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A college student's outlook on the future of print journalism

Liz Pfleger
A younger me, prepped and ready to track down the story.

When I was eight years old I wanted to be a lot of things: a Broadway actress, a princess, a member of the Spice Girls – and, what I thought was the most realistic of my lofty career dreams – a newspaper journalist.

My idea of being a newspaperwoman looked a lot like the best parts of His Girl Friday.

I'd be one of the guys in the newsroom, chasing after stories on the streets and writing under a constant time crunch. We'd send the papers to the printing press, and the next morning my byline would be on the front page.

That was the career I have worked toward, the career that I came to the University of Michigan to pursue, joined the Michigan Daily for, and even got my internship here at Michigan Radio for.

The outlook from here

It was the career I was sure I would have when I graduate from college in about a year – until recently, when I was told that being a print newspaper journalist was no longer an option.

"Newspapers are dying," I've been told.

When I first heard that statement, it was from a neighbor. When I heard it again, a friend.

...only about three out of every 10 Americans feel as though journalists are contributing to society's well-being.

It continued on, and I brushed it off, until I found the source more legitimate: professional journalists.

Professional journalists who have told me and others of my generation to walk away from print journalism and choose another career path.

According to the Pew Research Center, only about three out of every 10 Americans feel as though journalists are contributing to society’s well-being. Among other professions that didn’t hold much public esteem were business executives and lawyers. Out of all of the professions listed, journalists fell the most from public esteem since 2009.

A front row seat to the decline

University of Michigan freshman Michael Sugerman's love of journalism was sparked when he was in middle school writing for a student publication. He continued to write for his high school paper.

As his affinity for print journalism grew, a family friend agreed to take Sugerman on a tour of the Los Angeles Times.

"... and they all kind of sadly smiled at me when they heard that and they said, 'Why the hell would you want to go into journalism?'"

“The L.A. Times had just experienced some mighty layoffs; I would say maybe 600 people had just been cut from their staff," Sugerman said.

"So I was walking around the newsroom and it was kind of quiet, and not many people were there. Our friend was walking me around and introducing me to some of the reporters, and she introduced me to each of these people as an aspiring young journalist and they all kind of sadly smiled at me when they heard that and they said, ‘Why the hell would you want to go into journalism?’”

And Sugerman isn’t alone.

In newsrooms across America, interns sit at their desks on their first day of work and watch as veteran reporters carry boxes of their things on their last day of work.

Seasoned reporters warn off newcomers. They tell me space in the newspaper business is limited and constantly dwindling. By the time my generation graduates, as I understand it, the entire enterprise might be nothing more than a pixilated version of its former glory.

Moving online

Sensing the change from print to online, professional journalists are jumping ship to begin careers with new online news start-ups, like Bridge Magazine.

Bridge is an online publication dedicated to producing content about the state of Michigan. Of the 19 people on the Bridge team, 12 of them worked as vital parts of print news publications, and were editors, publishers, or owners of the papers.

One of Bridge’s reporters, Pulitzer Prize winner David Zeman, joined Bridge after working for The Miami Herald, The Raleigh News and Observer, and the Detroit Free Press. He has given up seeing his name in print in favor of HTML, and finds the change to be liberating.

When I asked Zeman why he personally chose to switch out of print and into online journalism, his answer was quite frank.

“There’s a future,” he said.

Consumers have a new demand for what they expect of their news outlets.

Most people, especially those of my generation, don’t live a life where they sit down with their morning paper and coffee before they go to work. The bulky print paper doesn’t fit in our pockets, and why would we read full stories when we could just get a sentence synopsis sent to our phones?

And what the consumers demand, the producers supply.

Zeman said the switch is liberating and offers reporters many more options than they used to find within the confines of the printed paper. Bridge Magazine doesn’t need to worry about printing and transportation costs. Their stories can be as long or as short as they need to be. An album of photos can be included in a slideshow with the story, whereas in print, the readers would see only one of them. Even videos and multimedia presentations can be quick, easy ways to catch up on the news.

The flexibility of the online medium allows outlets to be more interactive with their audience, and that is what the audience has come to expect.

Adding new skills

For journalists my age, there is an entirely new set of expectations to meet that hadn’t been possible in the age of print media.

Not only do we need the writing and interviewing skills required to work for a paper, we also need to know how to record audio and video, edit clips, take photos, and understand HTML, not to mention have an ever-evolving knowledge on social media and the newest technologies.

If that list of requirements seems exhaustive enough on its own, couple it with the constantly dwindling budgets of news outlets, which lead to fewer and fewer job positions, and add in the monetary strain on students like myself who have to pay rent while working unpaid internships.

Even though I'm not a racial minority in the newsroom, I'm certainly the gender minority – According to Pew Research Center, in 2012, only 35% of all white newspaper employees were female.

Unpaid internships lead to myriad issues that result in a decrease of racial diversity and an increase in a culture of privileged voices that dominate the media, as discussed in aGuardian article back in 2013.

Even though I’m not a racial minority in the newsroom, nationally, I’m certainly the gender minority. (However at Michigan Radio women outnumber men 2-to-1.)

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, only 35% of all white newspaper employees were female. And August 2013 marked the date that the first woman, Deborah Turness, became the head of a network news division.

The percent of female managers at daily print newspapers has risen less than 1% since 1998, and remains below 35%. 

From my view, the outlook in print journalism seems bleak.

If I continued down the road of newspaper journalism, by the time I was 30 or 40, I might have a paid position at a print publication – that is if any of them exist in 10 or 20 years.

And assuming the gender divide remains stagnant, by the time I’m 50 I may be able to obtain an editorship on a small beat, still very far away from the top dogs in the newsroom. 

And if the current trend continues, the paper will most likely produce fewer pages, and fewer articles that are put into print, further reducing my chances.

Even if I try to look at my situation optimistically, it seems that the odds are not in my favor.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that I have to give up my dream of print journalism.

There won’t be any newsboy hats, interviews by pen and paper, or running my fingers over my byline hot off the presses in my future.

But there will be journalism, and if I have to live in a casket-sized apartment and blog about the news for the rest of my life, then so be it.

It will take a lot more than a change in medium to change my mind.

– Paige Pfleger, Michigan Radio Newsroom