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March 20, 2009, 11 a.m.

Why young reporters need to get past their institutional mindsets; or, how reporters are like priests

I feel I should point out that, although my name is Josh and I am from Louisiana, I am not the “Josh” from New Orleans who got a little mouthy with Rick Berke in this week’s Talk to the Newsroom feature at the Times. To quote “Josh”:

When you came up through the newspaper system, it was a lot like professional baseball: If you worked hard, showed some promise, then you moved up and got more opportunities to play before bigger crowds. That system seemed to die, however, just as I was coming out of journalism school a few years ago. Now, I have no idea how decent newspaper journalists get jobs, so I’m quitting the profession despite profound early success, and going into more debt to get a second professional degree.

I’m sorry for the bloviating, but here is my point: Newspapering as we knew it — its economic sustainability and moral righteousness — died sometime in the last decade. Yet the people who sank the ship, namely those of the baby-boomer, Woodward-and-Bernstein era, are still at the helm, and giving up their lofty newsroom positions only with cold, dead hands.

I understand that youth is ill-served in management, often, but unlike those currently in charge, we haven’t already proved we’re incapable of steering newspapers back to cultural and economic viability. My question is, both cheekily and seriously, when will your generation quit and let my generation try all these ideas we have about how the news should be presented?

Berke is kinder than I would have been in response. But Josh’s question — or more accurately, his attitude — really gets at a key reason why journalism is in the unfortunate state it’s in. It’s the assumption that the Rick Berkes of the world need to retire before there can be innovation in the industry.

Think how strange that is. Can you imagine that in the tech world? Some bright young kid with a brilliant idea, complaining to Bill Gates that the top six levels of management at Microsoft have to resign so that she can take over and do something new? Of course not. What that girl genius would do is start a company of her own — or at least find a different, smaller company that she thought could outsmart the old fogies in Redmond.

Can you imagine that in politics? Some young guy complaining that we can’t do anything until all these nasty 85-year-old senators die off, so we might as well just wait them out before we try to change things around? Of course not. He’d start organizing for Obama, or he’d run for city council, or he’d volunteer for his guy in the governor’s race. He’d do something.

But that’s not how Josh see it. Josh’s worldview is clouded by a fundamentally institutional view of the world. If he thinks The New York Times is doing a bad job, the first thought that pops into his mind isn’t: Well, let’s beat The New York Times then. It’s: I guess I should start studying for the LSAT.

Josh’s baseball metaphor is telling, since baseball is one of the few lines of work that is fundamentally hierarchical. (They even have an antitrust exemption to prove it.) If you think the owners of Major League Baseball are all stupid and insufficiently cognizant of your genius at shortstop, well, you really are pretty much out of luck.

And Josh’s problem is that he still thinks the news business is like baseball, when it’s a lot more like the tech world now. The barriers to entry have tumbled; some of the most popular news sources online didn’t exist two years ago. Things that used to be an advantage — like huge investments sunk in things like printing presses and buildings and circulation departments — are now an albatross. Three smart guys can draw a bigger and more engaged audience than a newsroom of hundreds.

Reading Josh’s question made me think back to what I think is one of the smartest things said about journalism in recent years. It’s from Politico’s John Harris, in an interview with Jay Rosen in 2006. Harris had just left The Washington Post, where he had worked 21 years, to start up Politico. Here’s Harris:

We live in an entreprenurial age, not an institutional one. That’s been true of many professions for quite a while, and increasingly (and perhaps somewhat belatedly) it is true of journalism. The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work — who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents — rather than relying mostly on the reputation and institutional gravity of the organization they work for…

…[O]rganizations like the Post or the New York Times have been insulated from the spirit of the age — precisely because they were secure and prestigious places to work…Most of the people in those newsrooms are creative, and in my experience they tend to think of themselves as individualists and even iconoclasts. But the reality for many (including me until two weeks ago) is that they have careers that are more reminiscent of the 1950s, when people got hired at General Motors or IBM and stayed put. I believe that for people who want this type of stability, journalism is not going to remain an attractive profession for much longer. But people who adapt will thrive and end up having more fun than in the old days.

Harris didn’t just complain that the Post wasn’t interested in creating a Politico-like site internally. He didn’t just say the Woodward-and-Bernstein generation who (quite literally) ran the Post should all retire and make way for him to take over. He took action.

Now, to be fair, there are lots and lots of really talented journalists who have no interest in taking that kind of action. They just want to report and write or edit or take photos. And that’s great — there’s no reason everyone should have to be an entrepreneur. If there are enough of them, there’ll be jobs to be had working for their new organizations.

But what bugged me about Josh’s comment is that he seems to think he (and his “generation”) know how to run a news organization “the right way.” The only thing standing in the way is the layer of old folks up in management. People like Rick Berke are crushing Josh’s dreams, basically.

And that’s a bunch of nonsense. If Josh and his buds know how to run a great news organization, I suggest they start one. It’s not that hard these days.

I think this institutional mindset among young journalists is a big problem. Anyone who talks to a lot of managers in newsrooms — “the baby-boomer, Woodward-and-Bernstein era” types — has heard them complain about their 23-year-olds: how they’re not interested in video or multimedia, how they’re not providing the fresh ideas the old timers wish they were.

Obviously, I’m generalizing here; there are plenty of innovative 23-year-olds doing great things in and out of newsrooms. But I think that the Josh mindset — of wanting the rewards of management without being willing to take the risks now required to get there — is more common than it should be.

The metaphor I like to use is the Catholic priesthood. Fifty years ago, when American Catholic families were still large and it was expected that one of the younger boys would become a priest, the priesthood was relatively representative of the Catholic population as a whole. Obviously not totally representative (hello, ladies), but relatively representative. Which is how you ended up with things like Vatican II: as the broader society changed attitudes, the church was willing to change with them.

But over time, for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, becoming a priest became a less attractive career prospect. Fewer young American men were willing to sign up. And the result was that the ones who were willing tended to be more doctrinally conservative, more traditionalist, more orthodox, and more married to the old ways than their predecessors. They’re called the John Paul priests after the man who led the church during their career, but the shift in attitude is as much the result of a shift in demographics as it is one pope’s leadership.

I think there’s something similar in a lot of young reporters in American newsrooms. For a variety of reasons, joining a newspaper’s staff isn’t as appealing today as it was 30 years ago. But for those 23-year-olds who still want to work at a newspaper — a lot of them sound as if they want nothing more than a fedora with a press card in the brim. They view a story in the paper as somehow “real” and a piece on the web site as less than legitimate. (This, despite the fact they haven’t read a printed newspaper in years.)

The industry attracts, disproportionately, young people with Josh’s institutional mindset, I fear. And that is going to have a much bigger impact on where the news business goes than Rick Berke’s retirement date.

POSTED     March 20, 2009, 11 a.m.
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