Saturday, March 14, 2015

The fall of tech media and the rise of PR

I was employed as a journalist from 1994 to 2010, with breaks in 1996, 1999, and 2002-2005. I worked for a TV station, a newspaper, a trade magazine, and then in various online news ventures. In this post, I will share a short history of the decline of traditional media, and how many talented news veterans have ended up working for PR.

In October 1999, I began working in the tech media. This was the height of the dot-com era, when magazines were as thick as phone books and money was pouring into high tech advertising. From 2000-2002, after the first dot-com bubble burst, the industry experienced the first wave of mass layoffs. At that time, the newspaper and magazine sectors were still relatively strong and were able to absorb some displaced writers and editors, but some started to go over to the "dark side" (PR). At my company it was also possible for senior writers and editors to go into research, which was seen as a more respectable alternative career path than corporate PR.

There was a slight recovery from 2003-2004, but then an interesting thing started to happen: a steady trickle of slow-motion layoffs, consolidations, and other cost-cutting measures. The weaker pubs began to fail as demand for print advertising dried up, and events began to feel the heat too as new entrants muscled their way into the scene. In some cases, staff were shifted to growing online units, but overall there was a net loss of staff in editorial, ad operations, and events.

Starting around 2005 or so, I began to notice a curious thing: Many of the 30-something journalists in my organization were voluntarily moving to industry. Some started to work for PR agencies, but in many cases they moved to in-house marketing units of large tech companies -- Microsoft, CA, Bose, etc. Certainly the pay and benefits were attractive but my own sense was there didn't seem to be much of a future staying in journalism. Why keep a job which offers little chance to advance and could probably lead to layoffs in the near future?

People stopped using the term "the dark side" around that time. It's hard to make some ethical stand about the purity of the profession when people are getting laid off or taking a salary cut while serious journalism is being sacrificed for the sake of pageview-heavy slideshows and blogs.

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