Chris Poynter, Metro Mayor Greg Fischer’s communications director, used to be a reporter for The Courier-Journal. That makes some aspects of his current position easier. Journalism taught Poynter to explain complex issues in simple language that common people could understand. It also gave him research skills that he uses almost daily in his role as administration spokesman.
“I understand what reporters need,” Poynter says. “I know the stress of deadlines and I know what information an editor is probably going to want to know when they get back to the newsroom. That allows me to cut right to the chase and get them the information they need as quickly as possible.”
Poynter is not the first reporter to cross over to the other side of the microphone, but a surprising number of other promising local journalists have joined him there in recent years. They include former LEO editor Stephen George, now the communications director for Congressman John Yarmuth; Julie Kredens, the former host of WFPL’s “State of Affairs” who became a spokesperson for Metro Parks; former Velocity editor Tom Nord, now spokesman for the Air Pollution Control Board; and former WHAS-TV reporter Mark Hebert, who is in charge of media relations at the University of Louisville. That’s only a small percentage of the former reporters who now work as talking heads for public and private organizations in the River City.
Every former journalist has a different reason for changing careers, but with newsroom jobs declining across the media landscape in Louisville, this could become a trend. A recent study by the professional networking website Linkedin found that journalism, especially print, has shed more jobs than any other field during the recent recession. According to the study, between 2007 and 2011, newspaper positions alone decreased by 28.4 percent.
Charles Whitaker, the Helen Gurley Brown research chair at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, says marketing and communications, once considered “the dark side” by reporters, has now become a life raft in an uncertain job market. Whitaker has noticed more Northwestern students looking at media relations careers rather than straight journalism. He says there are still quality reporters at most news agencies, but they are being asked to do more than ever before.
“What makes me wary is that news agencies are not investing in investigative reporting,” Whitaker explains. “Journalists are spread so thin now. They have to do blogs, tweet, and sometimes shoot photos or video. Investigative reporting takes a huge investment of time and energy.”
Whitaker is a former staff writer for The Louisville Times, the former sister paper of The Courier-Journal. He left the Times shortly before Gannett’s 1989 purchase of the newspapers from the Bingham family. Whitaker moved to Chicago and became editor of Ebony Magazine, and then Northwestern University offered him a teaching position. Leaving journalism was hard for Whitaker; at first he agreed to teach only as an adjunct professor, but he eventually became a full-time educator. Whitaker directs the school’s Academy for Alternative Journalism, a summer magazine-writing fellowship for minority journalism that is sponsored by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. (The writer of this story is a graduate of that program, as is WFPL News Political Editor Phillip M. Bailey).
“I didn’t have a particular desire or intent to teach,” Whitaker says. “Northwestern simply asked me, and it turned out to be something that I enjoyed.”
Robyn Davis Sekula, a spokesperson for the Louisville Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, says as traditional journalism declines, journalists will be using their skills in a number of different fields. In addition to media relations and academia, she says that many journalists will go online, whether working for someone else or running their own blogs or websites. Sekula herself used to work for Business First. She quit the paper to do freelance writing after becoming pregnant, but she says there was more work in marketing than reporting. She now serves a number of public relations clients, and volunteers on the SPJ board.
“Journalists have writing skills, the ability to think on their feet, and the fearlessness to talk to people they don’t know,” Sekula says. “Those skills can translate to a number of different fields. One of my strongest abilities is to evaluate a story a client wants covered. I can, and will, tell a client if something is not a story. It’s going to save them time and money in the long run.”
Metro Parks Communications Manager Julie Kredens says she sees the impact of the declining numbers in local newsrooms. “I think the local media does a great job. What we are losing is beat reporters who write about one subject all the time. I feel like I’m constantly re-educating reporters because, through no fault of their own, they don’t know the background of a particular issue they are covering. But that is where my own news background comes in handy – in communication. The relationship between a reporter and a spokesperson does not have to be adversarial. We’re both trying to get information out to the public.”
Kredens left journalism because she didn’t feel there was a place for her at WFPL after “State of Affairs” was cancelled in April 2011. The former moderator says she loved discussing local issues and didn’t want to go back to being a reporter in the radio station’s news department. In December 2011, Kredens became the communications manager for Metro Parks. This is actually the second time she’s transitioned from journalist to spokesperson, having been a reporter for WHAS-AM Radio in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, then leaving to become a spokesperson for the Housing Authority.
Kredens says reporters and spokespeople have overlapping skills. “One job leads to understanding the other. Having been the one holding the mic and having deadlines makes me prompt and accurate when I’m dealing with the media. Also when I have an idea for a story, I put my reporter’s hat on so that I can think about what would interest someone in writing about it or putting it on the radio and television.”
Journalists pride themselves on being unbiased gatherers of information, and it takes some time for these former muckrakers to get into the mindset of advocates for their particular organizations. Poynter says he sometimes has to fight the urge to share everything he knows. “You get to know a lot of sensitive and important information in this job,” he says. “You’ve got to say things when they need to be said and stay quiet when you need to.”
Kredens says that while journalists try to be unbiased, they often bring something personal to their work even if there is a preconceived notion about what a story should be. “When I was looking for a job, I wanted to find an organization with a mission I could get behind,” she says. “I’m really glad that I support parks.”
The transition from reporter to communications director was a slightly different experience for Stephen George. LEO has a history of advocacy journalism, and the publication was founded by his current employer, Congressman Yarmuth. George says he and Yarmuth try to maintain the transparency and availability that they craved from politicians when they were journalists. “That sense of fairness still applies,” he says. “Congressman Yarmuth has always been open with the community, so I don’t have concerns about ever sharing too much.”
George quit LEO and was the editor of Nashville City Paper, an alternative paper operated by Southcomm, Inc., the company that also owns LEO. George left the Nashville paper to join the staff of Tennessee Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper. He had worked for Cooper as a press aide for less than four months when Yarmuth came calling with a job offer.
“I’m not sure that leaving journalism is something that I would have done if I hadn’t had the opportunity with Congressman Cooper in the first place,” George says. “I was in journalism for about eight years and started to get antsy to try something new. Being from Louisville and having a prior relationship with Yarmuth made working for him something I couldn’t pass up.”
Like Whitaker and George, Chris Poynter never actually planned on ever leaving journalism. He thought he was getting a big scoop when Chad Carlton, the communications director for then Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson, asked him to lunch in 2006. Poynter figured the mayoral aide wanted to discuss something sensitive because they met in Jeffersonville rather than downtown Louisville. But instead of insider information, Carlton – a former C-J reporter himself – came armed with a job offer: He wanted Poynter to join Abramson’s communication team.
“I was stunned, because I had always thought of myself as a newspaper reporter,” Poynter says. “The more I thought about joining the mayor’s office, the more the idea intrigued me. I kept it quiet for a couple of weeks before I made the announcement at the paper. It was a big shock. Some people said I was drinking the Kool-Aid. Now I look like a visionary, considering all the things that happened at the newspaper after I left.”
Poynter actually did drink some Kool-Aid at the going away party his C-J colleagues threw for him when he left the paper. He worked at the mayor’s office until the last six months of Abramson’s term. Then he quit to become communication director of then candidate Fischer’s campaign. Poynter returned to City Hall in 2011. He says he always saw journalism as a form of public service and considers what he’s doing now to be an extension of that calling.
“When I was reporter, I might write a story about something and hope that someone would do something about it,” Poynter says. “Now, I’m working for someone with the power to change things. This is the best job in the city.”
The Courier-Journal has gone through several rounds of layoffs since Poynter left in December 2006. In all, more than 140 employees have been let go, including longtime columnist Betty Winston Baye, pop culture writer Tamara Ikenberg and reporter Sheryl Edelen. In April of this year, 26 employees accepted early retirement packages. Those retiring include some the paper’s most popular bylines: opinion page editor Keith Runyon, feature writer Larry Muhammad, Southern Indiana columnist Dale Moss, reporter Ralph Dunlap, kids’ columnist Ken Neuhauser and columnist Ric Manning. The loss of so many prominent writers has led to complaints from longtime readers who worry about the paper’s institutional memory.
During the last round of layoffs in 2011, the C-J’s weekly, Velocity, was folded into the regular paper. Velocity editor Tom Nord, originally part of the last round of layoffs, was rehired for another position at the newspaper. However, Nord left the paper in December 2011 to become spokesman for the Air Pollution Control Board. He says the decision to leave had nothing to do with the situation at the Courier. “I think the Courier-Journal is going to be around a lot longer than people think,” Nord says. “It’s still a good newspaper. I had just reached a point in my life where I wanted to challenge myself and try something new. Coming to the Air Pollution Control Board was actually a lateral move for me (money wise), but so far, it’s been something that I really enjoy.”
Being a corporate spokesperson was out of the question for Nord, but he jumped at the opportunity to advocate for clean air. In some cases Nord finds himself dealing with reporters that were his peers not too long ago. Like Poynter, he says his journalism experience makes some aspects of his job easier, particularly when it comes to reading complicated environmental laws and explaining them to reporters or the general public.
“In a way, that’s no different than what I was doing before,” Nord says. “The only difference is I don’t have to write a story on deadline.”
CORRECTION: In the original print version of this story, Andrew Wolfson was mentioned as having taken early retirement from The Courier-Journal. However, Wolfson is in fact currently employed as a staff writer at the publication. In addition, Robyn Davis Sekula worked for Business First rather than The Courier-Journal as originally listed. We sincerely apologize for the errors. - The Editor