Month: July 2010

Pay cut – or job cut?

When I was laid off during those dark days at the end of 2008, there were a half-dozen people in the same conference room as me, getting the same pink slip and feeling the brunt of the same bloody axe.

But after a few peeks at social media profiles, I’m shocked to learn that at least one employee that was laid off with me is still working at that same company.

What happened? I’m not sure, but I believe he approached the management team, asked them to reconsider – and most importantly, offered to take a pay cut.

And that’s a big come-to-Jesus question that anyone whose job might be in jeopardy should ask themselves beforehand: how much less would you be willing to work for to keep your job?

Yes, it sucks to work for less money at a job you probably already thought you needed a raise for. But to have 75% of something is a whole lot better than 100% of nothing.

And you can’t assume you’ll bounce back right away into a new job. I’d like to think I had some advantages – I was, after all, a writer in the career field, writing about the very process of getting a job every day – and yet it took me nearly a year to find a job.

Unemployment benefits are often temporary and usually only about a third of what you made before. Would you rather have a consistent job with benefits – or rely on unemployment insurance, from which you have to pay several hundred dollars to continue your medical coverage via COBRA?

It’s why I’ve been telling people that one of the most important things you can do in this economy is to decide what your bottom line is with salary. Yank out those W2’s and bankbooks and crunch the numbers.

If there’s any chance of your company keeping you on, it has to be a big chunk – probably at least 20 to 25 percent – but that might be enough to move you into the “stay” column.

Yes, it sucks. Yes, it’s by no means an ideal situation. But it may buy you time and keep you above water.

And in any case, everyone should know to at least ASK this question. I didn’t know, and would have been willing to bite the bullet (at least temporarily).

The evolution of news: back to the future?

As a writer and journalist, I’ve seen many local publications shift their focus from comprehensive international news and adapt the “go local” motto.

It makes sense. In the age of 24-hour news channels and online communication, we’re already getting news of national and international importance from other sources.

If a local newspaper reports a national story, it can at best deliver that news 12 to 24 hours later. Many local media outlets expanded in the 1970s and 80s to offer comprehensive coverage; as a result, there’s many layers of duplication in the market for national and international news.

News organizations have also realized that blogs are gaining in popularity and credibility because they’re answering the need for local coverage of local news – told in a local voice that understand the issues and how they impact the people that live there.

Time magazine had a story in this week’s edition about “hyperlocal” Web sites – like EveryBlock and GapersBlock here in Chicago – that do exactly that: cover local happenings from a mega-local perspective.

Getting news (then and now) at a truly local level - births, deaths, major events....and even a golden wedding anniversary!

I think it’s really exciting. It’s also, in many ways, a return to what a local newspaper used to be.

I say this because for the last several months, I’ve been knee-deep in newspaper archives as I research my family history. Many of the local papers I’ve read followed the same template. They were usually around 10 pages, with only a smattering of national news on page 1. There was an opinion page and a sports page.

And the rest? Well, it was filled with local news. Every wedding, death, birth, car accident and shooting (accidental or otherwise).

One thing that struck me about many of these older newspapers: there were columns and columns of content that simply reported the comings and goings of people. (“Mr. and Mrs. M. Miller were guests at the home of Mr. John Jones.”) Initially, this struck me as (a) very odd and (b) something that would never fly today with privacy concerns.

And then it hit me: this was the ancestor of the status update! Now we don’t need a newspaper to get that news out; we can update Facebook or Twitter, and those are as searchable as newspaper archives.

What we define as news hasn’t changed a great deal, but the ways that news is delivered has undergone epic changes with the Internet and social media. In many ways, though, 21st century technology is answering a timeless question for readers: “What’s going on? And what’s happening in my neck of the woods?”

Freedom of the press

Everyone’s got their own way to celebrate Independence Day. Some people will contemplate how our country came to be. Others will honor friends and family who have served in the military or lost their lives protecting our country. And many people will be feasting on hot dogs and hamburgers, or sitting in an air-conditioned theater watching Eclipse.

As a journalist, I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom of the press. Last month, I got a chance to visit the Newseum, the national news museum in Washington, D.C. It was definitely a joyful experience for a news junkie like me. The museum is 6 floors of exhibits that span from the first newspapers and periodicals to the most recent channels for users to communicate news (like Twitter and Facebook).

I really enjoyed the museum. The exhibits had brief synposes at each display but generally let the news speak for itself.  This led to some powerful moments of contemplation, though after a while, print newspaper displays had a feeling of sameness that minimized their impact. When the museum varied from that format – as it did with its collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning news photos – the impact was enormous and visible on the faces of visitors like me.

I thought the Newseum missed a chance to more closely profile some major news figures. For example, Edward R. Murrow had his own corner, but a more comprehensive exhibit of reporters like the other “Murrow Boys,” as well as network anchors from Cronkite to Peter Jennings would be great. Despite the Newseum’s DC locale, only minimal mention was made of Katharine Graham and what the Washington Post accomplished in the 1970s. I definitely thought more profiles of celebrated local reporters and news anchors would be a plus, as well.  And virtually no mention was made of the current conflicts in media: Left vs. right, mainstream media vs. talk radio, and new media vs. traditional media.

But I’ve been thinking a great deal about a brief flash of a moment that happened while I was there. One exhibit had the current day’s front pages from a newspaper in each state. As we walked through the corridor, a group of students stopped at a computer display at the end. They discovered that the display had articles from newspapers translated into Spanish. One of the teenage girls rolled her eyes and said, “That’s, like, totally disgusting!”

I heard her, and made eye contact. After sending her as many evil-eye daggers as I could, her and her friends slunk away. For some reason, what she said stuck with me.

I realize we have a lot of conflict right now with the growing multi-cultural face of America and our ongoing immigration challenges.  These are complex issues with compelling arguments for each perspective; I wasn’t challenging her right to have an opinion on those ideas. (I have opinions that are as complex and contradictory as the issue itself.)

But she was in a museum that exists to celebrate the freedom of the press and the freedom of information in this country – and she was disgusted that information was being disseminated to people who spoke a different language. I just kept thinking: honey, you have SO missed the point of the museum.

Then again, kids of her generation probably don’t really understand what news is, or why freedom of the press is so important. The lines between news and PR are so blurry that even a trained eye has a hard time seeing where one stops and the other begins.

There’s no framework for many of these kids to understand why this freedom is important, or how to place it in context: a survey done in 2008 revealed that less than 50% of today’s students were able to identify when or why the Civil War was fought, or who we gained independence from in the Revolutionary War – the very independence we are celebrating today.

I don’t want to be a grumpy old guy (at least not yet, anyway). And perhaps I’m coming down too hard on a teenager – one who would much rather be in an air-conditioned theater swooning over Edward or Jacob than wandering around a museum looking at old dusty paper.

But journalism and media is just like politics: the more that people know, and the more that people from all perspectives participate, the healthier our media is and the more it rededicates itself to our ideals. And participation in one’s community and one’s country starts with the free, unedited flow of information.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!