Reporters Take Control Of Their Future

The need for well-told, accurate news stories has never been greater.
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One of the largest responses I've ever received to a column in this magazine came with my recent piece on the future of young people in journalism. Apparently many parents and their college-age offspring are having kitchen-table debates over the future of the media business.

This comes as 14,000 media-related jobs have been lost in 2009 alone. Yet, just after the column was released, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism reported a 39 percent increase in enrollment this year. I suspect the kids see opportunities in the business that many of us old codgers don't.

As I wrote before, the playing field in journalism has now been leveled. There may not be many paying jobs available, but there are huge opportunities out there. The need for well-told, accurate news stories has never been greater. It's an excellent time for entrepreneurial journalists.

We should ask why so many news organizations appear to be failing. There are two essential reasons. Many organizations are poorly managed and got greedy, expanding too quickly. And many involved in current management don't understand the future or how to move their business model to the Internet.

When advertising money leaves them, both print and television stations start whacking their staffs. They begin an endless spiral of attempting to do more with fewer people. This is all they know. Many try to hoodwink their audiences as they dumb down their content, but in the end it rarely ever works.

FINDING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES

The demise of these news operations should discourage no one. Incompetent management is being weeded out, which is a good thing. It's a Darwinian tradition to make room for new blood. For a younger generation, there's huge opportunity.

Many laid-off journalists, both print and television, are coming back with their own ventures. Several of them gathered recently for a meeting of the South Florida Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to tell their stories. In most cases, it's a struggle. But these journalists have all gained something important: Freedom to be their own boss and call their own shots.

One is Dan Christensen, a former investigative reporter with The Miami Herald, who now publishes the Broward Bulldog, a not-for-profit local investigative reporting Web site. He said he got seed money for the new venture from crime novelist and former South Florida journalist Michael Connelly.

Christensen, well known in South Florida for breaking stories on Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne's private business dealings and secret dockets in federal courts, said he doesn't have enough cash to pay for freelance reporters, but has enough money to operate through the end of the year.

"Every couple of months, we are going to have to reassess," he said.

Carol Gentry, formerly of the Orlando Sentinel, produces the Internet-based Health News Florida. She launched her nonprofit Web site more than two years ago and has a $175,000 annual budget.

Gentry hires freelance reporters to produce original copy on the health care industry and health policy. She was able to build her news organization by seeking small amounts of funding from multiple foundations and organizations.

Jerry Lower worked at the Sun-Sentinel and now publishes The Coastal Star, which serves communities around the coastal Delray Beach area. The Coastal Star is a for-profit venture that benefits from a wealthy pool of readers in the Florida beach community.

Lower said he took out a $50,000 equity line on his home to fund the venture after he and his wife left their longtime newspaper jobs. The paper is now well established and turning a profit.

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The nonprofit Web site, Health News Florida, was launched more than two years ago. Eight months ago, M.E. Sprengelmeyer worked as the sole Washington correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver newspaper that went out of business last February. Now, Sprengelmeyer has given up covering Congress to start a bold, new venture.

In August, he became owner, publisher, editor, primary writer and sometime ad salesman, photographer and deliverer of the weekly Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa, N.M., about two hours east of Albuquerque. The circulation is about 2,000 readers.

Sprengelmeyer brought big-city professionalism to the small-time operation and is now making enough money to support himself. He is assigning freelance work to other laid-off reporters. In fact, at least half a dozen veterans of the Rocky Mountain News have contributed to the Communicator in the past few months.

"It's the Tom Sawyer business plan: I'm trying to convince all my friends how much fun it would be to help me," Sprengelmeyer told The New York Times.

Perhaps the greatest compliment for Sprengelmeyer's venture may have been paid by Roberto Martin Marquez, editor of the competing Santa Rosa News. Marquez wrote of his new competitor: "M.E. is making me a better newspaperman."

FORMING NEW PARTNERSHIPS

In this era of new media, having multimedia skills is essential. Writing, photography, videography and audio are all necessary. Web-based news content merges all the disciplines into one.

Rick Hirsch, multimedia editor at The Miami Herald, a paper that has experienced deep staff cuts, said the newspaper is offering former employees a partnership by making their personal Web sites viewable through the Herald's main Web site.

So far, he said, five partnerships have been signed. These include Miami's Community Newspapers chain and the River Cities Gazette in Miami-Dade County. The Herald makes its money through ad placement on the partner Web pages.

All news media is in a period of reinvention. It's a rare moment in history. Huge opportunities are there for the adventurous journalists who take the risk. Forget what you did in the past, whether it was print, TV, magazines or otherwise. It no longer matters.

The future is the Internet and there are no experts. Yet.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York City. Visit his Web site atwww.frankbeacham.com.