As the newspaper industry dies, thousands of journalists are out of work.
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.
I failed as a daily newspaper reporter. I worked a few years at small community newspapers on Long Island and New Jersey. Nobody would hire me at a bigger paper, so I shifted gears to technology journalism, where they were hungry for people who could report and write fast and well. At the time it felt like a defeat, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Now, most of the people I worked with starting out in tech journalism have left the field. Some others are freelancing. I’m very fortunate to have a good job — for now at least.