Print journalists: Your current careers are, or soon will be, over. Accept it

The sooner print journalists realise things aren’t getting any better, and make the decision to move on to a new career, the better, according to Nigel Bowen. Because while the last stage of grief is ‘acceptance’, most of us are still caught up in denial, anger, bargaining, or depression.August 12, 2020 4:16

Those acquainted with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief may have noticed something interesting in the recent commentary around – take your grim pick – countless newsroom closures, the swathes of job cuts at News Corp, the merger of the remnants of the once-mighty ACP and Pacific Magazine empires, or the consequential axing of Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, InStyle, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Good Health, OK and NW.

That ‘something interesting’ is an acceptance that the print media jig is up.

Bauer Media’s suite of magazines, eight of which were recently axed

In an article following the Bauer magazine closures, long-time Vogue Australia editor-in-chief Kirstie Clements typified the new wave of clear-eyed commentary.

Rather than raging against the dying of the light, Clements – herself a casualty of Harper’s Bazaar shuttering – dispassionately noted the closures were “frankly unsurprising” then went on to observe “it doesn’t take a Boston consultant to see that it’s been increasingly difficult to turn a profit in magazine land, with falling circulation, slashed ad revenue, and an oversaturated audience that is now able to cherry-pick most of the information they want online, for free” and that “there have been very obvious signs that the demise was coming for a long time, mostly because although people claim to still love magazines, the figures say they don’t actually buy them”.

In mid-2020, Clements’ observations seem indisputable. But, with reference to Kübler-Ross’ framework, it’s worth recalling just how disputed they’ve been over the last 15 years.

Stage one: Denial

As Kübler-Ross would have predicted had she lived long enough to witness it, the initial response to the threat posed by the internet was to pretend it didn’t exist.

In 2004, Eric Beecher, then a Fairfax executive, gave a presentation to the Fairfax board warning its fabled rivers of gold would soon evaporate. In response, one board member held up the (then hefty) Saturday editions of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald and thundered, “I don’t ever want anyone coming into this boardroom again and telling us that people will buy houses or cars, or look for a job, without [these papers].”

Stage two: Anger

Media proprietors and senior management mostly directed their displeasure at the likes of Google, Facebook and, periodically, the ABC. Journalists and their editors mostly directed it at proprietors and senior management. Proprietors, senior management and journalists were united in directing it at members of the general public, who increasingly failed to buy – or even read – newspapers and magazines.

If you’re a print journalist who believes you’re not enraged by the short-sighted ingratitude of your fellow Australians, count up exactly how many ‘You’ll miss us once we’re gone’ articles you’ve written and/or nodded along to.

Stage three: Bargaining

Hey, how about governments directly or indirectly fund the print media? No? Maybe some noble philanthropists will step up to make sure the lifeblood of democracies keeps flowing?

Okay then, how about we try to encourage Generations X and Y to take out digital subscriptions or just straight out donate money? Hmmm, perhaps we should hand out free newspapers at train stations in the afternoon?

Listen, obviously the ageing arse clown running the show has no idea what they are doing. So, let’s punt the current CEO and bring in a digitally savvy go-getter who will turn things around, thereby securing ‘a path of growth in a multi-platform world‘.

Spoiler alert: always expect the new CEO of a publishing house to immediately defenestrate at least one senior executive. The replacement for the dispatched senior executive will then be expected to also get rid of at least one high-profile editor. None of this performative defenestration will arrest circulation declines, but it will create the impression Serious Action is Being Taken to Turn Things Around. As soon as it can no longer be convincingly argued a turnaround is imminent, brace for another blood-soaked iteration of the Corporate Circle of Life.

Stage four: Depression

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Stage five: Acceptance

Echoing philosophers through the ages, Kübler-Ross observed that those who make their peace with harsh realities are (eventually) happier than those who don’t.

Faced with the death of the print media, print journalists can pretend it’s not occurring, lash out at supposed villains, or talk themselves into believing there’s some way to magically turn back the clock. Alternatively, they can count themselves lucky to have been part of the print media in its glory days then work out how to leverage their journalistic skills set in today’s ‘multi-platform world’.

Are journalists the new vaudevillians?

Guy Rundle recently drew a parallel between vaudeville and newspapers. Hard as it is to imagine, vaudeville used to be big business. For half a century, people in Australia and throughout the Western world were happy to pony up to be entertained by strongmen, acrobats, burlesque dancers and minstrels.

As Rundle infers, it would have been reasonable in 1905 for a vaudevillian to assume they had a job for life and believe live entertainment would continue to prosper for many decades to come.

Yet from 1910 onwards, vaudeville began to be disrupted out of existence by a new technology. People wanting to be entertained increasingly headed to a movie theatre rather than visiting sideshow alleys to gawk at a troupe of female impersonators. Just as people wanting to be informed or amused now reach for their mobile phone rather than walking to the newsagent.

As Rundle argues, “The virus-led snapping shut of dozens of newsrooms … can be blamed on collapsing ad revenues and antisocial managements, but at the root of it is something that few in the industry want to admit: if the demand were there this wouldn’t be happening.”

Rundle ends his article on a downbeat note, observing, “For those of us who grew up on newspapers, loving them even as news lingered into the digital era, it’s sad beyond sad. But it just is. Time to sell the act. The carnivalesque is over.”

I’m more upbeat than Rundle. He fails to note that plenty of erstwhile vaudevillians – Charlie Chaplain, Sammy Davis Jr, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Bob Hope and Mae West being some of the better-known examples – went on to do pretty well for themselves in Hollywood.

Likewise, hundreds of Australian vaudevillians went on to have glittering careers in radio and, in some cases, television. Others started bands, became ‘respectable’ actors, managed theatres and started touring companies.

Life after death

If you are a print journalist still trapped in one of the first four stages of grief, you may now want to consider accepting your career in legacy print media publications is, or soon will be, over.

That’s a bummer, but the good news is that a new career awaits. Once you stop clinging to false hope, you can set about reinventing yourself as an academic, account manager, agency owner, app maker, blogger, communications director, community manager, copywriter, content provider, e-book author, entrepreneur, ghostwriter, media adviser, playwright, podcaster, political staffer, proofreader, radio presenter, researcher, SEO expert, social media marketer, technical writer, trade mag editor, website designer or videographer.

Sure, it’s probably not how you envisaged things turning out. But there comes a time where you have to accept that the world is as it is.

Nigel Bowen is a print journalist turned content marketer