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Money in Journalism? Know Where to Look

4 min read

A recent tweet posed a tough question to news veterans. If a promising young person asked, would you still recommend a journalism career?

My boss, Gwen Moritz, answered yes — if you’re talking about business news.

Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, noted that niche publications are still hiring, and the business niche is faring far better than the news industry as a whole. As an officer of the Alliance of Area Business Publishers, a nationwide group, she knows whereof she speaks.

“I despair for daily newspapers, but weekly @ArkBusiness is at peak paid subscriptions since we started requiring readers to subscribe if they want our unique content,” she replied. “It’s a niche product for an audience that can and will pay, certainly not a paper of record.”

Since 1995, American newspapers have trimmed 65 percent of their jobs, leaving new media companies with their savvy digital business plans as the last great hope for a stable job market in written journalism. (TV news job numbers have held steadier.)

But layoffs rocked the whole journalism world late last month, devastating legacy and new media companies alike. Cuts hit Gannett, the major newspaper chain known here for buying the venerable Arkansas Gazette in 1986 and overseeing its demise. But the big psychic blow was a spate of layoffs in new media.

News divisions at AOL and Huffington Post took 7 percent cutbacks; BuzzFeed targeted a whopping 15 percent of its total workforce. Bruce Sterling, writing in Wired under the glum headline “Digital Journalism Is Collapsing, Because It’s Journalism,” joked that places like BuzzFeed were seen as last chances, robust enough to keep hiring as other outlets retrenched.

Not so.

Investors are realizing, Sterling surmised, that even with great effort and years to build audiences, digital profits may always be modest, “with no clear path to further growth.”

Will only time-honored brands like The New York Times and the Washington Post have the scale to make digital journalism pay? Will profitability go exclusively to publications with a tight focus?

Arkansas Business Publisher Mitch Bettis won’t speak for the entire industry, but he clearly applies niche publishing’s “Everything About Something” approach, a model promoted by Hearst executive Matt DiRienzo last month in Editor & Publisher.

Here’s Bettis: “We understand the unique value of focusing on high-value niche audiences like C-suite decision-makers. Our hyper focus on a targeted audience has been a strength of our company for decades. We don’t try to be all things to all people. We know providing exceptional content to niche audiences brings value to readers, and it lets advertisers get in front of the most qualified prospects.”

Decades of journalism job losses have crippled many daily general-interest papers, thwarting civic coverage and investigative and enterprise reporting. The stakes go beyond the lives disrupted and career paths cut off; democracy itself is at risk. With its nosy watchdogs asleep, the public gets robbed.

Still, there’s hope.

In my mid-50s, cut adrift after 17 years at The New York Times and needing one of the few surviving news jobs available, by luck I landed at a paper set to break readership records. In my old hometown.

And just as I never dreamed in my first newsroom 38 years ago that I’d be writing stories read on mobile phones, today’s digital journalists may be shocked by some paradigm-shifting business model or technology just over the horizon.

WEHCO Media Chairman Walter Hussman has big hopes for a program that cuts costly print distribution of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in far reaches of the state. It lends $800 iPads to readers switching from print to digital subscriptions; it’s the latest in a string of innovations like free want ads and paid obits that Hussman and team used in previous existential crises. We wish him the best.

Now, what would I say to a journalism-curious youngster?

Journalism needs you, but can you stand its torments? Revealing the truth is satisfying, but deadlines and job worries are constant, the work painstaking. You’ll be called a vulture, a shill and a moron, even a news faker, but you’ll work with some of the smartest, funniest people anywhere.

And you’ll never get rich. Or, almost never. One of my former newspaper colleagues here in Little Rock was a man named Tucker Carlson.

But that’s a whole other column …

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