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The work changes, the job doesn't

A former print journalist is among the few to find a successful new life on the Internet.

September 06, 2009|Stephen Engelberg | Stephen Engelberg is managing editor of ProPublica.

In the last decade, technology has reshaped industries and redefined the very nature of work for many Americans. Yet even as the world has shifted, some jobs remain unaffected. In honor of Labor Day, we asked writers from four different fields to discuss how their fields have -- or have not -- changed.

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I joined the newspaper business in 1979, part of the generation drawn to journalism by the power of investigative reporting as practiced by Seymour Hersh or Woodward and Bernstein. My first job was as humble as it was traditional. I was among the last copy boys in American journalism.

It worked this way: A reporter would type a page on a manual typewriter (an archaic, hand-operated word processor), rip it out and shout "copy!" as he threaded a new sheet of paper into the machine. I would briskly carry the precious paragraphs to a tweed-clad editor, who made corrections in pencil while puffing on his pipe.

No one knew it then, but the sleepy, cyclical newspaper business was poised to take off. Over the next two decades, giant media companies with papers at their core would pile up profits at a previously unimaginable pace. There were competitors -- television and radio come to mind -- but we were the essence of a fat and heedless monopoly. It was, in large measure, news when we said it was.

I became a reporter, first in Norfolk, Va., and later at the Dallas Morning News, which was locked in a glorious newspaper war with the Dallas Times Herald. I joined the New York Times and became an eyewitness to history, first in Washington and then in the newly democratic countries of Central Europe. Millions of people raised in one system suddenly were forced to adapt to the uncertainties of unbridled capitalism. Some thrived; others struggled mightily to understand the new verities.

A decade later, the field of journalism was upended by a revolution that proved as destabilizing to the old ways as the fall of the Berlin Wall. The widespread use of the Internet demolished the newspaper business model. People who used to pay $100 or more for a classified ad turned to Craigslist, which provided the same service for free, destroying a revenue stream that had accounted for half the annual earnings at many papers. Overall readership actually rose, but print circulation fell sharply as paying customers dropped their subscriptions to read online for free. The last hope for preserving newspapers as they were -- selling ads next to the Internet copy -- has proved elusive, as rates for Web advertising have remained far below the rates newspapers charge for print ads. The Great Recession of 2008 delivered another great blow. Scrambling to stay alive, newspapers slashed their staffs and reduced space for news copy. Many pulled back from investigative stories, which burn up large amounts of reporters' time.

In late 2007, shortly before the tsunami hit, I left my job as managing editor of one of America's respected regional dailies, the Oregonian, to join a nonprofit newsroom called ProPublica. The organization was launched by Herb and Marion Sandler, California philanthropists who anticipated how the shift in the business would affect investigative reporting. ProPublica is a new model: Its staff of reporters and editors develop investigative stories that are provided free to newspapers and other journalistic outlets. Pro- Publica cannot come close to filling the gap left by thousands of newsroom layoffs, but it is a start.

In the last year, I have learned as many new skills as I had in the previous two decades. ProPublica publishes on the Internet and with partners in print, broadcast and radio. On any given day, I worry about Web design, how to edit video for an upcoming story and what might make good radio.

In form, the work is utterly different from what I began in the musty Washington bureau 30 years ago. But in substance, the new phenomenon of philanthropically supported newsrooms has allowed me to continue searching for stories that make a difference and hold powerful people accountable.

Yes, the business model is irrevocably changed, and how people receive their news is continuing to evolve. But the value of investigative reporting endures. People remain hungry for news, whether they read it on a computer, a phone or a stack of paper. At its core, the job of the journalist is unchanged: Find out what no one else knows. Make sense of it. And relate the discovery to the lives of ordinary readers.

It no longer brings big corporations double-digit returns, but it matters as much as ever.

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