Life would never be the same, declared one veteran journalist pushed from the newsroom of a major metropolitan daily three years ago.
“It was like being shot in the face. Surprising, depressing and alarming.”
Losing your job has long been established as one of life’s most stressful episodes. But many of the 1000 journalists who lost theirs in a wave of redundancies in 2012 appeared unprepared for the emotional rollercoaster that was to confront them.
A majority reported negative feelings about the experience, describing it in a survey as “agonising”, “traumatising” and “catastrophic”.
One said it was as “heart-wrenching as a relationship break up”. Another described the experience as “almost as shocking as finding out I had breast cancer”.
On leaving the newsroom: “I was glad of the opportunity for a new career start, and very happy with the financial payout. But the circumstances that gave rise to it are depressing — a newspaper industry in seemingly terminal decline.”
One journalist found the subsequent lack of interaction with colleagues and the silence that followed their exit from the newsroom comparable to a “death in the family after a long and painful illness”.
And yet, a third of those who responded said they found the whole experience “positive” and “liberating”.
The survey was part of the New Beats project that aims to track the career pathways of the swathe of journalists who have taken a redundancy in the recent past.
Researchers, including La Trobe University’s Lawrie Zion, first questioned the journalists in 2013 and followed up again last year.
Their recently published journal article has for the first time given a snapshot of the journalists’ actual responses, while preliminary findings of the 2014 survey, in which 202 of those taking redundancy participated, reveal that for almost one-in-three the event signalled the end of their journalism careers.
Of the 127 who found new jobs in journalism, almost exactly half (63) were supplementing their incomes with other work. Another 45 were working in different fields altogether.
Zion says that the New Beats project hopes to seek answers to questions such as: ‘Where do journalists go after newsroom job cuts?’ ‘How do they make sense of job loss?’ ‘What is the consequence on journalism of the loss of so much corporate memory from the profession?’
On leaving the newsroom: “We grieved for the gouging of our profession as much as the end of our personal relationship with the paper.”
The impetus for the five-year project came out of a “light bulb moment” in mid-2012 when Zion learned of big job cuts at Fairfax over lunch.
“But I did not want the project to be a one-off snap-shot,” he says. “I wanted something broader that plugs into issues like: what happens to journalism in the long run?”
A preliminary survey interviewed 95 of the 1000 journalists who were made redundant in what was a watershed year for the industry.
To some of those departing, the offer felt like a catch-22. “It was voluntary, but in the same way as getting on a lifeboat from Titanic would be voluntary,” responded one journalist.
Of those who participated in the preliminary survey, 85 said they had left their jobs through a voluntary process rather than via forced dismissals.
But “putting your hand up” for a voluntary redundancy, a respondent recalled, “was the least worst option, because market pressures and deteriorating working conditions in newsrooms were destroying the profession in front of our eyes.”
A few factors added to their predicament, says Zion. “First was a layer of uncertainty — ‘Should I put my hand up? Will I be made compulsorily redundant? What will happen to my job?’ ”
The journalist-cum-academic says that the contraction of the print industry, the rapid digitisation of mastheads and changing power dynamics between journalists and their audiences did not sit well with many of the journalists, some of whom had been in the industry for 40 years. Some of them found the shift in the work culture “a bit too chaotic”, adds Zion.
The majority of those taking part in the survey were senior journalists with a mean age of 49.1 years and an average time working at their organisation of more than 25 years. The long working span had acted as an impediment to their exodus, making the experience more emotionally wrenching than for some younger members of the departing cohort.
New Beats survey
Male 50.5%, female 49.5%
Experience: 1 to 44yrs
89% found some work
28% got full-time job in journalism
3% looking for work
8% studying or retired
67% now earning less
Male 56%, female 44%
Experience: 16 to 35yrs (62%)
84.7% found work
33% got full-time job in journalism
6.9% looking for work
8.5% retired or taking break
65% earning less than $80K
The reality of shrinking resources and newsrooms existing on rocky economics had become burdensome.
“I was glad of the opportunity for a new career start, and very happy with the financial payout,” noted one veteran. “But the circumstances that gave rise to it are depressing — a newspaper industry in seemingly terminal decline.”
Another journalist observed: “The ethics and standards were being eroded by the grab for cheap headlines and money. Serious journalism was regarded as a joke.”
The respondents acknowledged the union’s role in making their departure less torturous.
“If not for the MEAA [Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance] becoming involved, informing staff and tying the company down to a redundancy process, people like myself would have been operating in the dark,” said one journalist. “Being accepted for a voluntary redundancy by my employer was a mixture of relief, and regrets that left a knot in my stomach.”
But the wave of departures proved detrimental to the MEAA. While three in every four of those taking redundancy had been members of the union, only 48 per cent remained so in 2013. This had fallen to 24 per cent in last year’s follow-up survey.
The substantial pay-outs dished out to the departing journalists were dictated by the terms of the media companies’ workplace agreements.
For example, according to Fairfax’s voluntary offer, journalists were paid two weeks’ severance pay plus four weeks pay for every full year of service, delivering some long-serving journalists six-figure payouts. Many departing News Limited journalists walked away with similarly large cheques.
In terms of post-redundancy survival, the generosity of the payments was one of the reasons why Australian journalists fared better than their UK and US counterparts, whose contracts capped payouts at much lower figures.
Despite this, post-redundancy income loss was one of the “sobering” findings, says Zion. Sixty-seven per cent of all journalists in any type of paid employment reported in the initial survey that they were earning less than they were in their previous newsroom job, while a majority did not resume full-time journalism.
Eighty-nine per cent found some sort of work but only 28 per cent found full-time journalism jobs. These tended to be less senior roles and often involved positions in strategic communications or higher education.
This was further confirmed in the preliminary findings of the latest survey. While 77 per cent of the 202 surveyed had been earning between $80,000 and $140,000 at the time of the job losses, two-thirds of those who were doing some journalism were now earning less than $80,000.
But what took Zion by surprise was a common theme that emerged in the initial responses. The departing journalists found themselves being “a whole lot less stressed”.
Fifty-five per cent of those who found work reported in the 2013 pilot study that their working conditions had improved. They felt “healthier” and “had more free time to focus on other things in life.”
While some reported their lives now being “creative, stimulating and purposeful”, others found this an opportunity to “move on” or “a chance to take a break”.
However, not everyone could embrace this sunnier side. A sense of loss or weakening of professional identity was reported by 42 per cent of respondents. And for some, the idea of a makeover was not comforting.
“Who are we if we no longer work at the paper?” posed one. Another journalist fretted and said they had become depressed over the loss of the newsroom environment and the relationships that were a part of it. “We grieved for the gouging of our profession as much as the end of our personal relationship with the paper.”
Not all of those journalists contacted by the researchers wished to take part in the study. The entire process of redundancy had left a bad taste in the mouths of many. “There were a lot of deep conversations and some of the journalists did not want to relive the experience of redundancy by being a part of this ongoing project,” says Zion.
He says that while journalists had found jobs in a range of areas including public relations, the question of how sustainable these jobs would turn out to be and what would happen to the journalists “is a long process that is continuously unravelling”.
The print media had been desiccating under the heat of digitalisation and convergence well before the landslide job cuts of 2012. Australian Bureau of Statistics data show a notable decline in the number of print journalists in the five years to 2011 — from 6306 to 5510.
The recent decision of Fairfax Media to cut 57 editorial roles in management, sub-editing and photography from its regional Victorian newsrooms is a further example of the constant dips in the media jobs graph.
But the ABS data does come with a silver lining: an increase overall in the number of journalists (from 15,573 to 16,125) over the five years to 2011, with strong growth in the catch-all category of “not elsewhere classified”, which covers bloggers, critics, editorial assistants and photojournalists. In fact, the Department of Employment’s outlook for “journalism and other writers” predicts job growth of 2.4 per cent in the five years to 2018.
Despite this, it is becoming increasingly evident that prospective job profiles in media will not adhere to traditional moulds or follow a predictable career trajectory. Many of the highly experienced redundant journalists have had to familiarise themselves with a new set of journalism skills including “how to make things go viral”, as one put it.
But 63 per cent of the respondents in the New Beats survey said they were open to learning “new forms of journalism”, suggesting that it was not necessarily “game over” for them.
New Beats aims to create an ongoing interactive platform for journalists who are made redundant. Since its launch, the number participating in the project has risen to 225 out of a total of 1500 journalists made redundant to the end of 2014.
What they said about journalism today
In a state of change 36%
Standards slipping 28%
Losing credibility 19%
In serious trouble 12%
Good journalism still happening 12%
Journalism is needed 12%
Love the industry 9%
Zion says that the project aims to look at the broader issues related to “being asked to step away”. Tim Marjoribanks, a La Trobe University sociologist and one of the principal investigators on the project, is involved in analysing the responses of male versus female journalists and the impact on families, as well as the wellbeing of the members of the group as they seek to navigate new directions in their lives.
Collaboration with National Library of Australia has also given the New Beats project the means for creating 60 ‘whole-of-life’ interviews of the news veterans who have weathered it all over the last 40 years or so in the journalistic arena.
“These interviews may not provide a solution to the problems that journalism faces today, but it would give an interesting record of how journalism has evolved over this century,” says Zion.
A recently-awarded second grant has added another year to the study and given the researchers the opportunity to join hands with similar projects across Europe and the US.
Although it is early days, findings of the pilot study suggest that tensions between old and new forms of journalism, professional values and journalistic identities will be ongoing, dynamic interactions, rather than a zero sum game.
“There are many old dogs learning new tricks,” noted one New Beats respondent. “The media world is changing . . . we old farts can help create that world.”