Journalism 2.0: What's in It for Mid-Career Journos?
In discussions of new journalism economics, I don't hear anyone addressing this problem of persuading the existing human capital to enter the new reality. Granted, the proto-journalists in school today expect that the jobs they graduate to will be profoundly different than the jobs of the past (at least, they do where I teach). But there are not enough new graduates to repopulate the industry overnight. So, even though it needs to get lean, journalism also needs those mid-career people -- but it is not currently offering them any compelling reasons to stay.
It's true: Reporters must be entrepreneurial on their own behalf and look for opportunities to innovate. But a problem -- and this is not a new observation -- is that the traditional layered organization of newsrooms is structurally hostile to innovation. (Context: I currently do magazine freelance and work at a Web site, but spent 20 years at four newspapers, exiting a year ago.) It's incredibly hard for journalists who are trying to innovate to push a Web-related idea up the ladder. The answer might seem to be to try it yourself -- but at some papers, personal, non-paper blogs are explicitly forbidden, or must be pre-approved and vetted.
New journalistic opportunities appear to be developing around local and hyperlocal coverage. But the news profession generally denigrates local news -- not just at newspapers, but through our entire reward system. Who's the aspirational model in j-schools: William Allen White, or Woodward & Bernstein? John Fetterman, or Seymour Hirsch?
When they hear "hyperlocal," most mid-career people also hear some extra unspoken words attached: "...and short." That's an obvious deterrent: No one older than, say, 38 went into and stuck with journalism because their ultimate career aspiration was tapping out neighborhood shorts in the front seat of their car.
Here's the opportunity that's being missed: The central issue for writers isn't where the story is, local or national; it's how rich the story is, and how deep they are allowed to go. People stay in journalism because it lets them exercise particular talents as fact finders and storytellers, and that exercise gives them joy. (God knows no one stays for the money.)
Web-based means of storytelling, and hyperlocal stories, do offer such opportunities. But my experience is that many writers don't believe it. Instead, they feel their work being squeezed into from-above templates that devalue the best skills they have to offer. The mid-career people who currently are leaving say that what they hear from managers is, "You must do this." But what they need to hear, to be persuaded, is "You can thrive doing this." And they're not.
Guest contributor Maryn McKenna is a science and medicine journalist and writes for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. She is the author of the 2004 book Beating Back the Devil. She adapted this Tidbit from posts she made recently to Poynter's Online News list.