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How to keep your job in newspapers

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BY BILL MONROE
In today’s volatile journalism markets, possessing traditional newspaper skills like terse writing and dogged reporting aren’t always enough to provide a sense of job security. I went to some industry veterans to find out how they’ve kept their jobs and what advice they have to offer other newspaper reporters who want long and illustrious careers, too.
Here is what they said.
Mark Freeman

  • Title: Outdoor columnist, environmental reporter
  • Publication: Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.
  • Years in the business: 25
  • Advice: Make the outdoor beat a news beat.
    “Get out of sports and into news, where you can expand outdoors coverage into more environment-oriented pieces. I cover fish, big game and dam issues as news take-out pieces, which the editors love. Stories on effects of pending drought on steelhead returns, how new logging proposals will impact deer and elk herds, and salmon returns three years after a large dam-removal project all ran as Sunday A1 features. My Friday outdoors section is where I focus on the get-out-and-do-it stories.”

Tom Wharton

  • Title: Reporter
  • Publication: Salt Lake Tribune
  • Years in the business: About 44 years
  • Advice: Be a jack-of-all trades and embrace social media.
    “I survived our last layoff because I was flexible enough to cover anything they threw at me. Don’t be afraid to do stories or volunteer to do things out of your comfort level or not in your area of expertise.
    “Try to be open-minded about moving from traditional print to the wild west of the digital world. You have to keep current on technology by learning skills such as live blogging and tweeting that might go against every journalistic instinct a veteran learned. Our latest new foray into digital world is using our iPhones to “Tout.” That’s a Twitter-like program where we go to a scene of a story or do an interview. You have 45 seconds to tell the video story and it is posted instantly, just like Twitter, on our website. Almost impossible to edit and pretty crude, but editors are excited about it.”

Shannon Tompkins

  • Title: Outdoor recreation, natural resources and public policy reporter and columnist
  • Publication: Houston Chronicle
  • Years in the business: 35, 24 with the Chronicle
  • Advice: Be cost effective.
    “How have I kept my job? I suspect part of it is because what I do brings in more revenue than what I cost. Outdoor recreation is huge in Houston, and there’s a fair amount of advertising — both in print and on the website. They even have a dedicated “Hunting and Fishing“ display ad that has a dozen or two small ads for guides and hunting leases and outfitters and marine dealers.
    “Also, I do two special sections a year — spring fishing/autumn hunting — that typically are 32-42 pages (tabloid size), and each generates more in ad revenue than they pay me in a year. I produce all the copy and all the photos and do the assignments for maps and graphics and such.
    “I don’t cost the paper much in salary … And I cost them almost nothing in expenses. … My only travel is local; with the exception of covering the Deepwater Horizon incident in Louisiana in 2010, I have not been on an assignment outside of Texas in almost a decade. My total expenses for a year probably don’t equal those of one road trip for our Astros beat writer.
    “It helps that I work in the office, not from home. I’m in this office at least five days a week, at least 10 hours a day and I’m available to help other reporters.
    “While I cover a lot of basic ‘hook and bullet’ stuff, I try to write pieces that appeal to a broader audience — feral hogs, snakes, alligators, wildlife/fisheries research projects, etc. A fair number of those get to P-1, whether they deserve it or not. Also, I really concentrate on outdoors-related news — this is, after all, a newspaper. Cover the state’s parks and wildlife commission, environmental issues that impact fish/wildlife, outdoors-related issues in the Texas Legislature, etc. Give readers things — news, analysis, insight — they can’t get anywhere else. And never do anything to undercut your credibility.”

Tom Palau

  • Title: Outdoors and features reporter
  • Publication: Daily News, Longview, Wash.
  • Years in the business: 36
  • Advice: Be versatile and prove readers care about the outdoors.
    “We’ve had a weekly outdoors section here since 1993 and I have done it the whole time. It’s never been all that I do. I cover entertainment and the outdoors, which have similarities because they’re both about recreational opportunities. And I write editorials now. I doubt a paper this size would have a reporter who just covered outdoors.
    “The editors have always supported me and realized the importance of outdoor recreation and the issues that come up with it. Whenever we survey the readers about their interests and what they read, outdoors scores well.
    I encourage reporters to have another beat they can cover in addition to the outdoors and look for research into readership that supports the beat.”

Jeff Mayor

  • Title: Adventure editor
  • Publication: Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash., and The Olympian in Olympia, Wash.
  • Years in the business: 33 years
  • Advice: Cover issues most important to readers, offer variety and help fill news holes.
    “Over the years, we have narrowed our focus a bit to make sure we are devoting our resources to topics readers want, especially Mount Rainier, hiking, camping, fishing.
    “While focusing on key topics, I make sure we have variety, through main features, briefs, short stories and other elements.
    Produce news stories. Most editors are worried about feeding the beast each day, knowing they have news pages to fill, they’re always looking for local copy. In Sunday’s paper, outdoors writer Craig Hill and I frequently write stories for the news pages, including the front page centerpiece.”

Craig Hill

  • Title: Adventure writer
  • Publication: Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma Wash.
  • Years in the business: 18
  • Advice: Be flexible.
    “Bill, sorry I missed your note. I was busy covering the Super Bowl in New York (pulling double duty to keep my job).” ♦

Editor’s note: Some comments in this story are from participants in the Outdoor News Group, a post-publication information exchange strategy among Northwest daily newspapers.
— Bill Monroe has been a newspaper journalist for four decades, beginning as a police reporter on a small daily, which led to 28 years as a full-time outdoor writer for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., where he “sort of” retired in 2008. Monroe continues on contract with the paper and it’s website for a blog and Sunday column.
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