November 21, 2002

Newsroom Training: A National Survey Examines the Issues

By Beverly Kees

As the world changes daily, technologically advanced companies are investing in more employee training as a way to increase quality, retention, even profit.


“The focus … on developing people, in the light of the knowledge economy, is the key to competitive advantage,” states the American Society for Training and Development. “There is a new world of learning emerging — one that links people, learning and performance – – and a new community growing around it.”


Curiously, news companies are exceptions to this trend. While news organizations are in the knowledge business, the news industry lags behind others in providing its people with new knowledge and skills through professional training.


As one newsroom training editor puts it, training in the news business “is still too often thought of as an isolated frill.”


That attitude is reflected in the results of the largest-ever survey of newsroom training, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations. The survey was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


The survey describes the myriad ways in which the news industry is not yet a full-fledged citizen of the “new world of learning.” And experts suggest that the industry may be avoiding that path to its detriment.


“I don’t think the problem will ever get resolved until corporate leaders and publishers make training a part of strengthening their franchise,” says Bob Giles, curator of the Neiman Foundation and author of the textbook, Newsroom Management. “If news organizations would invest significantly more in training, they would reduce their turnover significantly. Training would lead to higher levels of satisfaction. I don’t know why they don’t make that connection.”


The reasons behind the industry’s being historically slow to embrace training may begin with the nature of the news business itself. “Other companies, such as Procter & Gamble, or utilities, bring people in for training once a year,” says Michael Roberts, training editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The media in general tend to respond ‘yeah, yeah, that’s fine, now let’s do the real work.'”


The Princeton training survey shows two thirds of the nation’s journalists receive no regular skills training, that journalists are less satisfied with training opportunities than with any other aspect of their jobs and that news companies have not increased their training budgets. And roughly a third say they have cut their budgets somewhat or significantly in the aftermath of Sept.11.


“There is a mindset when (news) budgets are tight.” says Giles. “Marketing and training are the first to go.”


The pinch is being felt throughout the industry. “We used to get 120 people, now we get 30 or 40,” said David B. Gray, executive director, Society for News Design. “We’re getting more and more requests — ‘Why can’t you come to our shop and put on a day-long seminar so we don’t have to pay travel costs?'”


At the same time, the national training group — American Society for Training and Development — says that the 367 non-journalism companies it tracks predicted a 37 percent increase in training spending between years 2000 and 2001 — and that preliminary estimates show that even in the face of economic recession, spending on training increased 10 percent. On average, these companies offered 23.5 hours of training per employee in 2000.


“Year after year we find a strong relationship between an organization’s investments in training and its performance,” said the ASTD. “No exception this year … Firms that reported better performance than their peers in 2000 … trained a substantially higher percentage of their employees on average in 2000.”


In fact, another ASTD report showed that 575 U.S.-based publicly traded companies that ranked high in training had much higher Total Shareholder Return than those ranking lower. “Firms in the top half had a TSR that was 86 percent higher than firms in the bottom half, and 45 percent higher than the market average,” said the study, “Profiting From Learning: Do Firms’ Investments in Education and Training Pay Off?”


The message for the news industry is implicit: “Training editors and newsroom supervisors have to get better at marketing the results they get from training,” says Rene Kaluza, who doubles as day city editor and training editor for the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times. “We don’t say, ‘Gee, that ‘well-done’ we got … is because of training.’ That’s what corporate is looking for — a return on investment. … We just have to work harder at it and convince the corporate side to give people like me the time to figure out what we need in training to get what we want in the end.”


Says the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s Roberts: “Newsroom training has not matured within the industry. … It should work within larger frameworks of performance management, career development and organizational development. In industries that take training seriously, training is a strategic initiative that is part of those frameworks.”


And for those that don’t? “The world is getting exponentially more complicated. … Complications in what we cover and how we do our jobs can make people feel they need more help,” says Al Cross, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.


For example, Melinda Voss, executive director of the organization Health Care Journalists, gets calls all the time from journalists “who are calling out for help in covering these complex and critical issues. They don’t understand statistics. They don’t know how to interpret medical research. They want more help understanding how things such as Medicaid and Medicare work.


“It seems to me that it is more important than ever that we as journalists really know how to do our jobs right, because so many critical policy decisions are being made that affect everyone. The ability to properly report medical studies and survey research and the ability to interpret statistics are all a part of doing the job right. We owe it to our audiences.”


In other businesses, even those feeling less social responsibility, training is a given. Fortune magazine’s list of “The 100 Best Companies to Work For” says Edward Jones, a St. Louis stockbroker firm, offers 132 hours of training per year per employee; Xilinx, a San Jose, computer chip maker, offers 90 hours per year; Synovus Financial of Columbus, Ga., 52 hours a year; and even the Plante & Moran accounting firm of Southfield, Michigan, offers 60 hours or training per person per year.


No such figures exist to detail newsroom training. But the new newsroom training survey done for the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations shows that only 10 percent of the nation’s news executives will allow a staffer as much training as is routinely given at the Michigan accounting firm of Plante & Moran.


And we wonder why the bean-counters seem to be taking over.


Curious, too, is the fact that this is not a new story, not something, like the Internet, that just seemed to jump out of nowhere to surprise the news industry. Always, a tenacious few have rejected the notion that a journalist should “sink or swim” on his or her own. A major study by The Freedom Forum a decade ago — No Train, No Gain — chronicled the benefits of staff development at daily newspapers. People of color, the study said, were more likely to leave the newsroom if they didn’t get meaningful training. Ten years later, most journalists are still not getting regular training, and journalists of color are leaving the profession in numbers large enough to create a nationwide diversity retention crisis. And what of journalists of color who got training? “The majority of our grads are still in the business,” said Dori J. Maynard, President, Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, the nation’s leading organization for training journalists of color. “We believe that establishes a direct link between training and retention.”


The tenacious few hold on, and a few more join them. I was fortunate enough to see some of that these past eight years. As the national coordinator of a coalition of newsroom training editors, I saw the group grow from a few dozen to more than a hundred. They still meet, via cyberspace, and annually at the Poynter Institute in Florida. And overall, comparing No Train, No Gain to the most current study, I see that regular newsroom training has actually been creeping upward. Ten years ago, we saw one in 10 journalists saying they get regular training. Now, that figure can be as many as three in 10. The travel and training cuts during the recession, however, have shown us how fragile such gains can be.


Quality news organizations already know that training is important. It would be safe to say that many executives agree with Society of Professional Journalists President Al Cross when he reminds them “training is a good way to meet your public responsibilities.”


Quality news organizations probably would agree with the American Society of Training and Development, when it says “Increasing pressure for profits, more diverse workplaces, shorter business cycles, and other trends are not likely to dissipate anytime soon.”


Quality news organizations might even be ready to accept the ASTD’s conclusions that, in general, U.S. firms are training “larger shares of employees than ever before, increasing their spending in the face of tight financial times, and adding new tools and approaches to their arsenals.”


So … will the quality news organizations please stand up?



Beverly Kees, consulting editor for Newsroom Training: Where’s the Investment? is the former executive editor of The Fresno Bee. As editor and program director for the Freedom Forum’s Pacific Coast Center, she convened an annual meeting of newsroom training editors from 1995-2001.

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
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