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Many people don’t have a clue how journalism works. Journalists may have less access to events and their newsmakers than the general public does. All this for a career with limited job options.

Those are the headlines from my recent temporary return to full-time journalism after a several-decade hiatus. The full story I lived through as a fact-chasing Rip Van Winkle is more nuanced. Yet dramatic cuts in journalists’ ranks and an apparent increase in attempts to control what’s produced not only makes doing the work more challenging, it may combine to undermine what the public gets in good journalism, especially at the local level.

In 2018, I decided to step up my journalism game. After leaving an executive position in education technology at the end of 2017 following a corporate ownership change, I took the next year to rediscover my reporting chops. I shifted from long-time GeekWire contributor to the role of regular columnist and then, for an intense four-month period at the end of the year, filling in as GeekWire’s interim deputy editor. All on a freelance basis.

It was eye opening.

It wasn’t that I was taking a financial risk. Much like “gentlemen farmers” of an earlier era who made their living elsewhere, I was a “gentleman journalist.” I expected to be paid — this was a profession, after all — but I didn’t expect to have to live only off of that income.

I discovered much has changed since I left full-time journalism 30 years ago, back then as part of a good-sized, all-news radio station newsroom in Seattle. The rise of digital was the least of it. It was the apparently changed public understanding, even appreciation, of journalism, coupled with a precipitous decline in the number of professionals in the craft since the turn of the century.

As earlier in my career, I thought I could do some good. At the very least, I knew I could explain the inside workings of tech to those outside, or give those in the industry a different perspective.

But I wound up getting that revised perspective, too. My top three takeaways:

Credentials limit access as much as they grant it.

Generally, an event issues credentials to members of the press to spur coverage. The implicit bargain is that the event will waive admittance fees or criteria in exchange for exposure — good, bad, or neutral — as long as those being credentialed really do represent the news media.

Yes, there’s an element of control here: the event gets to decide who to credential. But reporters get access usually at least on par with regular attendees.

That was my experience for many years as a freelance columnist. But I witnessed a shift more to control than access when I dove in deeply in 2018.

There was the Amazon Web Services booth at a major education technology conference where staff were freely talking with anyone who walked up, including me, until one marketing employee glanced at my badge and immediately clammed up.

When I asked why, she said, “I don’t know if I should be talking to you.” I mentioned I was just looking for information she’d share with any attendee (and which she had just shared with the person who had been in the booth before me). She inverted the Amazon smile into a frown, and walked away.

International Society for Technology in Education 2018 exhibit hall. (Frank Catalano Photo)

At other technology trade shows, where a few years ago exhibitors would have pulled someone wearing a media badge into their booth to pitch their product, company representatives shied away. At one, I finally flipped my badge over so the “media” wasn’t visible; at another, I replaced my press badge with a regular attendee badge. Both approaches worked better to get, again, public information.

Then there was that instance at an otherwise-excellent and well-run major edtech conference where I was barred from a keynote simply for wearing the press badge it had issued.

Control has always been part of credentialing press. But the negative aspects seem more pronounced now. News media badges prevent conversations and observations that normally would occur with no problem — even when anyone with any attendee badge could quickly “cover” an event on social media or a blog.

My takeaway: If you want the real experience and full access, register as an attendee, unless it’s truly a limited-access event that you can only get into with press credentials.

Journalism as a career is in trouble.

Briefly in 2018, I considered returning permanently to writing and journalism. Sure, I’d heard that pursuing a “traditional” news or writing career was hard now, but I wasn’t aware of how bad the situation was.

It’s really, really bad.

First, there’s the number of jobs. While specialty digital news organizations like GeekWire are growing, overall, reporting positions are in decline. In mid-2018, Pew Research Center released its analysis of federal job stats.

(Pew Research Center Image)

The analysis finds that from 2008 to 2017, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped from 114,000 to 88,000, for a loss of 27,000 jobs. Newspapers were hit the hardest. The only significant increase in employment was seen in “digital-native” news organizations, nowhere near enough in number to make up for the decline.

A separate Pew analysis found about a third of large U.S. newspapers and digital-native news outlets have seen layoffs between 2017 and 2018. And these losses came before the high-profile slashing in January of more than 1,000 news media jobs in just one week, across several organizations.

(Pew Research Center Image)

The cuts and outright news organization failures have led some observers to fear a growing number of “local news deserts,” where there are no daily local news outlets at all.

Then there’s pay. Despite some politicians’ claims, no one gets rich in journalism unless you’re one of those rarified celebrity news figures. That was true in the 1980s, and seems more true today.

And freelance? Never mind. A recent Authors Guild survey, the largest U.S. survey of published authors ever, found the median income of published writers in 2018 was $6,080, down from $10,500 in 2009. This includes book authors.

Part of the blame lies in how digital platforms like Google and Facebook have upended advertising that news organizations used to rely on to pay staff and other bills. Another lies in the lure of “free” news pulled together from various sources by aggregators, giving those who don’t want to pay for a subscription a no-cost alternative.

Together, the takeaway is that it’s harder than the last time I worked in a newsroom to make a living as a full-time journalist or writer — if you can find a job.

People don’t understand how journalists work.

Perhaps the most troubling of the three takeaways is that much of the general public doesn’t seem to understand what journalists do and how they do it. That’s anathema to the role of independent journalism in a democracy to provide good information and check accountability.

I’m not the only one to observe this recently. But now I’ve directly experienced it:

  • I was asked for a list of my specific questions before interviews, as though it were a rehearsed corporate event. (I declined.)
  • I was repeatedly sent material “on embargo” without having agreed in advance to hold the news until a later date. (I lectured.)
  • I was offered free product if I mentioned companies in stories, as though columns were another advertising medium. (I recoiled.)
  • I received politely haranguing calls from public relations people asking me to “re-frame” an already published story — not because any facts were wrong, but because it didn’t match the company’s preferred slant. (I smiled.)

Yes, there are still many good public relations practitioners who realize where their jobs end and the journalists’ begin. Still, even wearing a marketer’s hat, I was surprised by the barrage. It must work with some writers, because it happened frequently. (To be clear: It didn’t work at GeekWire.)

All of this appears far more blatant and — dare I say it — clueless than it was three decades ago.

Plus, there’s the issue of trust in the news media by the general public, which Gallup shows is lower than it was 30 years ago.

Maybe it’s because three decades ago, memories of Watergate and journalists’ key role in exposing a presidential coverup were still fresh. Reporters were celebrated in popular culture in films like Broadcast News, All the President’s Men, and The Killing Fields. When we had more local journalists, we more likely knew someone who was a reporter and better understood what they did.

Or, perhaps, maybe today some journalists are so overworked, underpaid, and fearful for their jobs it’s considered easier to push them and see what happens.

Whatever the reason, the lack of public understanding is a bad thing. Directly being on the receiving end of it didn’t make it better. Even if I’m just a sample of one.

The upshot?

After a year of increased intensity, I have a better appreciation for those who choose to be journalists in the current news environment. It’s more of a gutsy choice than when I practiced journalism full-time until the late 1980s, and very different than what I’ve experienced as an external columnist and contributor to various news outlets over the past 25 years.

Sometimes, you have to be inside to realize how much the view from outside diverges from reality.

I’ll keep writing — I can’t not write — and submit that writing to GeekWire and other outlets as I do other work. I’ll continue to support credible for-profit and nonprofit news organizations with my subscription and donation dollars. I’ll proudly stay a supporting member of the Society of Professional Journalists (anyone can join).

At the same time, I’m more aware that getting the occasional benefits from a farm are far different than planting and working the fields every day. To be more than a gentleman farmer, you have to be willing to regularly rake the muck. The same is true of being a real journalist.

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