Herman: Uncertain times in a media industry with an uncertain future

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 Opinion
Zach Ryall
Looking north across Lady Bird Lake, the American-Statesman property is seen in the foreground with the city of Austin downtown skyline in the background. ZACH RYALL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I recently manned a table at career day at North Austin’s Padron Elementary School. It didn’t take me long to confront, in my head, the stark reality that I was talking to kids about a career that (a) might not look like it does now or (b) won’t exist when they age into the labor force.

I work at a newspaper, which these days means it also includes a robust online operation delivering news. Coincidentally, a headline leading the newspaper’s website I had on display for the kids as they came by to hear about what I do for a living read: “Statesman’s parent company puts newspaper up for sale.”

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So that was nagging at me as I checked out the other folks at career day tables near mine and mulled what their line of work will look like in 20 years. Christy Seguin was at a table on one side of mine. A sign identified her as the “rock and roll cake diva.” She bakes wonderfully artistic cakes. Cake will be around in 20 years. (At least I hope so because I plan to be around in 20 years.)

At the table on the other side from me were Alma McElroy and Lauren Carberry of Levy Architects. Buildings will be around in 20 years. A few tables away was a Star Flight pilot. First responders will be around in 20 years. They may have individual jetpacks, but it will still be a career. (And, FYI, I still want to be a Star Flight pilot when and if I grow up.)

At another nearby table, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department was represented by Merv Griffin. (Extra points if you remember the other Merv Griffin.) Parks will be around in 20 years. So will recreation. And near Griffin was Bunny Stark, a pastor at Greater Mt. Vernon Zion AME Church, who, about halfway through the two hours of talking with energetic grade-school kids, agreed with me that it was nap-time. Faith will be around in 20 years.

Newspapers? In 2037? Who knows? It’s important that journalism still exist, despite what our current president thinks of the industry. But the troubled industry is in transition. To what? Stay tuned.

This career day came a day after Atlanta-based Cox Media Group announced its plan to sell the American-Statesman and the company’s Palm Beach, Fla., newspapers, as well as the related websites at these papers. This was not a shock. The industry upheaval/demise/metamorphosis is well-known.

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I’ve seen it take the jobs of many top-notch journalists in recent years. But it’s jarring nonetheless when it hits your career home. Those of you who’ve worked at a business in transition understand the angst the newspaper staff is enduring. I now work among talented colleagues uncertain about their futures in a line of work that is far more than just a job.

All of this was in my brain as my mouth told the Padron kids — so polite, so bright, so fun to talk with — about what I do for a living. Is it something they’ll be able to do for a living?

The answer is a definite maybe. We’ll always need professional delivery of the news. How it is delivered is evolving. The big question is whether the new, online way will be a profitable way and one that will offer a career with paychecks that can help support a family.

I tried to explain the industry tradition and transition to the kids at career day, how online is the future and that sometime in the future print — at least in the form of a daily newspaper as we’ve known it — could be the past. Aware that some of the kids were born around 2010 (several years after I got the shirt I was wearing), I always started by asking if they knew what a newspaper is.

“It’s where it tells you the news,” said a second grader.

“It’s a paper that tells you things that happen in real life,” said Padron student.

“You use it to find out ideas,” said yet another.

Correct, correct and correct.

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And I was happy to see many hands shoot up when I asked if anybody sees newspapers in their homes. It was at that point I tried to explain to them that the day could come when nobody will see newspapers in their homes but that the information in them, so important to a community, increasingly and perhaps exclusively will show up in the new forms we’re already using.

I remain bullish enough about journalism to believe our nation needs it to be a viable career, regardless of method of delivery.

Meanwhile, there’s great uncertainty here at the newspaper as we wait to see who’s going to buy us and what it will mean. Sure, there have been lots of side conversations rife with speculation about whether it will be Gannett or Hearst or another newspaper chain or just some rich folks who think it would be fun to own a newspaper. (The answer is yes, it would be fun, unless you believe guaranteed profit is a necessary component of fun.)

But here’s what’s been going on the most here at the newspaper in the days since the sale was announced: Journalism for the benefit of the community we serve.

Our thanks to those of you who think it’s a product worth supporting. It’s support we know must be earned with our product, regardless of how it’s delivered and who signs our paychecks.

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