What does 'job security' mean for a journalist, anyway?

First, I want to recommend that all online journalists take a look at Howard Owens’ excellent piece on what AOL is asking its Patch editors to do on a daily basis: You should only work this hard if you own the business.

I tweeted that link to my followers this week, and got some push-back from friends and colleagues. Their reaction boiled down to: “What about job security?”

They tried to argue that Patch editors have job security that self-employed news publishers don’t enjoy. But working for someone else doesn’t equate to job security. From my perspective, it’s not working for someone else that provides the ultimate in job security.

An agreement from an employer to cut you a weekly check means nothing if that employer goes under. Or if it cuts you loose. Patch hardly looks like a stable employer at this stage, with reports of multi-million dollar losses and few signs of black ink anywhere in its network.

But even profitable employers lay off workers. The Los Angeles Times was still fat with cash from the real estate bubble when it bought out me and dozens of other employees in 2004. Unless you are the owner of the company, you’re always at risk for a lay-off. (Which is why I now work for myself. Given that I wasn’t born into some rich newspaper family, this was the only way I was ever going to be the owner of a publishing company.)

That’s also why the “job security” argument just doesn’t resonate with me. Even an argument that full-time employment delivers income security leaves me skeptical. While it’s nice to know that you are supposed to have a consistent income from week to week over the upcoming months, what happens if your boss taps you on the shoulder and says “I need to see you in my office” and you find a HR department rep waiting there?

(In addition, while income security can mean that your paycheck isn’t going down, it also means that your paycheck isn’t going up, either. In my family, if we have an unforeseen expense, I bust my rear by selling some extra ads to make up the difference. I wouldn’t have that option with most salaried newsroom gigs.)

To me, job security means working for someone who I know will never fire me. In my experience, with this industry in this economy, there’s only one person I trust fits that description: Me.

I understand that not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. And, frankly, it’s a sad statement about our economy if only the self-employed would enjoy any reasonable job security. Many people are holding onto jobs, even in this lousy economy. So how can you take an honest look at your situation, and get an accurate assessment of just how secure your job really is?

Here are a few signs that your newsroom job might not be as secure as you believe:

You’re doing commodity reporting, with no scoops and no voice

Whether you work for yourself or someone else, you’ve got to deliver an original product if you’re going to survive in a competitive marketplace. In the news business, you’ve got two main ways to distinguish yourself: 1) Provide news people want or need that no one else has, or 2) Provide fresh analysis, perspective or a voice no one else does.

Unfortunately, most newsrooms employ copy desks charged with stripping the individual voice from your work like dairy farmers homogenizing the milk from their cows. Blogging has provided a refuge for many newspaper writers, giving them a place at work where they can speak in their unique voice. Take advantage, if you have the opportunity. And don’t settle into daily, predictable beat reporting. Seek fresh news – the scoops that make people pay attention to your work. Develop a reputation as a fresh voice with fresh news, and you’ll not only be more valuable to your employer, you’ll build an audience that you can keep with you, to your financial benefit, should your employer ever get stupid and let you go.

The more degrees of separation between you and the owner, the less secure you are

The owner retains ultimate responsibility for decisions in a workplace. If the owner (or CEO) knows you personally, and knows your value to the company, then you’re safe. (Assuming you bring value to the company, of course.) The farther you work away from the owner’s attention, the more variables exist between you and that ultimate decision maker – variables that can hide or distort your value.

Maybe that works in your favor, and you endure forever, drawing a paycheck as the corporate cog everyone forgot to fire. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you’re the hotshot reporter laid off because an editor took credit for your work and the editor’s boss didn’t know any better. It’s chance, really. And if your future is left to chance, you’re insecure.

If one decision by someone outside the company can wipe you out, you’re not secure

I start every presentation I make about news entrepreneurship by telling my audience the same thing: “When the music stops, always have a chair.” Unfortunately, too many online news businesses are built upon single sources of revenue – gaming Google through SEO for search engine traffic, building publications dependent upon one huge advertiser, or starting a non-profit that runs on a single massive grant.

If Google changes its algorithm, that sponsor changes its ad budget, or that foundation doesn’t renew the grant – you’re done. Don’t assume that your job’s secure because your business has one big outside patron. If that’s all you have, your job is definitely insecure. Look for work situations where the company is supported my multiple sources of revenue. Look for rooms with lots of chairs.

You’re doing the same work as an independent operator, but for someone else

Returning to Howard’s piece, which sent me into the topic: If you’re doing the same work as someone who’s running his or her own company, you’re not as secure as you could be. Remember, that independent publisher doesn’t have to pay for corporate overhead, and corporate profits. As an employee, the money you make in your market does have to cover those costs, in addition to your pay and expenses. If ad sales or other income lag, it won’t be the corporate overhead that takes the first hit. It’ll be your office budget – and your pay that will suffer first.

Trust me, if AOL’s taking losses, it’s not going to turn to bankruptcy to protect the incomes of its Patch editors.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Terrific post. You and Howard are dead on about this. These are extremely difficult times for journalists and the journalism business. The more that journalists understand the business, and how to make their way in it–independently–the better off they’ll be. Don’t depend on the fortunes of an unstable employer–learn how to go out and make your own fortune.