In Depth

Feeling the Economic Pinch

Anxious Attendees Will Find Useful Job Tools, Services

“I think our members are scared. I think journalists everywhere are scared,” said Trudy Lieberman, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ board of directors, speaking candidly about the current economic straits facing news pros on the health beat.

As AHCJ members prepare to gather for Health Journalism 2009, set for April 16-19 in Seattle, the mood is decidedly more anxious than it was a year ago because of newsroom layoffs, newspapers collapsing and media across the board feeling the crunch.

“A year ago, the economy wasn’t an issue at all,” Ms. Lieberman said. “It does feel different [now] and AHCJ has been fortunate because we have not been too hurt in this downturn.
Membership is still up and we’re still able to provide lots of services to our members. A number of other journalism organizations have been hurt, but we’ve been very fortunate and we hope that it stays that way.”

For many, AHCJ’s annual conference comes at just the right time, Ms. Lieberman said. “Our conference is going to be geared toward some of those issues. A lot of reporters have lost their jobs and they are seeking other occupations, but the need for great healthcare reporting is still there.”

She believes panels at the conference on topics such as learning multimedia tools—social networking, blogging your beat, getting and using audio for Web reports, free online tools for better storytelling—will be as valuable as the myriad of health and medical stories that attendees can take home to report.

“I would include health reform and the health IT issue at the top of that pile,” Ms. Lieberman said. “Evaluating medical technology is not a new issue. The U.S. has tried before, but it’s very political and fraught with a lot of issues and interest groups. That’s imperative for our members to understand.”

Some AHCJ members are attending the conference in hopes of finding new jobs, while others are there to hone their skills. “Some are coming to network; some are coming to maybe talk to speakers and panelists about job opportunities. It will still be several hundred people and it will be very robust. Some genuinely want to improve their skills,” she said.

“Giving our members some basic skills is a major thing,” explained AHCJ board member Andrew Holtz. “The health beat is different because you have to have a solid grounding in statistics just to do day-to-day coverage. In order to figure out who is giving you the right information and who is trying to lead you astray, you’ve got to be able to look at the numbers.
Every year we offer basic courses in statistics and how to understand medical studies, skills that should be taught in journalism schools but aren’t.

“To be a good journalist, you can’t just regurgitate what an expert says just because he’s an expert,” Mr. Holtz added. “We try to help our members learn the lingo of health and medicine and medical research and business, so they can stand up to sources and ask the right questions.”

Among the speakers scheduled for Health Journalism 2009 is Tony Award-winning playwright and performer Sarah Jones (“Bridge and Tunnel”). In her opening address, “Right to Care,” she takes on the multicultural and class components of the U.S. health care system.

“She does a one-woman show, and she’s going to present a program about health care. I haven’t seen it, but I expect it to be about whatever the health care issues are at that moment,” Ms. Lieberman said.

Politics will be on the agenda when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks. “He has his own bill in Congress that would do away with the employer-based system and sever the link between health insurers and employers,” Ms. Lieberman said. “It’s a point of view that’s not overly popular and it’s not getting a lot of attention. This is an attempt to make available to our members that there are many other points of view out there. I think he will be really interesting and provocative.”

Uwe E. Reinhardt, Ph.D., James Madison Professor of Political Economy and Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Princeton University, is going to be the keynote speaker. “He’s always a great speaker and very funny, sort of like the old sage of health care reporting. He was around in the Clinton era and I think he’ll definitely be a highlight,” Ms. Lieberman said.

AHCJ members who are either out of work or fear that they may be looking for a job in the months ahead will be eager to explore the freelance pitchfest, at which they can sit down and discuss ideas one-on-one with editors from magazines, newspapers and Web sites.