Monday, July 20, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - First in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers

How best to get at the cost for society, for journalism and for journalists of the loss of thousands of jobs at American newspapers? This series tries to do it by asking journalists who have shown themselves capable of producing work of the highest caliber - winners of the Pulitzer Prize who are no longer at a newspaper - for their reflections on what happened to them, what it's meant and how they view the future. 

It should be emphasized that this series does not mean to underestimate the importance of the loss of the job of any journalist. But to get at the meaning of the departure of thousands of journalists from American newsrooms, I thought it best to focus on just a few, in the hope that doing so would be the best way to illuminate the story. To me, it's a sign of how serious the times are that even people with this type of track record are now on the outside, without a newspaper to support their journalism.

The series begins today with an e-mail interview with Deborah Nelson, co-winner of the 1997 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting (with Eric Nalder and Alex Tizon) for a Seattle Times report on abuses in HUD's Indian housing program. As an editor, Nelson worked on two other Pulitzer-winning projects, a series on the deadly accident record of the Harrier jump jet at the Los Angeles Times and a series at The Washington Post on children who died while in the District's child welfare system. In her last newspaper job, Nelson was the Washington investigative editor for the Los Angeles Times.

Last paper: The Los Angeles Times

Pulitzer:  I shared the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a Seattle Times series on waste and corruption in the federal government's Indian housing program.  I also was a project editor on two series that won Pulitzers in 2002 and 2003: a Washington Post series on child protective services and a Los Angeles Times series on the Marine Harrier jump jet.  
Reason for leaving:  I left my job as L.A. Times Washington investigative editor in the fall of 2006 for a faculty position at the Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland.  I left for a mix of reasons.   First, mid-life crisis:  I was ready for something new after 30 years in newspapers -- at the LAT, Washington Post, Seattle Times and Chicago Sun-Times, among others.  Second, radical changes in the industry: I wanted to have a hand in shaping the future.  I didn't see the newsroom as the best place to have an impact at the time.  

My friends think I was prescient. Within a couple years, the LAT bureau was drastically downsized and eventually absorbed into a single, compact Washington bureau serving all Tribune papers.  The 8-person I-Team that I ran is gone, and so are all the reporters and researchers who were on it- - including three Pulitzer winners, only one of whom is still in newspapers. 
Now / life after newspapers:  I am teaching full-time and recently finished my first book, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes (Basic Books, 2008).  I'm often asked if I miss being in the newsroom.  Well, the newsrooms I knew are fast disappearing, so I try not to look back.  It's a strange feeling.   

Future:  From my foothold in academe, I hope to help create the new newsroom, which likely won't be as rooted in a physical place or at large institutions. I hope to help retool journalism education and to prepare the next generation of journalists -- by training them in the best of both traditional and emerging reporting techniques, by teaching them to be critical thinkers and encouraging them to be entrepreneurs.  We’ve got a new dean, Kevin Klose, who has ambitious goals for journalism education, so I’m in a good place to have an impact.

I haven’t entirely abandoned the old world.  I'm starting work on my second non-fiction book and have a third on the runway.

Impact of downsizing on the quality of journalism: The downsizing of the L.A. Times Washington staff and collapse of other bureaus comes at a time when power has never been so concentrated in Washington, with significant direct impact on people’s lives.  Corruption will fill the vacuum. There are some excellent reporters still working in and around the nation’s capital, but not nearly enough to fulfill our watchdog role in a democracy.  So there’s urgency to the search for new models.

What could have been done differently to prevent the downsizing/closure that cost you your job:  Downsizing didn't cost me my job -- although it might have, if I'd lingered much longer.  And it certainly cost many of my talented LAT colleagues their jobs. Where did the news business go wrong?  I’d start with the growing obsession over the past couple decades with short-term earnings, and a corresponding neglect of the long view.  I remember feeling unsettled back in the early 1990s with how near-sighted the corporate financial model had become.  I didn’t have a business degree, but anyone with a driver’s license knows the importance of keeping one eye on what lies ahead.  Eric Nalder wrote this great lede on the Seattle Times’ Pulitzer series on oil tanker safety after the Exxon Valdez disaster.  He described standing on the deck of an oil tanker “as long as three football fields” with the lone crew member assigned to watch the distant horizon for small boats and icebergs – and discovering that the guy couldn’t see, that he suffered from double vision.   That kind of describes the last 20 years of the newspaper industry.  The iceberg was in view long before we hit it, but no one with any real vision was looking that far ahead.

Counsel for young people about pursuing journalism:  Do it-- but only if you are passionate about journalism, turned on by challenge and not averse to financial uncertainty.  I think we’ll see that sort of self-selection process in the coming generation of journalism students.  As a result, I predict future graduating classes will be more committed to their calling than any in our lifetime. From a purely journalistic standpoint, we’ve never had more exciting options for reporting and presenting news. The challenge, of course, is to develop effective and economically viable delivery systems.  They’ll have to/get to play a big role in creating those models.

Final note: If you know of other journalists who should be interviewed for this occasional series, please let me know. The following are the questions I am asking all the participants in this series.

1. Name, age, final paper.
2. What work did you winner Pulitzer for, when?
3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When?
4 What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?
5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?
6. What has the downsizing of your former newsroom or closing of your former paper meant to the quality of journalism in your community? For example, are there types of stories not being told? You could use your own experience to provide examples here.
7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job?
8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today?
Finally, is there anything else you'd like to say about your experience or journalism's future that we haven't covered in these questions?

Thank you. 

John Temple


  1. "Do it-- but only if you are passionate about journalism, turned on by challenge and not averse to financial uncertainty. I think we’ll see that sort of self-selection process in the coming generation of journalism students."

    Does this mean we'll see more journalists who are trust fund kids and don't need to worry about financial insecurity? News stories already concentrate a lot on the upper middle class, perhaps because that's who advertisers often want.

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