In Depth

Losing Voice of Experience

Layoffs Make It Harder to Cover Health Care Accurately, Thoroughly

On March 23, the Wall Street Journal’s Scott A. Hensley, editor of the well-regarded WSJ Health Blog, reported that he was leaving the paper and the blog. The veteran health care reporter had been at the Journal since 2000, and switched to editing the WSJ Health Care Blog when it launched in March 2007.

His layoff followed on the heels of the departure of another respected health care journalist, Ed Silverman, who, after writing full-time for the New Jersey Star Ledger’s Pharmalot blog for two years, accepted his employer’s offer of a buyout in January.

The loss of two veteran health care journalists who had made seemingly successful careers in new media rippled through the industry. “A couple of weeks ago, I pointed my students to Scott and Ed as role models for the future because they were thriving online,” said Gary Schwitzer, associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and author of the Schwitzer Health News Blog. “And now they’re both gone; I don’t know what to tell students.”

The irony is that, although health care and medicine continue to be hot topics, TV stations and newspapers are cutting the professional journalists responsible for delivering that news.

“The cutbacks mean there are fewer people in the newsroom doing the work,” said former CNN medical reporter and AHCJ board member Andrew Holtz. “The stations are trying to satisfy ever-growing demand with fewer bodies and less experienced bodies, which means more opportunity for errors, misunderstanding and [PR spin].”

Layoffs for TV journalists specializing in health care topics are nothing new. As stations have trimmed staff over the last few years, often the specialized journalist is the first to go. Stations fill the hole with a less experienced reporter doing double duty, a subscription service or a version of rip-and-read.

Nobody knows that better than Ellen Durckel, who was the medical producer for eight years for KHOU-TV, the CBS affiliate in Houston. For the station’s “Focus on Health” segments, Ms. Durckel found local neonatologist Dr. Karen Johnson to host. “I came up with the ideas, researched them, prepared the scripts, scheduled the shooting and screened hundreds and hundreds of calls,” Ms. Durckel said. The two-minute reports ran three times a week.

After producing 1,000 of them, she got the ax. Since then she has become a freelance producer, and has worked for NBCNews.com, “Inside Edition” and other national shows. “The network assignments have been very interesting,” said Ms. Durckel, who reported that her income has more than halved since she began freelancing. “But I do very little health care coverage.”

At the consulting and research firm Frank Magid Associates, Barbara Frey, VP of talent placement, said the layoffs at TV stations have been going on for the past two to three years. “It was always a luxury for a station to have a dedicated health care journalist,” she said. “If it happened at all, it was usually in a top-20 market. And reporters who specialize in something are often the first to go in a layoff, because someone else can absorb that job.”

Of the laid-off TV journalists she does know, they are “still trying to find other employment in TV,” she said, adding, “They’re not ready to give up and try to reinvent themselves. Some of them have agents, and the agents send us their DVD and contact me to find if there are opportunities out there. But there aren’t, which makes it tough.”

Problems of Print

Health care journalists currently most in danger of losing their jobs are those in print, said AHJC President Trudy Lieberman, who is also director of the health and medicine reporting program at the Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York. “Print always attracted more health care reporters to the beat,” she said. “I think you’ll find that more print people are looking for jobs and fewer in TV. But that’s reflective of the fact that there weren’t that many [health care reporters in TV] to begin with.”

In addition to Mr. Hensley and Mr. Silverman, Julius Karash, a health care reporter on the business desk at the Kansas City Star, and Barbara Feder Ostrov, who covered the medical and health care beat for the San Jose Mercury News for eight years, both lost their jobs. Ms. Feder Ostrov was laid off in March 2008 when she was four months pregnant; Mr. Karash was laid off in June.

Since then, Mr. Karash has been freelancing for the Kansas City Star as well as other publications. He had a brief temporary job with the Kansas Department of Transportation, writing Web content, and he’s been speaking with a local ophthalmologist about writing a custom book for him.

But he continues to look for a full-time job, and he doesn’t feel he has the luxury to stick with the health care beat. “I have to be open to other possibilities and opportunities,” he said. “It’s a new world, and we all need to move on.”

After a six-month maternity leave, Ms. Feder Ostrov freelanced for the Boston Globe as well as a health care foundation and a Web site. More recently, a colleague contacted her to consult on creating a Web site, ReportingHealth.org, for the new health journalism education program at the USC Annenberg School of Communication.

“I’ve been busy but, for all that, my income is not what it was when I was working for the Mercury News,” she said. “I hope this isn’t the wave of the future, where every journalist has to become a freelancer.”

She said she would consider changing beats, going into more “hardcore” medical writing or even public relations. “In this environment, you take what you can get,” she said.

After accepting the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s generous buyout offer, Mr. Silverman was one of the lucky ones to find a permanent job, with Elsevier, a publisher of science and health information. “For me it’s a comfortable fit,” he said. “They do real journalism and are much more deeply into the pharmaceutical industry, which I’ve gotten into.”

One unusual wrinkle was that, after he started his new job, the rights for the blog Pharmalot were transferred to him. Mr. Silverman said he’s focusing on his new job and has no immediate plans to pick up the blog again.

Mr. Hensley, the most recently fired high-profile health care journalist, is starting his job search. “All the journalism-related projects people have talked to me about or that I have pursued have an online component, he said.

“Nobody is calling me to be a print reporter again,” he said. “It’s about online in all its dimensions.”

He noted that, before becoming a journalist, he had a successful career in the medical device industry. “I have no regrets,” Mr. Hensley said. “But I’m not ideologically or constitutionally opposed to doing non-journalism. My druthers would be to stay in journalism, but I just don’t know what’s possible with the state of the industry today.”