with your work.

    Build a list of readers and sources to message whenever your publish a new piece. Facebook and other social networks provide an easy way to start with this. Just create a page and invite readers and sources to become your “friends.”

    Give readers easy-to-use tools to forward and share your work. Link to other sources and politely invite other writers and sites that cover your beat to link to you, from time to time.

    When I worked at the Los Angeles Times, a few fellow online editors would hit Google to find discussion boards and fan sites covering people and movies the entertainment section was featuring the next day. We’d e-mail those webmasters links to our stories even before they’d hit the front page of And we often found that those sites sent those stories more traffic than other pages on the Times’ website did.

    Don’t wait for an editor on your website’s staff to do this for you. Do it yourself.

    If you are a solo publisher, use your knowledge of the news industry to elicit editorial coverage for your site. Every year on the Fourth of July, the theme park website I run gives out awards to the top attractions in the country, based on reader surveys from the site. That holiday is usually a slow news period, and over the years, dozens of news organizations have picked up stories about the awards.

    Step Three: Make yourself the brand.

    You want to ensure that the value you’ve created with your content and your promotion of it is associated with you. Yeah, it is selfish, but you’re trying to save a job here. Blogging gives you a stronger brand on a website than tiny bylines do. (A blog gives you your own URL, much larger font-size byline and usually a head shot.) A strong Facebook or MySpace following amplifies your brand. Sending personal e-mail alerts to fans sustains your relationship with them. In-bound links to your name (or, if you are a solo publisher, your site’s name), creates enduring value by boosting your brand’s search engine value.

    And when your name is more valuable, that makes you more valuable to employers, investors and advertisers. Reward yourself for your hard work in creating value for your readers by doing everything you can to make sure that everyone knows just who did that work.

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. says:

      My sense is that, increasingly and I think inevitably, journalism will become an avocation, fulltime primarily for people with inherited wealth or married to medical or legal professionals. I speak here as a geezer and a crank — although one with an established if modest personal brand. For the most part (there are exceptions, like my Orlando Sentinel colleague, Hal Boedeker, “The TV Guy”) blogs are karaoke journalism, for hobbyists and narcissists. In a market economy a thing is worth what others will pay for it: Res ipsa loquitur. Mark I. Pinsky, Senior Reporter/Religion, Orlando Sentinel

    2. says:

      Is there anyone you would single out as a role model for what you’re recommending?

    3. says:

      I think the only other thing you must have to keep your job in journalism is to really love it. Unfortunately, I feel like too many journalists got into the business for the “glamour” or the dream of winning huge awards. I’ve managed to stay online for 10 years, blogging even before it was called blogging, just because I loved it, not for anyone else. I accidentally learned how to make a little bit of money, but I would still be doing it even if I wasn’t making money.

    4. says:

      Hobbyists and narcissists

    5. says:

      I agree, although I also believe we need to redefine what “objective” means. Consumer Reports is objective to us, but if you’re at the bottom of their list of best products, you have some complaints.

      We should be able to dismiss sources that aren’t credible, and their stories, too.

      I worked 13 years at the OC Register, grew frustrated with corporate journalism and started my own community paper. We might never win a Pulitizer, but we’ve got readers — and advertisers.

      Check out

      Jonathan Volzke, San Juan Capistrano, CA

    6. says:

      Not at the Philadelphia Inquirer. They want their people to be anonymous, they want them OFF the tv and radio, and they want exclusivity to blogs, even such blogs existed outside the paper before the paper itself created their own. They don’t want brand recognition. They want bland recognition. No one may stand out. Everyone must mesh together. It is any wonder newspapers are dying with this kind of blind eye toward merging of multi-media and understanding the web?

    7. Great post. One thing I’d add is that the journalism skills will always be in demand but if you think they’re only applicable to print or broadcast, you’re vastly underestimating your potential.

      You might find these recent audio interviews on this subject of interest:

      Alberto Ibarguen, CEO and president of the Knight Foundation

      Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New Media Professor