By Tarun ShuklaSaturday, March 21. (Photo by Adam Vogler)

In times when legacy newsroom firings are common, a new survey rating newspaper reporter as the worst job in the United States shouldn’t have surprised me.

Yet it did.

Like many, I didn’t join the profession thinking of the money or odd hours. But to be placed lower than lumberjack, enlisted soldier, cook and corrections officer did remind of the headwinds journalism has been facing.  

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced a few days after this survey came out, and the winner of the local reporting category was a newspaper with just seven reporters in Torrance, Calif., The Daily Breeze.  Rob Kuznia and two colleagues revealed excessive pay for the superintendent of a small, cash-strapped school district in Los Angeles County and prompted a federal investigation. But the prize came months after Kuznia left his profession of 15 years to take a PR job.

The reason?

“I was able to pay the rent; but I wasn’t able to save anything,” Kuznia told CNN after the Pulitzer announcement. “A house was a pipe dream.”

Stories like these came up for discussion during the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) spring conference the same fortnight in Chicago. The conference did try to help journalists understand how the profession is shaping up and how they need to prepare themselves.

It was nice to see that the most packed sessions were on the future of journalism and on ethics.

The fact that so many people were inside the room and not outside (where there were various stalls with sales staff) showed that journalism had a future, Brad Foss, deputy business editor of Associated Press, quipped in his opening remarks.  

But the comment was a red herring.

AP is automating like never before. The organization hired an automation editor and last year partnered with Chicago’s Zacks Investment Research to make algorithms to produce corporate earnings stories in less than a minute.

AP can now produce more than 3,000 earnings articles each quarter compared with just 300 the news service produced manually earlier. It now selects the few of those reports it wants to build upon and lets the reporters improvise on them.

Doesn’t this free up time for the reporters? Not really. The reporters are asked to go do more, like write enterprise stories.

Quartz’ editor of new initiatives, Xana Antunes, was equally forthright. Quartz’ most successful stories are either between 100 and 200 words or deep, thought-provoking pieces of about 900 words, she said. The website publishes what the readers are obsessed with and does not wade into areas where it doesn’t add value of its own, she said.

Subjects that trend on Twitter do matter, said Bloomberg’s Executive Editor (Americas) John McCorry, but it’s not the benchmark for triggering a story.  

Dozens of journalism students from Medill School of Journalism and Missouri School of Journalism were busy moving around the event with their heavy-duty cameras, smartphones, iPads and (sometimes) paper notebooks, using all the mediums to collect information from the conference. The sessions were being tweeted in real-time, pasted on Instagram and liked on Facebook. Not just that: sessions were being live telecast on the new-age Periscope app simply with the help of an iPhone plugged into a power source.

Moral of the story: there are many who still love to do the so-called “worst job” but they would be happier not to receive a Pulitzer prize at a public relations firm.