Arthur Miller’s classic 1949 Pulitzer Prize–winning play Death of a Salesman opens with musical direction: “A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises.” The play follows Willy Loman, past 60, as his grasp on life crumbles amid job troubles. When, at the end of Act II, he reaches his beaten-down end, the melody soars again, this time a requiem. “Only the music of the flute,” writes Miller, “is left on the darkening stage….”
I heard this flute’s dirge throughout last summer and fall, as I made the rounds talking with downsized journalists—men and women who had gotten hooked on the profession as young, ink-stained idealists, only to find themselves cast out in mid- or later life. These veterans spoke of forced buyouts and failed job searches—of lost purpose, lost confidence, even lost homes. I had known of the decimation of my profession: I’d read the statistics, seen the news articles, watched old friends pushed from jobs as bureau chiefs, editors, senior reporters, into the free fall of freelance. But the texture of their Lomanesque despair surprised me. There were some grim moments.
Summer 2015, the West Coast: I’m chatting with a longtime friend, a great investigative reporter who was pushed out of a big-city daily. She’s managed to land a new, well-paying job—but it’s not in journalism. A mutual colleague told me that “it’s the most hated job she never wanted to do.” I insist that my friend needs to find a way back someday, because she has stunning reportorial talent. “I don’t remember that person,” she interrupts sharply.
Early fall 2015, a bar on the East Coast: An unemployed middle-aged writer whose work I’ve admired for decades agrees to meet for a drink. I buy the first round, he gets the second. In between we talk about editors and writers we know in common, about stories nailed and those that got away. Typical journo stuff. “So what do you want?” he asks finally. I explain that I’m seeking the human angle behind the news of thousands of downsized journalists. “Am I the lead to your story?” he asks, sizing me up, tensing. I feel that I’m losing him. Thus a Hail Mary: “Are you depressed?” His fast retort: “Are you trying to piss me off?” He walks out, leaving a full beer on the table.
2009 to present, somewhere in the United States: An e-mail arrives with the subject “Journalist, with inquiry about homelessness.” The sender thanks me for my 1985 book on the traveling homeless—because he’s now one of them after losing a journalism job. “I’m riding my mt. bike west, temporarily camped out in Kingman [Arizona], and I have lived under many a bush and in a few hostels along the way. I am a homeless transient without any money. Three college degrees to boot…. So here I sit, at the public library computer, typing out my stories and thinking about what to do.” We keep in touch for a while. Recent attempts to contact him end in failure.
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The term “seismic shift” is overused, but it applies to what’s happened to American newspapers. In 2007, there were 55,000 full-time journalists at nearly 1,400 daily papers; in 2015, there were 32,900, according to a census by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. That doesn’t include the buyouts and layoffs last fall, like those at the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Daily News, among others, and weeklies and magazines like National Geographic.
For most of the past century, journalists could rely on career stability. Newspapers were an intermediary between advertisers and the public; it was as if their presses printed money. The benefit of this near-monopoly was that newsrooms were heavily stocked with reporters and editors, most of them passionate about creating journalism that made a difference in their communities. It often meant union protection, lifetime employment, and pensions. Papers like the Sacramento Bee bragged to new hires in the 1980s that even during the Great Depression, the paper had never laid off journalists.
All of that is now yesterday’s birdcage lining. The sprawling lattice of local newsrooms is shrinking—105 newspapers closed in 2009 alone—whittled away by the rise of the Internet and decline of display ads, with the migration of classified advertising to Craigslist hitting particularly hard. Between 2000 and 2007, a thousand newspapers lost $5 billion to the free site, according to a 2013 study by Robert Seamans of New York University’s Stern School of Business and Feng Zhu of the Harvard Business School. Falling circulation numbers have also taken their toll.
And things may get a lot worse, according to former Los Angeles Times executive Nicco Mele. “If the next three years look like the last three years, I think we’re going to look at the 50 largest metropolitan papers in the country and expect somewhere between a third to a half of them to go out of business,” said Mele, now a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, in an interview a few weeks ago with the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.
Meanwhile, what remains of print journalism is shifting, morphing into a loose web of digital outfits populated by a corps of underpaid young freelancers and keyboard hustlers, Twitter fiends and social-media soothsayers. Gone are the packed newsrooms. And gone, in many cases, are the older journalists.
“Perhaps I’ve missed it, but has anyone done a story on how the newsroom layoffs of the past decade have been one of the greatest exercises in age discrimination in U.S. history?” asked R.G. Ratcliffe, who spent 33 years at papers ranging from the Houston Chronicle to The Florida Times-Union, in a 2012 comments thread on the media site JimRomenesko.com.
Some journalists have pursued age-discrimination lawsuits, but the cases are hard to make stick. In 2012, Connecticut Post reporter Anne Amato, then 64, argued that the paper wanted to “rid itself of its older reporters.” She lost in court. Last fall, a jury awarded $7.1 million to former Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers, 66. But early this year, the award was thrown out on appeal.
Part of the stated explanation for the exodus of veterans is cultural. Old-school journalism was a trade, and legacy journalists find today’s brand of personality journalism, with its emphasis on churning out blog posts, aggregating the labor of others, and curating a constant social-media presence, to be simply foreign. And the higher-ups share the new bias. One editor of a major national publication, who himself is well over 40, confided to me that he’s reluctant to hire older journalists, that “they’re stuck in the mentality of doing one story a week” and not willing to use social media.
Older journalists cost more as well, often making them the first to be let go or offered buyouts.
But the shift is also deeper and more systemic. Like the story of Willy Loman, cast aside in his creeping middle age, the tale of today’s discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes. Many older workers, not just journalists, are hurting. Amid the so-called recovery, some 45 percent of those seeking jobs over the age of 55 have been looking six months or longer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But there’s one major difference between other workers and journalists—when the latter are laid off, the commonweal suffers. “You know who loves this new day of the lack of journalism? Politicians. Businessmen. Nobody’s watching them anymore,” says Russ Kendall, a lifelong photojournalist and editor who is now self-employed as a pizza maker.
There are still print newspapers—and news websites—producing heroic local journalism. But it’s clear that the loss of a combined several hundred thousand years of experience from newsrooms across the country is hurting American democracy. Less known is the impact on this lost generation of talent, people at the peak of their skills—in their 40s and beyond, ill equipped to navigate the changed landscape. Their lives are intertwined with the story of the public good.
Many have changed careers and are doing well enough—on paper. Talk to them, however, and many say they miss the newsroom. Others soldier on, freelancing in a market of falling rates. Some drive for Uber; others lurch into early retirement, wondering if they’ll make it.
Journalists often seek an emblematic person to illustrate a story. But sometimes there’s no single through-line character. Sometimes there are 22,000 of them. These are a few of their stories.
* * *
In 1977, a small Ohio daily hired me at a weekly net pay of $90. In 1980, I drove to California seeking work. I lived out of my Datsun pickup, homeless, for three months, until The Sacramento Bee hired me. You could do that back then. In the newsroom, I was seated next to Hilary Abramson. She smoked little French cigars. Soon I was smoking cigars with her at our desks. You could also do that back then. I’d never met another reporter with so much energy: Abramson practically levitated.
Through the 1980s, I overheard Abramson as she reported on topics ranging from police abuse to a county poorhouse program that was declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court as a result of her exposé. She wrote the first major profile of Rush Limbaugh, then just a local radio personality. After the 1980s, she went on to be managing editor at the Pacific News Service, later a reporter funded by foundations. Then the money ran out. No one would hire her. She blames ageism. Like most of the journalists I interviewed, she said this was never spelled out, but rather implied. “I was told that I was ‘overqualified’ for a few editing jobs,” Abramson said when we sat down and talked last summer. “I considered that ageism at work. I would demand a realistic salary that younger journalists wouldn’t expect.”
Abramson, now 70, has freelanced. A magazine gave her an investigative assignment. When the contract came after months of work, it included a clause that “said absolutely all the liability was on me.” The editor said the new policy was driven by lawyers.
“I was dealing with a controversial subject that could incur the wrath of an entity with very deep pockets. I had to let it go. I worked for free,” she said. And the story never got told.
“I always knew right from the start I’d never be good working for myself. I’m not a businessperson—just let me do my work. Very few reporters I worked with were good on the business end. One thing I never contemplated was the end of newspapers. It’s like burying someone you love. It paralyzes me, angers me. I just haven’t found a way to go gently into the dark.”
The days, she said, could be very bleak. “We were not prepared—even us, who spent years listening to people pour their hearts out when bad things happened to them. We thought it would never happen to us. We had our bliss. What made us think it would go on forever?”
* * *
He’s 57 and worked for a 20,000-circulation daily in the Midwest for over 30 years. He was bought out last summer; over a quarter of the reporters, photographers, and editors there were let go. Like many downsized journalists, he asked to remain anonymous because he had to sign away his right to free speech to get 18 weeks of settlement pay.
“In 10 minutes, I was done,” he said of the meeting when he was told it was over. Being a pro, he worked the rest of the week to finish his assignments.
“I have a deep fear about what is happening to journalism. No one else is going to do what we do. In that way, we create a community. Television and radio only show up at the big things. They don’t show up at school-board meetings, the local drainage board. If your community is going to cut trash collection to every other week, television is not going to come.”
He wonders how long his former paper can survive, because the base of advertisers has shrunk.
“Who’s making money off the web? No one is going to pay $100 a week to get the newspaper—or whatever it costs, whatever advertising doesn’t pay. But if it goes away, America is going to go, ‘What the hell happened? We need that.’”
* * *
For most of the aughts, John Koopman reported gritty stories in the spirit of Charles Bukowski, written like good Hemingway, for the San Francisco Chronicle. He spent nearly a year riding in police cars for a series called “The Badge.” For “Skin,” he immersed himself in the city’s sex culture: strip joints, porn-film shoots, and clubs like Bondage A-Go-Go. He also embedded as a journalist with the US Marines in Iraq in three different years. He was nearly blown up twice, and saw a corporal 10 feet away from him shot dead by a sniper.
In 2009, the Chronicle dumped him, along with 30 other newsroom employees, on top of over 100 buyouts earlier that year. “I couldn’t get called back from places I wouldn’t have sneezed at when I was younger,” Koopman said of the ageism he encountered when looking for new journalism work.
He had a wife and teenage son and couldn’t move. “You do what you have to,” he recalled, “pull on the big-boy britches and get to work.” In 2011, he became the assistant general manager for the Hustler Club in San Francisco.
“I just wish I could’ve worked at the strip club before I became a journalist—I would have done a hell of a lot better job,” said Koopman, who is now 57. “You learn more things about human nature in that kind of environment than you’d ever learn with a notebook in your hand.”
His sense of social justice led him to make sure the women workers were treated with respect. He had to appear tough. Maybe it helped that he shaves his head bald. Fists were occasionally required when he threw out pimps and drug dealers. “I came to realize I was starting to have a really antisocial personality disorder,” he confessed. He told of a disruptive customer he eighty-sixed. The man demanded to finish his sandwich. “I thought, ‘What’s the worst thing I can say?’ So I said, ‘I’ll fuck your mother with that sandwich.’”
At the door, the man hurled the sandwich at Koopman, striking him in the leg. Had the customer not bolted, it would have been a “homicidal scene,” Koopman said. “I sat in the office afterward thinking, ‘My God, what the hell did I just do? I just told a guy I was gonna fuck his mother with his sandwich. Who am I? What kind of monster have I created here?’”
So he quit—it was 2013—and began driving for Uber.
“I had a lot of rage,” Koopman said of his initial frustration with the infamously bad Bay Area traffic. Perhaps there was also lingering anger toward the Chronicle’s executives. “I guess the way karma works is that you have to live with yourself. I can’t be the one to bring justice to the karmic universe. But, God, I hope somebody does.”
Before long, though, Koopman found Zen behind the wheel. He drives from 30 to 50 hours a week. “Nowadays, I’m like, ‘Whatever.’ Traffic doesn’t bother me; it’s either heavy or it’s not. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s almost like therapy.”
Between Uber and his wife’s income, “we make enough money to get by.” Someday “Koop,” as he’s known to former colleagues, wants to write a book about his days at the strip club. Another book idea is about gays in the military. But right now he’s ambivalent about the act of writing.
“I still love to tell stories. The way things have gone, I’m not sure how much I care if it gets out anymore. Sometimes life is more about what you do today—the relationships you have with people. Sometimes the story is just something you tell your son. Or it’s something that you publish. As long as you’re doing one of those things, it gets that beast expelled. I wish I were still working in a newspaper—I do. But at the same time, I might even be healthier today not doing it.”
* * *
Since 2012, when Lesley Guth earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology, she has spent her days sifting through other people’s joys and struggles, trying to help make sense of them. It’s a job that echoes her work in journalism, with its emphasis on listening, empathy, and interviewing people, but with one notable difference. “Being an older woman, my experience is valued as a therapist,” said Guth, 55. Not so in the newsroom, which she left in 2009 after taking a buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle. “Being older and a woman is not valued in journalism.”
Guth worked at 10 newspapers in her 20-plus years in the industry. At all of them, the majority of top editors “were older white men,” and many of them have remained despite the cuts. “Journalism never reached equality for women or minorities.”
Over the wide range of interviews I conducted, there was a strong sense that women are being downsized with greater frequency than men. “We have a lot of anecdotal information that indicates newspaper newsrooms have reverted back to older, whiter, and male-dominated,” said Melissa Nelson, director of collective bargaining for the Newspaper Guild, in an e-mail. But there are no hard numbers, she added.
A bit of quantification came from Frederick Kunkle, the cochair of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, who is also a reporter at The Washington Post. As part of a grievance proceeding, the paper provided “limited” numbers in 2012 for some 313 employees—but even that “flawed” set of data showed a pattern of management undermining women, as well as people age 40 and older. The employees were ranked on a scale of one to five, with one being the worst. Fifty-four percent of the group was over 40, but they made up 64 percent of those who scored below three. “Within the older age bracket with rankings below 3.0, women are targeted disproportionately,” Kunkle said. “Fifteen women are ranked low, while 10 men are low-ranked.” Conversely, 22 of the 33 who ranked over four were men “in a newsroom that is predominantly female.”
One woman downsized from the Post told me that she “always got good reviews and often got raises” in all of her years at the paper. Then, suddenly, her rankings were one and two. The day after a manager told her she was being let go, she won a journalism award.
* * *
In 2012, when photo editor Russ Kendall left The Bellingham Herald in Washington State—the last of his many journalism jobs—he started an artisanal-pizza company, Gusto Wood-Fired Pizza Catering. With a traveling oven, he sells his wares at markets and weddings. “I’m making twice what I made as a newspaper photographer.”
And in 2014, Kendall founded a Facebook group called “What’s Your Plan B?” It’s “a site for journalists who have been laid off, haven’t been laid off yet—which is everybody else—and those who have gone on to create a successful Plan B,” he said. It now has over 6,200 members. “Somebody became a doctor. Somebody else started a coffee company in Washington, DC, that turns out to be one of Obama’s favorite places.”
Scrolling through posts on the site feels like an enormous group hug. Many members share a profound sense of lost purpose. Kendall described the attitude of many journos: “It’s not just what I do—it’s what I am. I certainly felt that way for a long time.”
He’s also irked by the greed of newspapers. For decades, Wall Street had unreasonable expectations. In the 1980s, the Gannett Company’s dozens of papers had net pretax profit margins of between 20 and 30 percent— a common range for newspapers in that era. “If you take a business class, you will learn pretty quickly that if you can pay the bills and make 10 percent profit, you’re a raging success,” Kendall said.
As recently as the early 2000s, newspapers could get away with obscene profits because they were regional monopolies. Even now, many newspapers “are just trying to mitigate the stock reduction by a few pennies,” Kendall said. “I was heartsick watching people I care about lose their jobs. I started getting the feeling like I’ve been fooled all these years. Yeah, we did some good work, but really the bean counters always ran the show.” And now the workers are paying the price: “The people at the top don’t seem to be losing their jobs. But we are.”
So Kendall turned his back on his old trade and started making pizzas, a gig that “seems more honorable to me than to be involved with what passes for journalism these days. I used to give free pizzas to any journalist who was laid off. I had to stop because there are so many of them now.”
* * *
By nature, many journalists are outsiders. The job rewards the thick-skinned and relentless, and those who don’t start out as lone-wolf hustlers often end up that way. “There’s a perpetual adolescence to being a reporter,” explained my colleague Bruce Shapiro, who heads the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University’s journalism school. “In daily news, your job is deadline to deadline, day to day. T.S. Eliot calls it the ‘ecstasy of the animals.’ Living in the eternal present. Reporters live in the eternal present.”
This lifestyle often isn’t good for any kind of personal relationship. The journalist’s lot would be an isolated existence save for the fact that a newsroom is a tribe for outsiders.
Maybe that’s why so many people I interviewed felt so untethered. The journalist cast out of a newsroom is spun into a lonely orbit. I ran this theory by Shapiro, whose work at the Dart Center helps prepare journalists to cover trauma (and also, journalist friends say, helps them cope with their own in the process).
“I think that being the outsider is part of the mythology,” Shapiro said. “And then suddenly it turns out that the tribe doesn’t protect you against the economy; it doesn’t protect you against the bosses.”
For many young journalists, this reality is the only one they’ve known. Some are coming of age in a freelance universe, where the newsroom is as alien as a Smith Corona. Yet even in web-focused newsrooms full of fresh faces, where “old” means a reporter over 30, they can feel alone. And while many may be up for the challenge at first, they’re paying the price in both lost support and lost mentorship, particularly as veteran talent is expelled from the field.
I told a young newspaper journalist in the intermountain West (who asked to remain anonymous) how much seasoned pros had guided me early in my career. “Exactly,” he said. “I’m 24, and I feel like I’m already one of the better journalists in the state. I absolutely should not feel that way, but it’s because the good older ones are dropping off. What I want more than anything is to be surrounded by people who could take my work and hack it up, show me all the ways it could be better.”
* * *
In 2009, Barbara Ehrenreich gave a graduation speech at the University of California at Berkeley’s journalism school. “How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now?” she asked. “And I’ve spent time with plenty of laid-off paper-mill workers, construction workers and miners…. So let me be the first to say this to you: Welcome to the American working class.”
It was dark advice. But the times could at last be shifting. As digital journalism finds its place in the new-media landscape, helped by a crop of new web-only publications, younger journalists are beginning to demand the kind of work protections, decent wages, and newsroom solidarity that many of their older counterparts once enjoyed. In the past year, workers have voted to unionize at Gawker, Vice, Salon, and ThinkProgress, affiliating with the Writers Guild of America East, AFL-CIO. In January, The Huffington Post’s management voluntarily recognized the WGAE to represent 262 employees. The union negotiates “compensation, benefits, and job security” for its members.
The NewsGuild represents the digital newsrooms of The Guardian US and, until it folded last month, Al Jazeera America. (Since learning of the closing, a group of AJAM reporters have banded together to create a website and help one another find jobs.) People organizing at digital-media outlets are doing so for the same reasons that people did a generation ago, said Gabriel Arana, a former senior media editor at The Huffington Post, who was involved with the union drive. “A lot of these new-media companies feel like tech companies. But at a certain point, having free snacks at work means less than having a retirement account or a decent salary that you can raise a family on. Digital media is maturing. People in it want the stability to be able to make a career out of it.”
Still, some younger journalists worry about that distant day when they hit their 50s. “If so many talented career journos are leaving,” said the 24-year-old reporter in the intermountain West, “what do young ones like me have to look forward to?”