Tuesday, July 21, 2009

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

What is the cost for society, for journalism and for journalists of the loss of thousands of jobs at American newspapers? This series tries to answer that question 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.
Today's subject, Andrew Schneider, felt particularly uneasy about being singled out because he had won two Pulitzers. He stressed that he didn't think those awards made him any more worthy of coverage than any other journalist who had lost his job. I respect his view. But I think the loss of people of his stature shows how serious- and troubling - these times are. The fact that even people with track records like his are now on the outside, without a newspaper to support their journalism, tells us that individual communities and our entire nation are worse off because of the job losses in America's newsrooms.


Andrew Schneider won two Pulitzers in the 1980s. His newspaper, The Pittsburgh Press (now closed), was honored with the Public Service award in 1987 for reporting by Schneider and Matthew Brelis, which revealed the inadequacy of the FAA's medical screening of airline pilots and led to significant reforms. In 1986, Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty won the Pulitzer for specialized reporting for their investigation of violations and failures in the organ transplantation system in the United States. Today he writes a blog at coldtruth.com.


1. Name, age, final paper.

Andrew Schneider, Far too old to be breaking in a new editor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

2. What work did you win Pulitzer for, when?

1986 Specialized reporting – with the brilliant writer Mary Pat Flaherty, for a series on abuses in the organ transplant system. We documented that hospitals and surgeons moved wealthy foreigners to the head of the kidney transplant waiting list in exchange for new buildings, money and jewels.

1987 Public Service – with the outstanding photojournalist Vincent Musi and Matt Brelis for a series of stories on hundreds of commercial airline pilots who were being permitted to continue flying by the FAA’s Federal Air Surgeon over the objections of flight physicians, airline doctors and panels of medical specialists. We also examined drug abuse, smuggling and pilots who clandestinely went to fly-by-night addiction clinics so their airlines wouldn’t find out they had a problem as they were trying to resolve it.


3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When?

Hearst Newspapers closed it down Mar. 18, 2009

4 What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?

I am studying the health effects of exposure to nanotechnology. I also created a public health blog called Coldtruth.com. My young public health intern, who bosses me around, e-mailed me with great excitement telling me that coldtruth.com made its first dollar from Google Ads. (We’re now up to about $10. Needless to say, our business model needs work.)

Being unemployed is a new experience. And now that I’ve experienced it, I’d like a job with another newspaper with an imaginative, gutsy editor who wants to do important public health investigations that are not being done elsewhere. I don’t think that’s going to happen.


5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?

I have lapel pins I was given several years ago. One says, “So many stories, so little time.” The other counsels: “Write til you die,” with a skull and crossbones over a keyboard. Yes, I hope to stay in journalism.

How? You always ask good questions, John. I think the days of getting a single paycheck from a single source are gone for many journalists. There are reporters, writers, editors, artists and photographers who will be collecting a bit from grants and donations to keep their blog alive, from miniscule ad revenue from Google, Yahoo and maybe some businesses, and adding a few bucks from the surviving newspapers, TV networks or national blogs that pay you for the work they use.

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.

Seattle is fortunate. Like Denver, it had two newspapers; like Denver, the feistier, more edgy of the two was killed. The Seattle Times has a staff with some dynamite reporters, writers and photographers but, like all papers, there are certain types of stories each newsroom prefers.

There are now more than 160 fewer journalists covering Seattle. No one covers the port, for example, which has huge public health implications, not to mention security issues. Moreover, readers only get one version of a story so coverage is less nuanced. And without competition to push it, the Times faces the risk of becoming complacent.

7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job?

We cut the budget, the staff, the news hole, travel, research capabilities, the size of the pages and everything else that could be slashed, eliminated, gutted or downsized.

John, in the case of our closure, the paper would be alive today if the president of Hearst Newspaper division hadn’t retired. He was a journalist and he loved and respected the paper, and fought to keep it open. It wasn’t a week after he retired that the new top dog – a man who hated the PI for various reasons, especially demands by the guild, announced that the century-and-a-half old paper was no longer worth keeping alive.


8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today?

If you do not have a burning, all-consuming passion to use your talent as a reporter, writer, photographer or graphic artist to force needed change, keep corporations and government responsible, honest, effective and ethical and protect those others ignore, don’t even try.

God love ya if you do decide to give it a shot. There is great journalism that must be done. But bring your sense of humor and flexibility, because this is no longer your father’s journalism. At the Seattle marathon, a senior producer for seattletimes.com ran the 26 miles, filing reports for the blog, sending twitters, shooting and transmitting audio and video and still finished the race in less than six hours. Let’s hear it for journalism 2009.

Respectfully,

Andrew Schneider

Coldtruth.com


To conclude: If you know of others who should be interviewed for this series, please let me know.

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