METROPOLIS – While I was in the city on business, I had a rather interesting interaction with a gent named Clark Kent at the hotel bar. The watering hole was just down the street from mega newspaper The Daily Planet — where Kent had just quit.
“I just couldn’t in good conscience do it anymore,” I overheard him say to a former co-worker. “There’s no soul in today’s media landscape. I just couldn’t do real reporting anymore. I’m just a cog in the wheel!”
As a former newspaperman myself, I couldn’t help but sidle over as the harrumphing died down and Kent’s tipsy pals slapped him on the back and wandered toward the exit.
“Hold up there, Kent,” I said. “I used to work in the newspaper biz — and let me tell you, there is a ton of great reporting going on out there. Journalism is far from dead — it’s just the profits that have disappeared. The real reason people leave is because the pay sucks and the business is dying. So level with me: Is it really your morality talking here, or your bank account?”
Clark Kent opened his mouth to say something, then shut it and collapsed onto a bar stool.
“OK, OK, you got me.” He took his glasses off and wiped his face with a sleeve, then quickly replaced the frames on his nose. “Outwardly I’m all sanctimonious about new media and making a difference … but the real reason is that I just can’t sit around waiting for the ax to fall. You heard what happened to Peter Parker a few years back, right?”
“So you plan to get out voluntarily before the music stops, is that it?”
“You got that right. Stock of The New York Times Co. (NYSE:NYT) is off over 50% in the past five years — and even though it has recovered lately, NYT just sold off 20% on bad earnings. USA Today publisher Gannett (NYSE:GCI) is off almost 60% in five years. And despite a big dividend hike, the payouts at GCI are still half what they were in 2007.”
“Yikes. If your company is in the same boat, hope you didn’t participate in the Daily Planet employee stock purchase plan.” I sipped my beer. “But come on, Warren Buffett believes in newspapers. Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A, BRK.B) just bought a stake in a boatload of them.”
“That’s just the altruism of a rich billionaire.” Kent waved his hand dismissively. “I admire it, don’t get me wrong … but it’s not a good investment.”
“OK, print is unprofitable. So where are you going, digital media? You can probably make your way on a site like The Huffington Post.”
“What are you, crazy? AOL (NYSE:AOL) is even more of a mess than The Daily Planet! At least print media has flopped and knows its days are numbered. Sites like AOL and Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) have no self-awareness. Just as the Internet disrupted print, mobile is disrupting the previous generation of digital media sites reliant on display advertising.”
“There’s video,” I said. “Didn’t you do a stint as a TV reporter in the 1970s for Galaxy Broadcasting?”
“Lordy, don’t remind me…”
He pounds his drink. We both stare at each other in silence.
“So what’s the plan then, Kent? Where can you go in this new age of digital media to find a secure company with well-paid employees?”
“Unless you’re planning on working there as a janitor, good luck. Even Superman would have a hard time getting a job at an elite company like that.”
Startled, Clark Kent jumped to his feet and eyed me suspiciously… it was like he was looking right through me. Then he relaxed and slumped back onto his bar stool.
“Yeah, you’re right.” He slid his glass across the bar and called for another beer. “If you’re in the content game, I guess it’s like this everywhere — mediocre pay, the risk of layoffs, and the need to crank out lowbrow celebrity news and ‘infotainment’ just to meet the demands of the unwashed masses.”
“It’s a dirty business, Kent. But take solace in the fact that every once in a while, after you feed the beast, you get to write an article that matters.” I finished my drink and plunked the empty glass down on the bar. “Or at least write something fun like a fake interview with a superhero or something.”
“True enough.” We shook hands, his tight grip squeezing my fingers so much they hurt. “Well, I guess I should march back over there and beg for my job back or I’ll regret it. After all, I’ve left the paper three times before and come crawling back … why stop now?”
Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com and the author of “The Frugal Investor’s Guide to Finding Great Stocks.” Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.