Leaving the Newsroom: Hard Times at the Hometown Paper

Leaving the Newsroom: Hard Times at the Hometown Paper

I used to describe my busy schedule at the “best writing job in America.” But in the hectic pace of my life in those days, I now see myself avoiding my growing sense of dread and desperation. It wasn’t until years later that the scales began to fall from my eyes, allowing me to appraise my work life with honesty and to see myself for what I was: just another working person whose dreams of a decent future had slowly faded before the harsh realities of below-inflation raises and relentlessly rising health care costs.

(Hkeely via Wikimedia Commons)

My editor Mike McInally at the Missoulian in Missoula, Montana, called me into his office one day in 2005 and asked me to close the door. He said that if he ever got wind of union talk from me again—anything at all—he’d fire me.

What I did next still heats my face with humiliation. Stammering and stuttering, I said whatever came to my mind to save my job. My editor finally cut my protests short, saying, “Good.”

And that was it.

The newsroom must have looked the same when I left McInally’s glass-walled office as when I had entered. But I didn’t feel the same. I wondered, “Who betrayed me?” my skin tingled all over, like I was on fire. I recall reaching my desk, sitting down and looking at my computer screen, my head ringing. I couldn’t type a word.

A few minutes later, I was out the door, walking on the bridge over the Clark Fork River toward downtown and the Union Club with its bar and grill on the main floor and union offices in the basement and upper levels. In the dim barroom, a few local union leaders listened to me vent. Each of them explained there was nothing I could do. It was against the law to threaten someone’s job for talking about forming a union, but the protections were toothless, they said. The only sure thing was that if I kept trying to form a union, my editor would make good on his threat.

I needed my job. My spouse and I had recently bought a house. We had a young son. My job provided our family with health insurance. I got to report about the businesses and economy in my community, in the town I had lived in as a kid, where my father had grown up and close to where my mother had.

Being a reporter was my identity, and I loved it, and I was afraid that if I got fired for trying to organize a union, I’d never find work in news again.

And so, for the next two years or so, until I left the Missoulian, I did not advocate for unions or unionism or organizing or anything of the kind. I never mentioned the incident in McInally’s office to anyone at the paper. I tried to forget it had even happened. I continued to report on union doings for the newspaper, arguing in our lunchtime news meetings that the labor movement should be covered by the business section. Yet as for a union for myself, I simply moved on. Later, I transitioned from the business beat to cover Missoula city politics. I taught as an adjunct at the journalism school at the University of Montana. I got into hunting. Yet I carried forward a markedly different attitude about journalism. I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, even to myself, but my faith in news as a viable career had been shaken to the core.

It wasn’t until years later that the scales began to fall from my eyes, allowing me to appraise my work life with honesty and to see myself for what I was: just another working person whose dreams of a decent future had slowly faded before the harsh realities of below-inflation raises and relentlessly rising health care costs.

In my mind’s eye, I can picture myself back then, describing my busy schedule at the university and at the newspaper and saying I had the “best writing job in America.” But in the hectic pace of my life in those days, I now see myself avoiding my growing sense of dread and desperation as the prospect of vacations and new cars and a college education fund for my son slowly receded, slipping away insistently, relentlessly.

By every measure, my career should have been working out beautifully. With a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and a résumé including an undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College and an internship at the New Yorker, I expected to be on track to a solid slot in the middle class. Plus, the newspaper where I worked enjoyed strong and reliable profits, year after year after year, as did Lee Enterprises, the paper’s parent corporation.

Where did things go wrong?

On “Thirsty Thursdays,” as we called our occasional journalist get-togethers at a downtown bar, a dozen of us would pick apart a massive nacho mountain, drink beer, and grouse about Lee Enterprises. I don’t remember who said it first, but we concluded that our miserly publisher aimed to transform our work from career-quality to stepping stones. Instead of being able to raise our families, we were working the kind of jobs where a new college graduate would gain experience for a year or two before moving on to something better.

Reporters who had been at the paper since the 1980s earned upward of $50,000 or more a year, while those from the 1990s and after, myself included, were stuck in the low-thirties or even the high-twenties. I came to the paper at $34,000, which was decent for a Montana reporter, but all of us found ourselves steadily losing ground, year after year, even without factoring inflation. One year, my paycheck after taxes and health insurance actually dropped, from something like $919 every two weeks to $910.

A few months ago, I collected data from the Montana Department of Labor, and, with the advice of a statistician there, crunched out annual trends in wages for Montana reporters. The statistics aren’t perfect, but a fairly accurate trend emerged, and it was startling. Wages for newspaper reporters hit a wall in the late 1990s.

From 1975 to 1995, the average news reporter’s wage increased every year, starting at a rate of about 5 percent and trending down to about 3 percent. Then something amazing happened: over the next ten years, the average wage paid to reporters in Montana actually declined by 1 percent per year in real dollars. None of these figures are adjusted for inflation.

In the same time period, the ten years ending in 2006, total revenue at Lee Enterprises (which owns four of the five major dailies in Montana) grew at more than 11 percent a year. When I was a business reporter, I once grilled the Missoulian publisher about the paper’s business, just for the heck of it. He told me the paper that year had cleared more than $5 million in profit! There was something like 300 of us at the paper, meaning the paper profited almost $17,000 from each of us. That figure was probably about equal to the average annual net pay of all the employees at the paper, which means for every dollar spent on those of us who produced the newspaper, Lee Enterprises took one dollar, free and clear, above taxes and expenses and everything else.

You’ve heard the story about modern employment: people don’t stay in jobs anymore, but bounce from one to another. It’s a phenomenon of the new generation of workers, explain pundits and experts at Bloomberg Businessweek and the Harvard School of Business, as if everyone under the age of 45 is a spoiled dilettante, ready to “drop apron” and head for the door.

Yet while the reality of that employment pattern certainly proved true in my professional experience and in the career pathways of many people in my generation, it has both an overarching cause and a cost.

It’s no secret that national wage data paints a macroeconomic picture that echoes what happened in Montana news. The American middle class took home a high of 53 percent of national income in 1970, and that share has been dropping ever since.

That downward pressure on wages has made changing jobs the best way to get ahead, to get a good raise. And it worked for me, until I got to the Missoulian. There, I faced a dilemma. I didn’t want to move on. The city cemetery holds the remains of my relatives. The streets spark many of my memories and stories. My son attended the same grade school my father had. My spouse had a great job. I didn’t want to leave for more pay at a better job. I wanted my job to be better.

In the fall of 1988, my junior year, I failed trigonometry at Billings Senior High School in south-central Montana. For a kid who often got by on a mixture of rebellion and charm, it was a shock. When my teacher gave me that F—my first complete failure—for the fall semester, I couldn’t fix it with a grin.

It was late December, when the sun goes down early in Montana, and that’s how I remember that time: everything was dim and dark. My dad hollered at me. My mom cried. Looking back, their fears that I might fail out of high school seem justified. One of my friends had dropped out the previous year, and I had been smoking pot and cutting school for years. My grades were mostly Cs and Ds.

Lying on my back in my cold attic bedroom at night after I received the F, I sometimes had the alarming sensation of plummeting down abruptly, as if dropping through my bed and into a black abyss.

At some point that winter, my mother handed me the newspaper want ads. Buttreys, a local grocery chain, was hiring baggers. She said that, if nothing else, I should get a job. She explained that it was a good job, because the workers at Buttreys were unionized.

A few weeks later at the busy Buttreys on Grand Avenue, wearing a cream-colored knit cotton sweater over a shirt-and-tie, I was cheerily asking each shopper in the checkout line what kind of bag they wanted, paper or plastic. During my training, I watched a training video to warn of the dangers of employee theft and another one to impress me with how much Buttreys appreciated its workers and respected our union. That day, I had signed my first union card, joining what is now Local 4 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Once, during a lull, my shop steward took me by the arm. I had just received a raise for completing my probationary period, and it looked like another raise was around the corner, as soon as I trained to operate and clean the slicers behind the deli counter. My steward explained that, if I stuck with Buttreys, my union would take care of me. My pay would climb with my responsibilities. The job offered great health insurance and a defined-benefit pension, he explained. There was money for school. I could go to Eastern Montana College, even, and buy a house someday, and raise a family. When he finished, we were both silent a moment.

When he asked what I thought, I blurted out, “I’d rather die!”

The future he had described seemed suffocating. I wanted to escape what I saw as the mediocrity of small-town Montana and be somebody, not unload cardboard boxes or slice bologna for the rest of my life!

A few weeks later, I carelessly bagged a custom birthday cake sideways in a paper sack, and the writing smeared against the top of the cake box. My supervisor had already warned me to pay attention. This time, he said he’d have to write me up. I said, “You can’t write me up, because I quit!”

My tenure as a courtesy clerk at Buttreys may have been short, but it left a lasting impression. I had learned that my rights on the job were respected, and that regular and clearly defined pay increases were the natural rewards of extra work and responsibility. That lesson might explain my completely lackadaisical attitude toward anything practical during college and after. All I had to do was pursue my calling to be a writer. After all, it seemed incomprehensible that a grocery store would offer more opportunity and reward to a failing high school student than, say, a newspaper or magazine to a writer with an advanced degree. The financial details would take care of themselves.

It took a long time for me to unlearn my lesson from Buttreys, but if I had been paying attention, I might have known of a major development in Montana journalism that roughly coincided with my entry into news work in the state in 1998. About two years earlier, the final residual impacts of the last contract negotiated by the disbanded Montana Newspaper Guild passed into history at the Great Falls Tribune.

The Montana Newspaper Guild was all but gone. In fact, during my first few months as the night police reporter, the managers of the Billings Gazette were completing the process of stamping out a short-lived organizing campaign at the paper.

I only had a vague idea about how an organizing campaign worked. Looking back, I imagine that one or two employees who wanted to form a union had called the office of the Guild. It sent an organizer to Billings with a stack of pamphlets and official-looking cards with blank spaces for name, address, employer, and signature, with words at the top that said, “Authorization for Representation.”

In theory, as laid out by federal law, the organizer could explain the benefits of a union to the workers, who would then sign the cards or not. If a majority of the paper’s employees wanted a union, both sides would sit down to negotiate a first contract.

That summer, as I started at the paper, the regimen for new employees including meetings where I was grilled about whether a union representative had approached me. None had. Had any of my coworkers talked to me about the Guild? If so, who? None had. I sat through videos that featured ominous narrators who talked about how bad union organizers were, and how much I would have to pay in dues. I just tuned it out.

The fact that I didn’t register the anti-union campaign for what it was seems ridiculous to me in retrospect. But at the time, those sessions seemed nothing more than another example of the vast difference between the fantasy of journalism as portrayed in graduate school and the reality of life in the rapacious world of daily news. My Berkeley diploma already brought more immediate scorn than respect, and it damn well didn’t affect my pay, which was only about $19,200 that first year.

My pay was so low that my pregnant girlfriend and I found ourselves eligible for the federal anti-poverty program Women, Infants, and Children. Thank goodness, too, because our regular WIC coupons for milk, cereal, and other staples helped us to make ends meet. We also took free birthing classes at the county health clinic. A county social worker would visit our shoebox apartment every few weeks with parenting tips and other advice because, with my income, we were an “at-risk” family. With the birth of our son, we became one of the first families to be part of the Montana Children’s Health Insurance Program, which gave us access to great health care for him. For those programs and the people who ran them, I’ll be forever grateful.

A credit card and generous parents helped us pay for necessities. The next year, I borrowed money from our car’s equity to help us move to Boulder, Colorado, where my girlfriend started law school. In Colorado, I wrote as a freelancer and made decent money for a time with a mixture of regular work and catch-as-catch-can. A few years later, I even managed to buy a three-year-old Subaru Forester with air conditioning.

A friend of mine in Boulder worked nights at a union job at Safeway for the health insurance it provided for his family and extra cash, while he pursued his college dreams. Not me. I paid out-of-pocket for insurance for my son and girlfriend and went without it myself. I pitched stories and wrote with frenetic energy, driven by the fear that my financial house of cards would collapse if I paused to take a breath. Sometimes I had that old feeling, when lying in bed at night, of sudden vertigo, as if the mattress beneath me had given way.

When my small family trekked back to Montana to live four years later, it seemed like my career might finally begin to pencil out. My starting pay at the Missoulian was a good beginning for our market. My health insurance and retirement benefits were both decent. And I was doing what I wanted, where I wanted.

And yet, while my college debt remained all-too-real, my educational payoff was more… aesthetic. My diplomas looked nice on my desk, but my graduate degree didn’t do much but help land me a spot as an adjunct instructor, where I earned something close to minimum wage. I would have been better off wrapping presents during the holidays at Southgate Mall, or hustling burgers at McDonald’s, which advertised $10 an hour in those years of low unemployment.

It is some comfort for me to see myself as a different person back then: a hustling news hound with blinders on, afraid to admit the weaknesses of his assumptions and the faults in his choices. Still, it seems somewhat ironic that I, as an enterprising and trend-hunting business reporter, never sought to explain or even understand my own situation.

The connection between the Guild’s decline and newspaper pay is inescapable. While the Guild bargained for good pay and benefits at the Great Falls Tribune, the other newspapers in the state had to at least keep pace or the workers would organize. After the Guild negotiated its last contract and the union local disbanded in 1993, that upward pressure vanished.

Back in the late 1980s, my high school counselor handed me a list of college degrees ranked by salary, where the top-earning degree was accounting. The purported lesson was about the value of a college diploma. It would be worth real money. But what I should have asked was: Why? Why does the accountant make that salary? Why does the nurse? Why the teacher? Why the journalist?

Instead, I assumed the pay had something to do with the intrinsic value of an education. Also, it seemed a just reward for the moral decision to forsake the instant money of a menial job in favor of four more years suffering through college.

Yet while those statistics even today may sometimes correlate, it is false to suggest that money is the inevitable reward for the virtues of hard work and study.

A decade ago, as the San Francisco Chronicle absorbed the staff of its afternoon competitor, the Examiner, a friend at one of the papers blithely told me he’d be fine in the transition. “I’m a franchise player,” he told me. “There’s always a spot on the team for a franchise player.” How I admired his bravado and confidence! And things did work out for him. But he’s taking the wrong lesson if he credits himself for his success. The hard realities and cold logic of economics don’t care about advanced degrees, professional awards, or bravado.

In the past year, major newspapers like the New Orleans Times Picayune and the Chicago Sun-Times have gutted staff, firing Pulitzer Prize–winning photographers and reporters along with the run-of-the-mill and the regular. The harsh anti-union, anti-worker climate of Lee Enterprises has become the national norm. And as the clout of the venerable Newspaper Guild has ebbed across the United States and Canada, the practice of journalism itself is fitting that old adage: great job, terrible career.

Reporters all over the place are leaving newsrooms to take jobs as press agents and spokespeople or returning to school to study law. The entire profession is in danger of becoming a warm-up job for other careers. If that happens, our communities and our democracy itself will pay the highest price.

This isn’t all just the inevitable consequence of the Internet age. Revenue data from publicly owned media companies prove the vast majority of newspapers operate at a profit. It is true that many companies have struggled and even sought bankruptcy protection, but almost all those cases can be attributed to poorly managed debt and bad planning. The biggest fault of media companies may be a lack of imagination. A recent Pew Research Study showed ongoing strong overall growth of ad sales, with only minor dips and slowdowns during the recent years of recession. But newspapers have been capturing a shrinking share of that money.

In the fall of 2008, I found myself confronting the bald facts of my life. For me, news had failed as a career. At that time, my employer was an online news startup company that couldn’t make payroll. It was a pretty sorry situation. That’s when I began my process of truly reckoning with the profession I had developed, and lost.

My mind keeps returning to that list of jobs and starting salaries, and to the simple answer to the question why. It’s neither virtue nor justice. It is leverage and negotiation.

Robert Struckman lives with his spouse and two children near Washington, D.C, where he writes for the AFL-CIO.