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Young Journalists Move Beyond the Printed Page

New America Media, Commentary, Russell Morse Posted: May 29, 2009

Growing up, the guys in the movies I admired were hack reporters: guys with rumpled fedoras and sweat stains on their shirts, five oclock shadows and quarts of whiskey in their desks. They were perfect characters because they werent outlaws or cops; they were outside of that ridiculous dichotomy, but still always in the mix.

This is my dream. Ive always wanted to be a crusty guy, fast-talking and angling his way into everything, appropriately and otherwise. I also saw journalism as my way to do some small good in the world. Now I have to confront the idea that my dream is obsolete.

Earlier this year, Denvers Rocky Mountain News printed its final edition, just shy of its 150th anniversary. Early in December, the Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, among others, filed for bankruptcy protection. The Seattle Post Intelligencer is now available exclusively online. Miami, Boston, Detroit and my hometown, San Francisco, are all racing toward a life without printed dailies.

There are plenty of things to ponder in all of this carnage: What will become of our democracy? Where can I read Marmaduke? But I have a more personal consideration. What does this mean for young journalists who, like me, have given their lives to a dream that now seems obsolete?

According to the American Society of News Editors, which has tracked employment numbers since 1978, American newspapers shed 5,900 newsroom jobs in 2008. Since a peak in modern newsroom employment in 2001, nearly 10,000 reporting jobs out of a total of 56,000 have been lost. In spite of this, the number of students entering journalism programs in this country is holding steady and is, by some accounts, increasing.

In other words, the dismal reality of a crumbling industry is not stifling the enthusiasm of young aspiring journalists.

Krishtine de Leon is a 26-year-old Los Angeles-based music journalist. In college, she wound up in the journalism department because she loved to write and the creative writing program was too weird for her. For most of her time in the major, she was doubtful that she could make a living out of the kind of work she was drawn to, but she found her place. Music and writing were always just hobbies, she says, until I learned that people like me, people of color, were out there doing it.

She took her final project, an investigative piece on rap-related murders, and sold it to the local alternative weekly. She used that clip to work her way into editing a popular and influential local hip-hop magazine. And then began the meteoric rise.

Through a televised competition hosted by MTV that I participated in, De Leon landed a spot as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine at 23 years old. She also wrote several cover stories for The Source magazine. It was such a high point that I wanted to keep pushing, says De Leon. But there was nothing to push.

In the past year, her time-constricted position at Rolling Stone expired and she has been locked in a dispute with The Source, which still hasnt paid her for her work. Meanwhile, the entire magazine industry is imploding and she hasnt had anything published since August 2008.

But shes still making moves.

Because work is scarce, De Leon decided to work on sharpening her skills. A website called mediabistro.com offers inexpensive one-day journalism classes and shes been attending as many as she can. Ive started doing different types of journalism, not just print, she says. I did video interviews, started editing stuff and putting it directly up.

According to De Leon, the crowds in the mediabistro.com seminars are diverse and she seems comforted by the types the people she shares a room with. Its surprising, she says. Some of the people in these classes with me are very, very experienced newspaper dinosaurs.

De Leon, who is engaged, gave birth early last year. She says, quite plainly, that maybe journalism isnt the best way to feed a family, but its her passion. Im working and learning. Well see.

De Leons tempered optimism is not unique among young journalists. Nick Mukhar is a 22-year-old journalism student at the University of San Francisco. He started doing newspaper work in high school and took a liking to it. In the six years then, he has learned to adapt to the changes.

When I started thinking about jobs, I thought of a writing profession, Mukhar says. But now everything is multimedia. You need to be able to write, speak on camera, do online content. Nobody is going to get a job just writing. Its kind of sad, but you have to evolve.

Mukhar will receive his undergraduate degree this year and knows that job prospects are scarce. His plan is to stay in school to obtain a masters in journalism and see how things look in another couple of years. He has some reluctance, though. Im debating whether I want to do grad school. My main concern is that theyre a little behind.

Mukhar is confident that the industry will rebound because of what he sees in his peers. Our generation is still interested in journalism, he says. There has to be a future in it.

Mukhar considers himself in a unique position as a member of the generation that will determine its future. The older generation is afraid of change, he says. Were not. They dont want to adapt, theyre stuck in their ways. Were going to be the ones who turn journalism into this multi-media thing where the newspaper is obsolete, but were making a whole new thing.

Ernest Sotomayor, assistant dean of career services at Columbia Universitys School of Journalism, has seen the waves of change over the past few years. There are fewer opportunities for the old time newspaper jobs, which is unfortunate because a lot of people are still interested in those jobs, Sotomayor says. But there are more companies that are looking for people that have digital journalism skills: photo, audio, video and so on. What hasnt changed a lot, he says, is that companies are looking for people with solid journalism skills.

Sotomayor acknowledges that there has been a heightened anxiety level among students lately, but he has some strategies for talking them through it. The best thing to do, he says, is to remind them that journalism isnt going away.

I share some of the optimism of my peers because I am excited to stick around and be a part of restructuring the whole game. Im not being scared into medical school or accounting, flailing for some empty stability. I have to remind myself that while my story is not unique, my chronological position in this fracas is. Im young enough that Im on an upward trajectory in my career, still struggling and far from whatever ultimate success I might have accomplished.

Im also older than the young people I mentor, who are masters of new media (blogging, vlogging, shooting, editing and producing their own accompanying multimedia). Im stuck in the middle: The first publication I wrote for didnt even have a Web site. And this commentary will probably never see a printed page.

Last year, I left San Francisco for New York City, seeking success in the media capital of the world. Every interview I had reminded me that we were in a decline from which we would never recover. Every well-connected friend I met with, when I said I was looking for a job, looked at me and said, Me too.

My advantage is my relative youth. Ive registered russellmorse.com. I bought a new camera. Ill keep telling stories, documenting this historic decline, whether Im paid for it or not. Ill put my laptop in a handkerchief, tie it to a stick and march down the railroad tracks. This is what I do.

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