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Media layoffs spark a question: What happens to the middle-class journalist?



When I look at the steadily rising total of year-end layoffs, I see the steelworkers of my youth.Newspaperhawkerimage

Growing up in Gary, Ind., during the '70s, I saw the impact as the local steel mill industry shrank from 30,000 jobs at its height to 3,000 positions in short order. Before long, a time-honored progression was forever disrupted, where kids who weren't bound for college, civil service or the military could still get jobs that might lead to middle class wages.

Now, I see a media industry where some of the most talented, experienced and middle-class writers are being cut loose from the operation. Much as you want to avoid hyperbole and overreaction, it feels like another turn toward the online economic model -- where mostly owners and big managers are paid decent wages, and costs are kept low by keeping a tight lid on wages for most workers.

In an information age where anyone can have a Web site or self-publish a book or put up a podcast or Webcast, what happens to the value of the skills of professional information gatherers, particularly when more corporate managers are embracing the ethic that quality may cost too much?

Exhibit A: the new surge in layoff announcements in recent days, likely spurred by ongoing pessimism about the 2009 economy and the growing realization that political advertising won't be around to cushion next year's third quarter.

These days, media Web sites can feel like a roster of penguins pushed off the ice floe. Editor and Publisher notes layoffs at Gannett newspapers nationwide will reach 2,000 people, including 52 jobs in Indianapolis and 50 jobs in Honolulu. TVNewser reports NBC-Universal is cutting 500 jobs amid cost reductions aimed at saving $500-million, with reporters Don Teague and John Larson among those cut. The Web site also reports Donny Deutsch's CNBC show is on hiatus and former CBS News producer Josh Howard has left NBC's business channel. Viacom also announced recently it will eliminate 850 jobs across the company.

Obrien_12_3 Former WTSP reporter Miles O'Brien (shown at left)  is leaving CNN after that newschannel eliminated its science and technology reporting department. Cox Media is closing its newspaper chain bureau in Washington D.C. and combining its newspapers, radio and TV chains under a single organization.

And then Maureen Dowd weighed in with a breezy column about a California newspaperman who is using workers in India to cover public meetings in his town -- via online -- to cut labor costs by more than half (in the column, the editor admits his reporters may not always understand the importance of stuff happening during the meetings, but so what?).

All this is the result of our well-documented economic slowdown, the ongoing media recession and the disruption of adjusting to  digital technology. But I wonder if media outlets' response to this ever-adjusting landscape will make it tough for ground-level reporters to earn a middle-class living.

And what will happen to our news infrastructure if that becomes a reality?


[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:53pm]


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