Restarting small

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It was late September in St. Louis, the time of year when the heat and humidity make the air feel like a wet wool blanket that wraps around you when you dare step outside of the air conditioning. We sat in a café in St. Louis’ Central West End, where the city’s old money lives, and new money plays. First date jitters were still pretty intense, and the search for light-hearted get-to-know-you banter continued.

“So you went back to college when you were in your 30s?” she asked.

“Yes, journalism is my second career,“ I said.

I told her I used to be a financial data analyst, but one day in 2010, in the middle of the recession, I voluntarily left a perfectly good job to go to journalism school.

A look of utter bewilderment crept across her face.

“Fred, why the hell would anyone do that?”

It was an excellent question. And in my defense, my doctor assures me I’m most likely only incredibly stupid, not certifiably insane.

***

In my former industry, the average income is hovering around the $100,000 mark, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of jobs available will be increasing by around 34 percent over the next several years. The BLS, by contrast estimates average the salary for print journalists in the U.S. are almost $46,000 per year, according to the BLS, and the BLS expects growth in the job to be stuck around 2.4 percent over the next few years.


Once we get past the starry-eyed idealism and visions of writing the next great Pulitzer-winning investigative story, what we’re really left with is a very poor decision to enter a low-growth, low-wage industry that faces a plethora of problems adapting to the disruptive power of the internet.

So why be a journalist, and why leave a major metropolitan daily to move to a small-town weekly newspaper in Saratoga, Wyoming?

Well, I’m still a bit of a doctrinaire idealist when it comes to journalism. I absolutely was kvelling when I saw the recent movie, Spotlight—the true story of the team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe that broke the story of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child sex abuse. “That’s what it’s all about, not money” I kept saying. It was about the pursuit of truth, being a watchdog and standing up for those who have nobody else to do it. The movie reminded me why this profession, despite all the problems it is suffering though right now, is still important and why it’s still worth doing.

And even though winning Pulitzers and writing stories of national and international importance is still appealing, local news in a small town is truly the heart of what a newspaper should do, and is the one area where national corporate media outlets and the internet are less disruptive, meaning that a small paper like the Saratoga Sun may actually be very well positioned to weather the storm that is ravaging journalism right now.

According to industry analysts, newspaper circulation has been decreasing for the past decade, thanks primarily to competition from other media and, most disruptively, the Internet. Even though many papers have become “Internet first”—or even online only—publications, digital ad revenue has not compensated for losses in the print advertising side of the house.

When it comes to national and international news, people have the choice of newspapers of a national scope like the New York Times and Washington Post, various network and cable news outlets, magazines, and online-only publications.

In small towns like Saratoga, it is equally important for people to know what is going on in their community. Small town newspapers are a key component in a robust local economy. Residents rely on on the paper for information, and businesses rely on it for advertising.

And that is why working at a smaller paper like the Saratoga Sun represents a huge opportunity, despite the small size of the paper itself. Not only is it an opportunity to cover news that matters which otherwise may not be uncovered, but also to be here at a time of change.

Technology has already transformed the way people in large cities get news, and for better or for worse, it will also transform the way people here in Saratoga consume their news, too.

That may be the best opportunity afforded by restarting small: the ability help out as a small-town newspaper begins to reconcile itself to things bigger city papers have been struggling with for years.

Too me, this is why it’s a great time to be a journalist, doom and gloom notwithstanding.

 

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