Ask the guy who used to work at a major daily newspaper

So until this last Wednesday, I worked for The Kansas City Star as a news page designer. I was mostly responsible for the cover of the Local section, but I also filled in on Business and A1 occasionally, as well as our youth tab, Ink. I got laid off in the second round of layoffs, only two months after the first round. I hadn’t started this thread earlier because I didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize my job, but that’s obviously not a concern anymore, now is it?

So ask away with whatever questions you might have for a guy who spent two years in the newsroom of a major American metro newspaper.

(And if you have any ideas with what I should do with the rest of my life, send a PM…)

How much effort do the people who write the editorials actually put into their work? Do they try to write controversial pieces just to encourage a lot of reader outrage?

I am also a page designer at a midsized daily in the South. (I am working on the local section right now) Sorry to hear about the job cut. This paper has gotten rid of a lot of people this year. There is a lot of fear in this newsroom.

Did you know it was coming or did you feel pretty safe and it was a major shock?

No questions, just a wish for good luck with your job search!

I am curious about the change in the way reporters cover the news, since the days when my mom was a reporter.

She (and her colleagues) were very careful to quote people correctly in their articles. They didn’t want the folks to ‘clam up’ and stop giving the reporters interviews. She would even call people and read the pertinent portions of her article back to them. She was also a spelling and grammar purist.

Now it doesn’t seem that way, and I’m not just kvetching (and don’t mean to be snarky either). I worked as a City engineer for four years. During that time I’ve talked to a handful of reporters, both print and TV. Exactly zero of them made sure that they had their facts straight, or had me quoted correctly. In fact, I specifically asked one young lady if she could email or fax me the preliminary article and she said “we aren’t allowed to do that”. I had to help one guy write his articles - he couldn’t spell for nuthin’.

So, is this actually the story? (heh). Is there something about the news industry which has brought about this change? :slight_smile:

Thanks, and sorry to hear about the layoff. :frowning:

What led you to doing page design? Was that your goal, or did you just happen into it?

(I do freelance design now, after 15 years in newspapers, magazines, and advertising. But I never intended to – I’m a writer and editor, at heart.)

Good evening, SanibelMan.

I was one of the 1,100 employees McClatchy let go of in the first round back in June. My entire paper, a 101-year-old weekly, was shut down. It’s kind of sobering when you realize the circumstances of this economy killed a paper that survived the Great Depression.

Out of the eight employees who were cast off, I am the only one so far who has found full-time employment (don’t mean to scare you, them’s just the facts).

My questions:
How was the mood after the first round of layoffs? Did the rumors and gallows humor run rampant?

Did the company offer buyouts before the second round, as they did around here? If so, are you kicking yourself now for not taking it?

What did the staff look like before the layoffs, as far as numbers and workload? How does it look after?

How did you get into the newspaper business? Do you plan on staying in print journalism, or are you exploring options?

Are you willing to relocate to stay in the industry?

In the great debate over whether the “mainstream media” is biased one way or the other, one part of the argument keeps coming to the forefront:

Conservatives: The reporters are all liberal! And they keep inserting their biases into their reporting!

Liberals: That’s not true! Even if it were, the newspaper owners are all conservative! They’re the big influence, not the reporters!

Where do you fall in this debate? And in a related question, how much influence does a Rupert Murdoch actually exert on the papers he owns?

I never worked directly with anyone in the editorial department, but I know they took their work seriously. I don’t think any of the editorials I ever saw were particularly outrageous or controversial in their positions. Some newspapers are more opinionated than others, though.

I had some idea it was coming, though I was still surprised that I was chosen. The night before, the editors were all there fairly late and were having meetings until around 9 p.m. or so. Buyouts were offered about a month earlier, and we were told that layoffs would be necessary if they didn’t get enough takers. Since the buyout package was the same they’d offered twice in the last 18 months, there weren’t many.

I was a little shocked when I got the phone call, since I was probably one of the cheapest employees in our department - only two years into the position from college, and no benefits, since my wife and I get better health coverage through her work than the packages offered by McClatchy. But I’d discussed the possibility with my wife the night before and I wasn’t totally blown away.

It is true that reporters aren’t supposed to give sources any access to the whole story before it’s published. It’s certainly okay for reporters to review the sources’ quotes with them and make sure they’re accurate. I can say that I’ve been quoted a few times myself for various stories and I’ve never felt that my voice or viewpoint was truly represented in the story. A lot of interviews get whittled down from 45-minute conversations to one or two sentences, and oftentimes, they aren’t the sentences the sources thought would get used. But if you feel you’re consistently being misrepresented by reporters, you should speak with their editors or news directors and address your concerns. It’s certainly possible that the reporters don’t understand your subject well enough to represent you or your organization accurately, and you’re well within your rights to try and rectify that. And, of course, some reporters are just not very good at their jobs.

I took a layout and design class as part of my journalism requirement in college and found I was actually fairly good at it. The following semester, I got the opportunity to become the editor of my college paper, and I redesigned the paper as part of an advanced layout independent study. My portfolio was good enough to get me a visual journalism summer fellowship at the Poynter Institute, and eventually this job.

Frankly, one reason I decided to use my design skills rather than my reporting clips to get a job was because at that time, it was a lot easier to get a design job in newspapers than to become a reporter. The pay was better, too. Of course, there aren’t any jobs at all now.

The mood in the newsroom has been gloomy for about a year now. And ever since I got there, there’s been a hiring freeze in effect, and we lost a lot of people through attrition. I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but I think the newsroom is down to around 220 people now. I think the paper’s a little top-heavy on editors now - we didn’t lose any metro editors, photo editors or business editors in this round of layoffs, for example. All worker bees.

The severance package is actually the same as the buyout, which is six weeks’ pay for me. So it’s not completely inhumane. I’m not sure I’d want to work in newspapers again, frankly. It would feel like jumping off one sinking ship onto another. I don’t know if there’s a plan, at McClatchy or elsewhere, to staunch the bleeding, and I’d hate to go through this again in six months or a year at another paper. I’m looking to relocate.

I’ve known both liberal and conservative reporters, section editors and copy editors. I don’t think it’s a matter of reporters sitting down and saying, “Okay, so I’d really like to see universal healthcare, so I’m going to find sources and quotes that will try to put a positive spin on that.” And most newspapers get complaints from both sides of the aisle, often on the same stories, about the obvious and horrifying bias in the other direction. I think if there’s a bias in reporting, it’s toward lazy writing. It’s much easier to skim the obvious of a subject and crank out 20 inches than to dig deep, beyond preconceived notions, and write a story that no one would have predicted. But as newspapers and news organizations cut back on people and resources, fewer and fewer reporters will have time for that kind of reporting, and the news will get shallower.

I can’t speak for Rupert Murdoch, but at least at McClatchy, I never heard of anyone at Corporate pushing any agenda whatsoever. All they wanted was their money. (Apparently, quite a bit more than The Star could make. Amazing how incurring over a billion dollars in debt to buy Knight-Ridder made that clear.)

Did you happen to see season 5 of the Wire? If so, what did you think of their potrayal of a city newspaper? Was it similar to your own experiences?

Where did you go to school? My daughter is graduating from Missouri in May with a newspaper emphasis and I fear she will never find a job using in this field.

Have you been following Doonesbury lately, with Rick Redfern’s job loss at the Washington Post?

[sub]sorry about the job, man[/sub]

Following up from stuff you’ve already said: what, from your personal observations of the business, do you see as the future of the newspaper? Whatever that is, do you think that the conventional wisdom blaming the Internet for the newspaper’s decline (a very large part, anyway, if not the sole reason) is true?

I spent a couple of years as a newspaper reporter for a Washington, DC metro-area weekly, then became a copy editor for a daily. As an editor, not only did I read and edit stories but I also laid out the pages of the paper. I usually laid out the front page and several of the inside pages. We also wrote headlines and photo captions. For inside pages with extra space, we had the freedom to choose whatever wire stories we wanted to fill the space. I loved it, it was so much fun. A lot of people don’t realize this, but it’s really like an art form, arranging everything so it flows and is pleasing to the eye.

My question to the OP is what program and computers do you use to lay out your pages? Did you also copy edit and write headlines? Did you have discretion to choose content for the pages?

Just to add my 2 cents - when I was a reporter I was very careful about taking notes that reflected quotes verbatim. Now, I probably wasn’t always 100% perfect, but I tried really hard to be accurate. I was always complimented by my subjects on my articles, and never had any complaints about inaccuracy. But yeah, there are a lot of lazy and crappy reporters out there who gloss over complex subjects.

First, SanibelMan, what a total bummer. Speaking as someone who has seen so many good people laid off, please take this as an indication of the company you worked for, and certainly not as an indication of your worth as an employee. Tell that little voice in your head to shut up with those doubts, you were a damn fine employee, and you will find something else.

Now, to questions on the reporting business, for you and any other news-media members:

Are most reporters math & science phobic? Do many of them chose to go into journalism kind of the reverse way an engineering classmate of mine said he went into engineering so he wouldn’t have to write another damn essay? I constantly hear / read people who are almost proud of their lack of math skills, especially in radio. Between my wife and I, we have an B.Engineering, an MD-oncology, and an MBA in the filing cabinets. We routinely find factual errors in the Globe&Mail, which is supposed to be Canada’s highbrow paper for smart readers only. WTH is going on? Shouldn’t these people have a very broad general knowledge base to begin with?

Why are supposed in-depth analysis pieces so full of single person / single family anecdotes and so little analysis? I can understand the desire to illustrate and humanize, but these long pieces are more full of melodrama than analysis.

How common is the attitude in new reporters and journalism students that they are going into this profession to change the world for the better, to “make a difference” or to educate & enlighten readers / listeners / viewers? How many just want to report the situation as it is?

I might have a few more, but it is too late, and I am too tired to go on. Besides, this should be a good start.

I haven’t watched The Wire – I guess I’ll have time to catch up now –but what I’ve heard about it makes it sound fairly accurate in its portrayal of reporters and editors at The Baltimore Sun.

I went to Webster University in St. Louis. I liked that program because, while it was fairly small, I had a lot of say in the direction of the campus newspaper. If she’s graduating from Mizzou next spring, she’ll be as well-prepared as anyone to get a job in journalism. But she might want to consider (and probably already is considering) using her skills in a field like public relations or advertising. Hopefully she’s taking this opportunity to learn as many multimedia skills as possible –photography, video editing, Web design, and so on. Certainly I wish I had a better skill set when it comes to Web design.

I did notice that. I hope he got a better buyout offer than I did. :slight_smile:

A lot of newspapers have made quite lucrative buyout offers. The Oregonian was offering two years’ pay and health benefits to any employees with 10+ years with the company. Had they made a buyout offer like that at The Star, they would have been able to pick and choose exactly who to let go and maybe restructure the newsroom in a better way. But I doubt McClatchy has the capital needed to make offers like that, with more than $2 billion in debt.

I honestly don’t know if newspapers have a future. Certainly giving away all of our content hasn’t helped, but that cat’s out of the bag and trying to make people pay for it at this point is just going to piss them off. But what was hurting us wasn’t circulation declines, but advertising revenue declines, and that’s a national trend. We just aren’t considered to have a good ROI to advertisers. With advertising revenue falling 15 to 20% month over month, there’s no way to sustain the current business model. Maybe newspapers will become more like journals and highbrow magazines, and depend more on subscription rates than advertising for revenue. But that’s hard to do while also supporting the sizable staff needed to produce content people will pay for.

The Star uses a content management system called CCI NewsDesk, which is based on an SQL database. It’s very efficient for managing workflow, but the layout program, LayoutChamp, really sucks compared to QuarkXPress or InDesign. CCI was originally created to design phonebooks, if that gives you any idea. In the latest version of LayoutChamp, we finally got a pasteboard.

I didn’t do any copy editing or headline writing. The Star has a separate news copy desk that takes care of that. But I did catch things whenever I could, and I worked well with (most of) the copy editors. I worked with the night photo editor and the metro desk to decide which stories and photos would go on the front. My job was to prioritize the stories on the page and create the most visually interesting pages I could. Here are some of my favorites.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of math and science phobia at newspapers, or if not phobia, then at least a lack of understanding and in-depth comprehension. One of my pet peeves is the “study” story. Some scientific study comes out that shows that being a rat causes cancer. Everyone writes up a story about that, but no one takes the time to examine the data and see how statistically significant it is or anything. Then, two weeks later, another journal comes out with a study that shows rats actually cure cancer, and we write that story, with all the same problems. Like I said before, I think a lot of this comes down to what’s easiest for an overworked reporter to understand, and what’s going to sell the story to the editors and get it in the paper. Stories full of finesse and shades of gray exist, but they’re not very sexy to write, edit or read, and oftentimes it’s not made obvious why readers should care.

I think there’s a certain number of reporters who are out to change the world, but by the time you get to an actual newspaper and write dozens of stories about sewer board meetings and church carnivals, that passion and drive can get sucked out of you very quickly. While most reporters care deeply about their beats and wouldn’t trade their job for any other, they’re not under any delusions about the impact their stories have on the world. I’ve seen years-long projects fall on driveways with a loud thud and no real response from readers or policymakers. It’s enough to make one cynical, and you see plenty of that in newsrooms.

Keep the questions coming. This is far more fun than putting my résumé in the past tense or calling old friends and having awkward conversations about the future of my career.