>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.

>Corporate owners dominate the field

>Over the years when asked about offering freelance articles or reprints to more than one newspaper, I have offhandedly mentioned that writers should try not to offer the same piece to papers owned by the same companies. Well, that’s getting pretty hard these days. A quick Google search landed me at a very useful site from the Columbia Journalism Review that tells who owns what. You can find it at http://www.cjr.org/resources.

The situation is even worse than I thought. Let’s just look at three companies out of about 30 listed. The MediaNews Group has purchased every single one of the general interest newspapers I worked for back in California. They now own the San Jose Mercury News, all of the community newspapers that used to be part of the Metro group in Silicon Valley, the Pacifica Tribune, the Milpitas Post, where I did my internship, and lots more. In fact, they boast 57 newspapers nationwide, far too many to list here, plus other types of media.

The Tribune Company owns a long list of radio stations, plus the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Hartford Courant, three Spanish-language papers and more.

Lee Enterprises lists eight single-spaced pages of newspapers. Those include the Newport News-Times, where I worked for a year, and several other Oregon papers.

What does this mean for freelancers? It’s not good news. First, these companies share staff-written stories to the extent that they need far fewer freelancers. To take one example, the weekly community newspapers in Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County, CA) and the big metro daily, the San Jose Mercury News, are all owned by the same company. Therefore, whenever the Merc wants a local story, it can just grab it from the weeklies. Looking at its website, it clearly makes great use of this option. I’m told the writers don’t make any extra money, just extra exposure.

Second, when you’re looking to market a story to multiple papers, the fact that so few owners run so many of them shortens the list of places you can offer that story.
It may be that in some cases papers clear across the country rarely share or even communicate with each other, but you can’t know that for sure.

This also means, for journalism in general, that papers are being standardized, losing their local personalities. When I started, I worked for local publishers who were part of the community and independent as hell. Now far too many publishers are just employees of the bigger corporation, and independents find it hard to compete.

That said, don’t give up. There are still a lot of papers covering a lot of territory. But do make use of the CJR list to see who owns what before you go offering the same piece to papers in the same family. The list includes links to the individual newspapers, giving you access to editors’ contact information and, in some cases, guidelines for writers.

This entry got longer than I intended, but it’s an important subject.