>Grim news from Chicago

>Perhaps you read this morning that the Tribune Company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. They own the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other papers. Advertising is down, and they’re struggling to get out of debt without going under. As with so many other industries, it’s a tough year for newspapers. If you’re looking for a job right now in the mainstream media, forget about it. Longtime reporters and editors are moving into online gigs, PR jobs, freelancing, teaching, and work totally unrelated to the media. Every week, I seem to read another writer’s goodbye column. In other industries, it may be a question of riding out the storm until the economy improves and the jobs come back, but the jobs may not come in the newspaper business, at least not in the mega-papers we’re used to seeing. Instead, people will be working in multi-media jobs much different from the ones they left.

This morning’s Oregonian was thinner than my bi-weekly local newspaper. A blurb on the front page last week explained that Monday’s papers will now combine international, national and local news, along with business, into one section. They didn’t even pretend it was part of a fancy new design. It’s cheaper to do it that way, the editors wrote.

No question the big guys are hurting. However, on a recent KUOW radio broadcast recommended by a blog reader, spokesmen for the American Press Institute, the Port Townsend (Washington) weekly, and for Robinson Newspapers in the Seattle area reported that weekly community newspapers are doing better than the dailies. Why? Their tight focus on local news creates a loyal audience of readers and hence loyal advertisers. These papers, like the ones I grew up on in the Bay Area, are part of the fabric of the community. Their readers trust them. Surveys do show an age difference. Most readers are over age 35. Those under 35 get more of their news on the Web. So the papers put their news online as well as on paper. Either way,they are still aiming at folks who live and work in the community.

One of the things that keeps the local papers going is low overhead. They don’t have hundreds of reporters or editors. They have a handful of multi-tasking editorial staffers and what Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Association, called an “army of freelancers and stringers.” These include new writers working to gain experience and build their clips as well as newspaper veterans who want to keep a hand in the business. That’s where we freelancers fit in.

So what’s the moral of this story? As one of my publishers used to say, lower your news sights. If the L.A. Times’ owners are talking bankruptcy, now is not a good time to try to break in there. Look to the community weeklies, alternative papers and specialty newspapers. You might not get rich, but you can get published and paid for it.