A fellow 60 Percenter shared a fascinating article with me today on "Is There Life After Newspapers?" The writer interviewed several former newspaper employees who had lost their jobs in recent years.
Not all the news is bad -- more than half have found work, including a good chunk as full-time freelancers. The article is long, but worthwhile: http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=4679
The numbers bear out what we discussed yesterday at the (trumpets please) First Ever 60 Percenters Lunch Meeting. I proclaimed that newspapers have already begun the process of operating like magazines, with a skeleton staff of editors, advertising reps and managers, and will continue to go down that path and rely more on freelancers. It makes more sense as a business model. And whether the news is delivered on paper, on the Web or on a thin, pliable sheet of plastic that you can tuck into a briefcase or backpack, there always will be news.
Freelancers, in turn, will be more like reporters of old: Experts on their subject or subjects.
When I lived in Detroit, the writers at the Detroit News and Free Press (and even, usually, at the suburban dailies -- yes, "suburban dailies," plural -- now an oxymoron) knew their field of expertise inside and out. Whether it was covering courts, the music scene, fashion, police beat or the always-entertaining mayor's office, these writers dug their heels into a beat and stayed for years.
Here, reporters and editors are shuffled around regularly. There are a few great ones -- for instance, I think Richard Nilsen probably knows more about arts than anyone in this state, and he's damn good at communicating about them. And the Tribune lost a real jewel with the layoff of Mark Scarp, who is a walking encyclopedia of Scottsdale (of course, the Tribune ceased publishing in Scottsdale, which is why he was let go, but if anyone else starts up a Scottsdale community paper, he should be number one on the list of writers).
For freelancers, what this means is that while it's always important to be a jack-of-all-trades so that we can spread ourselves around, it's a good idea to hone one or even a few areas of special interest. Smart media managers will seek out these knowledgeable people and not worry about sharing them with other outlets, because there will be so many niche publications and not a lot of direct competition as in the old days between "major dailies."
Being a freelancer -- or a contractor, as I used to be called when I did most of my work for a publishing company -- is the future of journalism and writing in general (because what we do is not always journalism, as we know). We are an important part of the new model for media. It's exciting that people are reading more and more thanks to the Web, and that means a need for content.
And that means a need for us.