Industry Overview: Journalism and Publishing

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Extra, extra, read all about it! This just in: The publishing world continues to take a beating. Print publications have suffered for years as more and more people turn to television, radio, and the Internet as news and information sources. Stagnating print readership has prompted advertisers to spend their dollars with electronic outlets, leading many newspapers and magazines to operate with pared down staff.

In some ways the publishing and journalism landscape is strangely unchanged. A free press remains the backbone of our government. Books, newspapers, and periodicals continue to entertain, educate, and bring us the news we need to be informed citizens. They are an outlet for critical thinking-informed and otherwise.

The industry is overwhelmingly centered in New York City. Mass-market book publishing resides in a decreasing number of large corporations, some of them parts of giant worldwide entertainment conglomerates. Each of them publishes under many imprints, the publishing world's term for brands. Academic and scholarly books are mainly produced by publishing houses connected to universities. There is also a huge market for technical books for almost all occupations, from bricklayers to software engineers.

Many mass-market magazines such as Time, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair are also published in the Big Apple. So are many of the special-interest magazines published by outfits such as Hachette Filipacchi (Woman's Day, Elle, Car and Driver, and Metropolitan Home).

However, while many of the thousands of trade magazines are also published in New York, a good number are published in the centers of their respective industries: Variety is published in Hollywood, and numerous computer magazines are published in and around Silicon Valley by companies such as CMP Media.

Daily newspaper circulation has been decreasing for about a decade, but the vestigial empires of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer are not giving in. Newspapers continue to be published in U.S. cities, though the number of cities served by two or more major papers can probably be counted on one hand.

The major difference between the periodical world and book publishing is that the former is supported by advertising. That means that their content and production are both influenced by the interests of big advertisers, though editorial staffs wage a ceaseless war for independence from the dictates of advertising sales departments, while the publishers play arbiter. In book publishing the focus is on securing deals with distributors like Ingram, with huge chains like Barnes & Noble or Borders, and Web merchandisers like

Niche Markets
A few segments of the book-publishing world are enjoying growth in an otherwise slow and struggling industry. Revenue has skyrocketed in religious publishing-bibles, biblical studies, inspirational titles, and religious fiction-rising faster than any other publishing segment in the last year. There has also been increased textbook and adult trade publication, in response to the growing number of high school and college students in classrooms.

Journalism, or Propaganda?
The holy grail of journalism is objectivity. But achieving that holy grail doesn't win readers. Why aim for objectivity when no one is interested? Indeed, these days, many organizations are opting for a more confrontational style of journalism. Quasi-journalists like Al Franken and Michael Moore (on the left) or Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh (on the right) spin the news to support their political agendas-not to mention engaging in vicious name-calling. Even ostensibly higher-minded sources of journalism seem to be losing the struggle to maintain their objectivity. Some of this stems from conflicts of interest: Many top news sources are subsidiaries of giant companies with all sorts of other subsidiary businesses they'd like to protect from negative publicity. These days, many consider news sources such as Fox News to be mouthpieces for the federal government's agenda. Some stately sources of journalism like the Washington Post are being called out for publishing editorials that come practically word-for-word from the mouths of presidential representatives like Condi Rice. Between pop journalism and proto-propaganda, there may be less room than ever in the industry for journalists who objectively go after hard-news stories.

Weblogs and Journalism
Weblogs-blogs, for short-are a kind of online diary, in which the author, or blogger, writes regular postings about whatever interests him or her, often including hyperlinks to other Web pages with information about the topic at hand. Weblogs have changed journalism. They've broken a number of major stories because of their standards of attribution, which are looser than those of most reputable print and other media. They've kept other stories on the front burner that might have fizzled out for lack of attention. A number of top columnists are keeping blogs, in addition to writing regular articles. There's no doubt that blogs get the news in front of readers in a hurry and are proliferating.

While the Web is making it easier for unique journalistic voices to be heard, the companies at the top of the heap in the industry are getting ever larger. In recent years, AOL merged with Time Warner, the Chicago Tribune acquired the Times Mirror, Gannett acquired Central Newspapers, and McGraw-Hill acquired Tribune Education. Often this M&A activity is accompanied by a lowering of costs (read: layoffs)-so be aware that in publishing, as in most any other industry these days, there are very few jobs whose future is 100 percent secure.

Vertical Integration
Profit margins in the book business are extremely tight. In recent decades, publishers' response to this fact was to focus on developing and then marketing the heck out of books they considered bestsellers. Thus the spate of books by celebrities and the rapid-fire publication of books by established best-selling authors. In more recent times, more and more in the book business have been diversifying their operations to broaden their sources of revenue and protect themselves from downturns in their core businesses. Book publishers are moving into book distribution and printing. Printers are moving into publishing. So are booksellers. Indeed, Barnes & Noble, a behemoth bookseller, purchased Sterling Publishing, and then began publishing and selling books under its own imprint. B&N wasn't the first in the book business to make this kind of move, and it won't be the last.

Newspapers remain the biggest segment of the publishing world, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the industry's revenue. The big players here are Gannett, Knight-Ridder, Tribune Company, Dow Jones, The New York Times Company, and The Washington Post Company. Most of these also own substantial interests in broadcasting, cable, and new media. Traditional newspapers, like all traditional publications, are entering a new era: Most conventional newspapers boast online content on their own websites or those of partners. That's undercut their core products. Why should someone subscribe to a newspaper when the articles are easily accessible online? Yet some insiders even foresee personalized news services in which customers will subscribe to writings by particular journalists.

This is a multibillion-dollar industry that expands each year, with top publishers such as Time Warner (Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune), McGraw-Hill (Business Week) and the Washington Post Company (Newsweek) leading in the Fortune rankings. Niche publications focusing on health, nutrition, travel, golf, and such are a growing presence, too-they've been thriving for the past 20 years and are slated for even more impressive growth.

In the past, book publishers acted as gatekeepers, offering authors the only viable means of producing books and persuading stores to sell them. But the proliferation of the Web and the new accessibility of self-publishing are challenging this staid Goliath. As technology forges ahead, this segment lags behind-reluctance to embrace new media is common among traditional publishers-and cynics allege that the death of print is approaching. But having recovered from similar catastrophes, such as the introduction of radio, television, and CD-ROM, the book publishing industry is realistically predicted to weather the storm.

In spite of the current identity crisis, this segment is a multibillion-dollar business of pulp titles and blockbusters that accounts for about a fifth of the publishing industry pie. The big players are New York's clashing titans-Bertelsmann (Random House), Viacom (Simon & Schuster), and Time Warner (Warner Books)-whose diversified interests put them on the path toward world domination.

A rising segment of the book world is the textbook, technical, and scientific publishing market, accounting for half of all publishing revenue.

Online Information
This is an ever-expanding universe. A quick browse on the Web will produce a spectrum of publications, including encyclopedias, political weblogs, interactive newspapers, and even novels. The rapid dissemination rate and global reach of this medium exceed those of traditional media, with the added benefit that websites can be easily updated. Revenue is generated by advertisements, subscriptions, and e-commerce partnerships, but long-term profitability is yet to be determined. The biggest players are well-established publications that support an online presence, such as the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, and focused content-based sites such as CNET.

The news is bleak. Publishing has suffered sustained blows recently due to massive mergers, consolidations, decreased circulation, and lower advertising revenue. As a result, the job market is stagnant, with employment expected to grow more slowly than other occupations through the year 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those going to work at newspapers and magazines will find the job opportunities rising and falling with advertising revenue.

And increasingly, newspapers and magazines are managing costs by hiring reporters, writers, and editors on a freelance basis. This will further stiffen the competition in an already bleak market. Applicants with specialized skills in niche markets, especially those with technical expertise or knowledge of subjects that appeal to minority audiences, will have a leg up on the competition.

Publishing is still one of the bright and shining career options for humanities majors and people who love to read, think, and discuss their ideas, but it will continue to be one of the more difficult professions to break into. An internship or apprenticeship is often the best idea for recent grads-you'll gain valuable experience and make industry connections. You might also consider moving to a smaller town or city, where there'll probably be less competition for local media jobs than you'd find in the big city. Seasoned reporters concede that whatever one's education, on-the-job experience is where most skills are cultivated. Once you enter the field, there are myriad possibilities due to the diverse interests of corporate employers.

The diversification of the media giants has had interesting repercussions on the job market. As recently as 15 years ago, if you began life as a print reporter, you did not generally end up in television or book publishing. If you covered hard news stories, you did not moonlight in PR and other promotional copywriting jobs. The mix is much more fluid now. And although a few old-school journalists decry these developments, they make your job prospects more interesting than they once would have been.

The Power of the Press
The pay may be lousy, the hours may be long, but even the cub reporter for a small local paper can break very big stories. And this is still a fairly honorable crowd. You'll usually get the credit you deserve for your scoop. Move on up to a bigger job at a more recognized publication and captains of industry and PR people earning three times your salary will actively seek to curry favor. Most journalists and publishers won't openly admit it, but their jobs are ego trips. The power you wield can be immense.

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say
If you've been told ever since first grade that you have a problem with authority, you're too opinionated, too blunt, and too outspoken, this is the career for you. With the possible exception of sales and promotion, people in these jobs tend to be nonconformist and even downright eccentric at times. They're skeptical and tough, but they're also honest and fair, for the most part. No one minces words or pretties them up for the greater corporate benefit. (Of course, earnest beginners and senior management are regularly tempted to try, but as their efforts are usually met with gleeful derision and scorn they invariably wish they hadn't.)

Work with Words
Sometimes it's tedious. Sometimes it's repetitive. But you won't find a lot of jobs out there that allow this much creative expression and diversity, with money as compensation. Working with words-or words with pictures-is stimulating. Even working with people who work with words is stimulating. "This will sound a little corny," says one editor, "but I really think my job is exciting. I've been doing it for a long time, and I still think it's really cool to be on top of the news all the time."

Holier Than Thou
Thou refers to anyone unfortunate enough to work on the business side, in television, or in public relations. In fact, thou probably includes any human not currently filing from a war zone or writing a blistering exposé of corporate malfeasance. Think of the worst snobs you know. Journalists and the lonely few still publishing worthy books are much worse than that. David Eisenhower once said, "Journalists are an interesting bunch, but nowhere near as interesting as they think they are." How high is your moral superiority quotient? It needs to be very high to survive in this crowd.

Faster! Faster!
The daily deadlines for newspapers are beginning to look positively leisured and calm compared to the exigencies of online media. Television news upped the deadline ante years ago and radio and wire reporters have always had to write faster than they think, but now even "in-depth analysis" is done in 25 words-or 25 seconds-or less. If you like to reflect before putting pen to paper and you don't work well under pressure, even book publishing may be a bit too revved up for you these days.

Those Who Can, Do...
Those who can't, go into journalism and publishing. Chroniclers are by definition the ones who stand on the sidelines of life and observe. With the passage of time what they chronicle becomes history, but they are not the actual players. Sooner or later everyone in this industry, even the publisher, has to come to grips with the fact that he or she is not the one who matters in the story or book or show. Sportswriters usually can't play the games they cover; finance writers typically can't make killings in the market, even if the SEC were to suddenly decide this should be allowed.

These titles and descriptions vary depending on the segment of the industry and the specific organization. And since the overall industry trend seems to be toward the incredible shrinking editorial staff, expect to see many of these jobs conflated soon if they haven't already been.

Lou Grant's time in the sun has come and gone. Editors now have to pay close attention to readership surveys, market trends, and everything that's happening in new media in addition to just making sure that the news is covered. In large publishing organizations, editors usually preside over specific desks-national, foreign, finance, arts, new fiction, or biography. In smaller houses and publications, they do it all-and a fair amount of the writing and layout as well. In the Internet world, these people are sometimes called producers, and are responsible for supervising in-house and freelance writers and artists and planning budgets and schedules. Salary range: $32,000 to $150,000 or more at major national publications.

Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, by contrast, would find that very little in their job description has changed. As one veteran says, "It's still the same old love-a fight for the story and glory." Reporters now often prefer to be called journalists and writers, and laptops frequently replace notebooks and stubby pencils. But it's still a lot of talking on the telephone, chasing ambulances and fire engines (or the equivalent), and writing feverishly to make a deadline.

What makes it all worthwhile is the byline. Everyone else may only get to be famous for 15 minutes, but reporters get their name and, increasingly, their faces out there all the time. It used to be that anyone who wrote readable features for his or her high school paper could get a reporting job. Now a number of them have graduate degrees in journalism or communications. But the profession is one of a dwindling number to embrace people with a well-rounded, liberal arts degree. Glamour quotient: very high. Work quotient: even higher. Salary range: $26,000 to $150,000; a few very high-profile columnists may earn double that.

Copyeditor or Proofreader
A job that involves chasing the commas and checking the facts is a bit like that of a CPA. No one loves you. No one pays any attention to you. But without you, the paper/magazine/book/online feature program goes out riddled with typos and errors. If you don't mind cleaning up after others, this is flexible, steady work. It's also one of the last truly democratic institutions in the industry: You take the copy test, and you pass or you fail. Either you know the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses or you don't. You have an edge if you're also knowledgeable about a particular subject, but meticulous attention to detail is the only qualification necessary. Salary range: $10 to $50 per hour or more; full-time positions pay somewhat better than most reporting jobs.

Photographer or Graphic Artist
We know it's not fair to lump these two together, but we're going to assume that if you're interested in visual information, you understand the differences between the two. Increasingly, this work is contracted out to freelancers. Job seekers who need a steady income: Your best bet may be to sign up with a reputable local agency. Once you have a good portfolio and can pick and choose your assignments, you may decide you prefer the diversity and freedom anyway. Salary range: $22,000 to $73,000.

Editorial Assistant
This is now the gateway for those with fire in their belly, the pay-the-bills job for actors taking a break, the catchall job for all the overflow from the copy desk and every other overworked, understaffed department. Editorial and desk assistants now have significantly more responsibility than they did in the past. Some publications rely on editorial assistants for major articles instead of hiring experienced staff writers or freelancers. It used to be a lifetime stigma, stamped somewhere on your forehead for every editor to see; it's now something of a badge of honor. Salary range: $24,000 to $36,000.

This is the business side of the industry-the world of dollars first, words second. Publishers make sure that enough ads are coming in, that enough book tours and Oprah appearances are scheduled, and that enough people are buying or watching or clicking to keep the editorial wheels turning. This is a thankless job, mostly because you get none of the credit and all of the blame. But it also offers a good deal of satisfaction to those who manage to turn a profit or rescue a failing venture. And amidst all the upheaval and change in the industry right now, publishers enjoy increasing amounts of leverage in editorial direction and development. Salary range: $50,000 to $200,000 or more.

Ad Sales
Folks in these careers sell space (in the newspaper or magazine-or on the website-they work for) to anyone willing to pay, from local merchants to foreign tourist boards, to finance editorial operations. The sales force makes cold calls, follows up on leads, and takes clients out for nice dinners and rounds of golf. Editorial likes nothing better than grumbling loudly and enviously about the sales force's expense-account perks, but they're hard won. This is discouraging and difficult work-only the most zealous survive and move up to the less-demanding plateaus of publishing. It's one of the only areas in this business where you don't need a college degree for an entry-level position; enthusiasm and the ability to persuade most of the people most of the time are the only musts. Salary range: $25,000 to $100,000.

Sales Reps
This is known in book publishing as being in the field. You trundle around to bookstores, colleges, and any other possible sales outlets for your wares. If you're lucky, you follow in the well-worn path of cordial relations established by your predecessors. The less fortunate find that their best orders are snatched up by competitors, and they spend all their time cultivating new and nonpaying customers. It's usually a three-year stint, and if you survive, you'll be welcomed back to headquarters and given a less difficult desk job. Anyone who has endured this rite of passage swears by it. "It's the only way to really know the customer," says one. "You can read all of the [marketing] data you want, but being in the field is what really matters." Salary range: $27,000 to $78,000.

Marketing and Promotion
This job varies from one segment of the industry to another. In magazines and newspapers the marketing staff's job is to get the publication into as many hands as possible. It may involve developing new subscription programs or checking out newsstands. In the book world, it may involve arranging book tours for your hot author. In the Internet world, it probably involves trying to get as many visitors as possible to your website. Despite grumbling from the hard-core editors, this job is increasingly important to the success of publishing ventures in all segments of the industry. Salary range: $25,000 to $100,000.

Traditionally, the tough part of breaking into journalism and publishing was the long apprenticeship period you'd have to survive. This still holds true on the editorial side for many traditional newspaper, magazine, and book publishers. On the business side, many publishers are bringing in people with real business skills. Most of these spots still get filled on an ad-hoc basis with either entry-level or experienced people, but a few of the bigger players may have internships available for candidates coming out of college. If you'd like to land a spot in the industry, consider the following:

  • The obvious criteria include enjoying reading, writing, and news. If you're on the business side, you should not only share these interests, but also be able to deal effectively with large egos and a lot of sanctimonious grief. For those applying for editorial slots, however, you too walk a fine line. One college text publisher is emphatic that he doesn't hire anyone with literary yearnings. "These are very mundane jobs," he says. "We work with teachers and students first and words second."
  • Competence and calmness count for a lot in this business. So does modesty. Don't oversell yourself, even in ad sales.
  • No need to update your resume fonts or enclose your clips in an expensive-looking portfolio. You're only as good as your words, and visual distractions won't fool anyone in this business. Keep it short and simple. Less is almost always more.