A new study shows newsrooms cut a record 16,000 jobs last year. That shrinkage is one reason more and more journalists are leaving the profession, including former Montana newspaper reporter Eve Byron. In this episode of Parsing the Press, Eve talks with Sally and Gwen about the downsides — and the allure — of being a journalist in today's challenging news environment.
Sally Mauk It's no secret the number of American newspapers has shrunk and most of those that remain have cut staff either through layoffs or early retirements and buyouts. Many journalists seeing the decimation have left for more secure or more lucrative jobs.
Eve Byron was a reporter for over 20 years at the Helena Independent Record. She quit in 2014 to take a job outside the profession, only to return to reporting at the Ravalli Republic and then the Missoulian. Not long ago, she left the profession again and is now the public information officer for the Montana Historical Society. Eve is our guest today. Eve tell us why you left journalism not once but twice
Eve Byron Long hours with low pay, it being a thankless profession other than your editor telling you that it was great what you did yesterday, but now what are you going to do for me today? I went so many years without a raise. You know, one day I go out to an interview and I came back and learned my editor was laid off due to budget cuts. And it just the churn was too much. And I just decided that I had some skills that were worthwhile and people appreciated those. And now instead of writing the first draft of history, I'm helping compile all of those drafts
Gwen Florio Eve, you left but you came back, and I'm curious what it is about this business that just gets hold of people and doesn't let them go. Why is it so compelling?
Eve Byron Well, being a journalist is the most fun I've ever had wearing clothes. You know, I was thousands of feet underground, toured the Drumlummon Mine in Marysville. I was flying in a Blackhawk helicopter to the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park. I went horse packing into the Bob [Marshall Wilderness] for three days. I didn't know what the story was going to be, but I told my editor I knew I'd come out with one, and I ended up coming out with three of them, plus photos. It's the best job I've ever had. I told my children, if you love your job you'll never work a day in your life. You get to ask people those questions that everyone wants to ask. But in polite society, you're not able to do that. I can ask, you know, how did you feel when you killed your wife? What did you think of when you were doing this? Did you really mean to do that or is there something else going on here? It's as though we're the skunk at the picnic when we walk in the door. But we also are walking in the door knowing that we're doing a job that's so important. It's enshrined in the First Amendment where Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. And that is so important and it's a responsibility that you can't shy away from. And at the end of the day you know that you're doing something that's really important; writing that first draft of history.
Sally Mauk Well, I don't have the exact figures, but most of the reporters leaving or being forced out are "of certain age" because newspapers can pay younger reporters less money, for one thing. But what they gain in money saved, they lose in institutional memory and in mentors for those reporters just starting out. Fair to say Eve?
Eve Byron Oh, gosh, yes. You know, they can hire and they probably did hire someone at half my pay, but I can do the work twice as fast. And I also knew who to go to ask the questions and to get that extra source. And also there's this other half where people trusted me and that you can't just jump in, parachute into a scene and expect people to tell you their secrets and tell you their stories. That takes something that is built up over time.
One fine example of that was during the Joe Maurier days where he was the head of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. I had so many great sources at FWP that one day they came out and said that everybody was getting a raise, but it was a percentage of your salary. And it turns out that the head of the organization and the top folks were getting like 12 percent raises and the wildlife biologists were getting 3 percent raises. And within minutes of that coming out I had a phone call and somebody said, stand by the alley outside of your office, I have something for you. And they drove up and handed me that sheet that had everybody's raises and the percentages and such and just said, here, have at it. And you don't get those kinds of things when you're a new reporter. You don't get those kinds of sources that really make a difference and make people trust you.
Gwen Florio Eve, Sally correctly pointed out that a lot of the people leaving are the people with more experience, but when you and I were at the Missoulian, we saw a lot of the young reporters leaving, too. They would come in and just do great work and then leave. Can you talk about the cost of that?
Eve Byron Boy, what do you say about that? I mean, there's such good people and there's still good people out there doing that work. And I fear that they're going to leave us, as so many already have, because they can make more money at Costco as a checkout clerk. And then, you know, you punch a time clock and you're gone. And being a journalist, you guys know, it's it's a 24/7 job. Every time I hear a siren, I still like, oh, what is it? I mean, when I was a young reporter, I slept with a police scanner because there was a standoff at a house, you know, and when people are seeing, especially the younger journalists are seeing that the future is not bright, that unless you're willing to go to the large papers or large communities, that you're not going to be making any money. It's hard to swallow and we're losing that. And I think that's important of a brain drain as it is with the older people who are leaving.
Sally Mauk The three of us, I think each have well over 30 years as journalists. And that kind of long career may be a thing of the past. Young journalists may not, as you were just saying, think of this as a career that will be lifelong.
Eve Byron Right. And I teach at Carroll College part time. And one of the things I see with the students is they don't want to be journalists. They want to go into communications and they want to go into public relations. And there's even a degree out there that involves social media. But if you ask somebody if you want to be a journalist, I mean, they do because it sounds like fun, but they know what they're going to get paid. And I mean, how do you buy a house on that?
Gwen Florio So what we've seen in Montana in the last few years is the ramping up of nonprofit news sites in addition to the Free Press, which has been around for quite a while now. We have the Daily Montanan and Kaiser Health News. Do you think they're adequately filling the gap?
Eve Byron You know, they're doing a good job trying to fill that gap. But I'm still getting calls from people who say, you know, Child Protective Services, there's a lot of bad stuff going on there. And CPS wasn't even mentioned during the legislative session. And no one's looking at that. And it's one of those kind of the known unknowns because you don't know what's out there that's not being covered. So while these nonprofits or even the for-profit startups that are online only, they're helping to fill some of those holes, but they're still just these big gaping craters that are out there and part of this news desert.
Gwen Florio So I do have one final question, Eve. You know, if you could see a future in the news business, would you go back in a heartbeat?
Eve Byron I love it. I still get up and look at journalism.com, and it comes into my news feed every day. You know, I look at it if only to know that there's nothing out there that I would want to do, nothing that would fit my pay scale, nothing that would fit my areas of expertise and nothing in any place where I want to live. And I love my job now. I mean, we're building a new facility and it's a really exciting time to be at the Historical Society. But I look across out my window and I look at the state house and I just want to be roaming those halls.
Sally Mauk We're out of time, Eve and Gwen. But it was a great discussion. Thank you so much.
Eve Byron Always a pleasure to chat with you guys. I miss you so much.
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to remove an inaccurate comparison of specific journalists' pay to that of Costco workers. MTPR regrets the error.