Opinion and Forefront

KRULL: An ode to journalists felled by tech, economy

July 23, 2011

John KrullErnest Hemingway could be a bit of a gas bag, a writer often too in love with his own myth to see clearly, but there were times when he gave voice to simple, profound truths.

“The world breaks everyone,” he wrote, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Hemingway began his writing career as a reporter. Like many other bright young people before and after him, he saw journalism as a way to liberate his curiosity about the world around him while rendering a service to others. Journalism was a path to a career that mattered and a life with meaning.

There are many broken people in journalism these days.

The most significant economic downturn in at least a generation and a revolution in communications technology have created an earthquake in the news business. The business model that sustained quality journalism—of having advertising subsidize news coverage—has splintered, if not shattered.

In human terms, the costs are brutal.

Just a few weeks ago, The Indianapolis Star laid off more than 60 employees. The Louisville Courier-Journal made equally deep cuts, including shutting down its Indiana Statehouse bureau.

These cuts were but the latest round of job reductions. The Star’s newsroom now is just about half the size it was a few short years ago.

For generations, the mainstream, traditional or legacy media—the adjective one chooses reveals something of one’s ideology and highlights part of the problem—provided a starting point for many of our important community discussions. Without that shared common starting point, we will find it even harder as a society to have those difficult conversations. The increasingly nasty tone in our political debates is just the start.

That, though, is a subject for another day. At this moment, I want to try to give voice to what the changes in the news business have done to the people who work in it.

I worked at The Indianapolis News and Star for nearly 20 years. I wrote my first piece for the paper when I was 21 and left the staff not long before my 40th birthday.

Many of the people who have been part of the drama at the Star—on both the labor and management sides—are colleagues and friends. Their anguish is the stuff of tragedy.

Most people who entered journalism in the past 40 years did so for reasons that had little to do with commerce. They did so because they wanted to hold people in power accountable, because they wanted to shine a light on sights that otherwise would go unseen, and because they wanted to be part of the vehicle through which their community could share its stories.

They were willing to put up with long hours and relatively little pay to do this. They were willing to put up with the scorn that often comes with being the bearer of bad news. They did this because they saw journalism not as a job, but as a calling.

For many of the journalists whose jobs have fled or who are just barely hanging on, it is as if they are pilgrims whose church has abandoned them. They can live without a lot of things, but they cannot live without faith.

As the director of one of Indiana’s best college journalism programs, I often am asked what I tell my students about the news business these days. I tell them that journalism always has been and always will be a tough business that calls out for tough and tough-minded people. I tell them the work is important and rewarding, but that it also will make great demands upon them. I tell them that people rarely are called to meet easy challenges, and that maintaining the honored standards of great journalism through these difficult days will be hard.

And I pray that my many friends and colleagues in journalism will grow strong at the broken places.•

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Krull directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and hosts the weekly news program “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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