The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the PR industry is sucking up Pulitzer winners

The number of news reporters in the Washington, D.C., area nearly doubled over the last decade, from 1,450 to 2,760. In Los Angeles it grew by 20 percent. In New York City, it basically stayed flat. Outside of those cities, in that same timeframe, one out of every four reporting jobs vanished – 12,000 jobs in total, according to the Labor Department.

Meanwhile, in the parts of the country that aren’t Washington or New York or L.A., nearly 20,000 new jobs sprung up in public relations, a 13 percent increase.

These are signs of the collapse of the business model for regional news outlets and of the forces pulling on journalists outside a few insulated cities. They are the reasons why, when it came to light this week that two new winners of the Pulitzer Prize had left their medium-sized newspapers for careers in PR, no one should have been surprised.

One of them, Rob Kuznia of the (Torrance, Calif.) Daily Breeze, made his move because he was struggling to make ends meet on a reporter’s salary while paying Southern California rent. The other, Natalie Caula Hauff from the The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., wanted a job more conducive to starting a family. (She still freelances for the paper, even though she works in county government now.) Anyone who has worked even a little while in a newsroom knows many, many others who have made similar decisions.

If you want a reporting job today, your best bet is to move to D.C., L.A. or New York. They were home to almost one in every five reporting jobs in 2014, up from one in eight in 2004. Anywhere else, your journalistic job options are dwindling. If you hold on to one, your wages probably aren’t keeping pace with inflation. But public relations is growing, and the pay there is, too.

“I’ve joked that every government spokesman job in Oregon is held by a former Oregonian reporter,” the paper’s former editor, Peter Bhatia, who is now a professor of journalism ethics at Arizona State University, told me this week. “It’s not that far off.”

Those who still work at regional newspapers are under heavy pressure to write more stories, to post faster to the Web, to try to build up an audience that might help fill in for years of lost print advertising revenue.

Brent Hunsberger is one of the reporters who has left the Oregonian, though he still writes a personal finance column for them once a month. He’s a financial planner now. He said the decision was easy, and largely driven by economics.

“With the focus on posting as quickly and frequently as possible,” he said, “and shrinking newsrooms, the type of journalism that I think is important to do was going to get harder to do, and I didn’t want to fight the fight every day.” Oregonian readers, he said, tell him they lament the losses at the newspaper. “They know it means they are potentially less informed.”

Witness the economic knot tying up regional newsrooms. They are convinced there is public demand for the service they provide, but they see they’ve lost their ability to monetize that demand – to get people to pay for the news they want. If current trends accelerate, the risk is that eventually no one will provide that local news, and the demand will go unmet.

This is the logical outcome of what economists call a free rider problem – if no one pays, eventually the service shuts down – and it’s a different sort of economic disruption that the ones cause by other American industries that have shriveled or disappeared or migrated in recent decades.

When, for example, a corner grocery in Michigan is driven out of business by a big chain based in Arkansas, the people in Michigan still have somewhere to shop. If regional news outlets die, who will dig up corruption by their local lawmakers? Start-up news organizations across the country are trying, but they’re largely struggling to find a for-profit model that works.

It’s fair to ask, in the midst of this, how smaller newsrooms still do so much valuable journalism - and whether they should. As newsrooms shrink, the sort of deep project reporting that often wins Pulitzers has become “harder to justify economically,” Bhatia said. But it must continue, he added, for business reasons, not just accolades: “It reminds the community of the essential role that ‘traditional media’ plays where people live.”

It’s that sense of public service that my reporter friends who’ve left the business say they miss, along with the excitement of chasing big stories as part of a team. Most say they’re happier and less stressed now.

Dan Reilly, a former reporter in Washington for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Politico, left for public relations seven years ago. He’s now communications director for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. "In the end, it was a decision based on the future health of my 401k more than anything else,” he told me. “I knew I wanted children and had no idea what the news business would look like in 15 years.”

He said it remains the right call – and that at least twice a month, a reporter calls him and asks how he made the switch.