Get a Newspaper Job, No 'Complexity, Analysis, or Narrative' Required

Categories: Media
Paging David Simon: The San Diego Union-Tribune is reportedly laying off about 35 journalists from its newsroom, and replacing them with new "Jr. Staff Writers." What will these "Jr. Staff Writers" do? According to the posting:

Under supervision, will research and write news and straight forward short stories with low level of complexity, analysis and narrative ..."

And that's not all! They will also "compile lists"  and "use social media to enhance readership and find sources."

When I first read this job description, I assumed it was a satire posted by a frustrated ex-reporter.

So last night I asked the readership-enhancing Twitter account, "Hey, @sdut, is this for real?"

This morning, I received the reply: "@loisbeckett: Yes it is. We're hiring junior staff writers. If you are interested, please follow the instructions to apply."

These "Jr." positions would pay between $30,000 and $35,000 a year,
NBC San Diego reported yesterday.

The nonprofit online news site Voice of San Diego reported this morning that the newsroom layoffs include at least nine writers, including a politics reporter and a reporter who covered the US-Mexico border. Five of these were veteran Union-Tribune reporters.

Some of the laid-off reporters are being offered the opportunity to take one of the "Jr. Staff Writer" jobs, according to Voice of San Diego -- which probably means a pay cut, as well as giving up any analysis" or "complexity" in their work. 

There's nothing wrong with hiring young reporters on the cheap and making them listen to the police scanner while they develop the skills they need to write stories with narrative and complexity. (At least, there wasn't anything wrong with it, as long as senior reporting positions continued to exist.) Nor is there anything wrong with trying to master social media, and hiring entry-level people to work on that.

But it's harder to see the silver lining for a newspaper that fires veteran reporters and tries to replace some of them with an underclass of "journalists" who are being asked to generate page views and refrain from thinking about what they write.

Union-Tribune editor Jeff Light disagrees with this take on the situation. "I would not draw any connection between our hiring community reporters and alarmist views of the death of the news business," he wrote in an e-mail late this afternoon.

Light emphasized in an editor's note yesterday that the new underclass of reporters would allow veteran staffers to focus on smarter, more in-depth reporting.

In order to keep "reporters in the field even as economic challenges persist throughout the market ... we have added an entry-level role to our newsroom for journalists who will handle a high volume of straightforward stories," he wrote. "This will free others, particularly in our geographic teams, to spend more time digging into the issues that matter most."

"Part of our strategy is to organize around topic experts -- our reporters -- and to give them more freedom and responsibility in shaping our coverage," he noted. The paper will also "add a seven-person watchdog team." 

Formerly owned by the Copley family, the San Diego Union-Tribune was sold last year to a Beverly Hills private equity company, Platinum Equity, which promised "to bring a strong operational focus that helps ensure the Union-Tribune not only survives in this market, but thrives." The paper's advertising revenue had declined 40 percent from 2006, according to an article on the Union-Tribune's own Sign on San Diego.

Platinum Equity has acquired a wide range of companies, including ones that specialize in crane equipment and copper oxide powder. "
We have a long history of creating value by helping established companies navigate difficult market transitions," a Platinum principal said when the firm acquired the paper.

The full job posting reads as follows:

Under supervision,will research and write news and straight forward short stories with low level of complexity, analysis and narrative, in accordance with identified style and structure; compile lists, contribute regularly to blogs during the course of the work day; work with reporters as directed to enhance larger trend stories; may "fill in" in other areas as assigned when reporters are away from their beats; may use social media to enhance readership and find sources, and assist with daily cops calls.

So a content farm of junior journalists will subsidize the exquisite analysis of their remaining seniors?Points for honesty, perhaps, but this is not a job posting that seems likely to attract a journalist with any lingering self-respect.

Post updated 5:30 p.m. Friday with Light's e-mailed comment. 

Follow us on Twitter at @loisbeckett and @sfweekly


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