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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.

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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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  • Non Vivant

    Young reporters feel married to institutions because they need these institutions to get anything done.

    Let’s be realistic: What’s a 23-year-old with a J-school degree going to do to round up venture capital? And why are people who want to be reporters being asked to be businessmen?

    The repoters Josh talks about from the previous generation didn’t have to come up with a new business model. They just had to be good reporters. When he points out that industry myopia has screwed people who want to follow in those footsteps, the response is that he ought to start a whole new business model?

    I’ve got years of writing and new media experience and I’m aggressively trying to develop a reputation as a one-man brand. But I don’t control the purse strings, and the same generation that does controls the unions that, bless ‘em for their benefits, are just as focused on defending the jobs of reporters who’ve been in the game since the 70s. The consequence? I can write circles around my higher-paid peers, take photos, handle content administration, HTML, CSS, know new media like the back of my hand, and I still can’t get a damn job that pays more than $22K per year. Who’s hiring anyway? Every gig that opens up has me competing against hundreds of laid-off journos with more experience and more opportunities.

    A lot of us have every reason to feel like the game is rigged.

  • Leomhan

    I don’t see this issue as one specific to journalism because I see it elsewhere as well. I happen to agree with “Josh” from New Orleans though. The dot com start-up fantasy applied to journalism is great for the people who are willing to eat ramen for the next decade, but some of us want a house and to be able to feed our families. People of my generation (I’m 29) are waiting for the older generation to retire already because it’s harder to get things done while working under or with people who still have their heads stuck in the 20th Century. Look at academic institutions. Some of the professors teaching classes online don’t know what an anchor tag is or have never heard of Gmail. They still call the internet AOL. Managers are scared of us youngsters because we know technology but then expect us to perform miracles because to them being able fix the resolution settings on the monitor might as well be the same level of competence required to repair network issues. We’ve been told for years to put away the 10 cents left over from every paycheck into a 401k because it’s safe. Then the economy tanks and they lose their retirement because of their blind faith in the market and the honesty of greedy people and now we look like geniuses for having wasted what little money we had instead of saving it since we’re both in the same spot either way. Except they’re sticking around to try to squeeze a little more blood out of the turnip while we’re picking up the scraps of the job market. It’s not that we need them to retire so we can be managers in their place. We need them to retire so their antiquated ideas are not determining the courses of action that end up killing our careers. We need them to not control the money anymore.

  • Tom Davidson


    Can we read? If we read, can we comprehend?

    [[Let’s be realistic: What’s a 23-year-old with a J-school degree going to do to round up venture capital?]]

    Well, Non: Generally, you come up with an idea. You hone the hell out of it, and you write a business plan. Then you start knocking on doors on Sand Hill Road. You network with any angel investor you can find. In short, you do the same thing you do as a reporter – except instead of looking for answers, you’re looking for money. Step One: Start a blog, throw Google ads on the sucker, and learn.

    [[The dot com start-up fantasy applied to journalism is great for the people who are willing to eat ramen for the next decade, but some of us want a house and to be able to feed our families.]]

    Leo, you remind me of some of the factory workers I covered early in my reporting career, who acted as if companies like International Harvester and J.I. Case *owed* them a lifelong sinecure. And do you think Sergey ‘n Larry dined on foie gras while they were slogging through their graduate work at Stanford? You think they’re feeding their families now?

    Unwittingly, both of you served to personify the rather broad generalizations Josh made in his post. Journalism won’t be saved by cowardice. It might be saved by people who are willing to take some risks and *do* something.

    Both of you brag about your skills. Confident in ‘em? Do something with them.

  • Bryan Murley

    It’s funny you mention how reporters are like priests, and also Jay Rosen, because Rosen wrote a very cogent blog post previously about the “religion” of journalism. Here’s the link to the original.

  • Ryan J. Reilly

    The big difference is that the numbers of Catholics is falling, while the number of people reading the news is rising, because of the internet.

    In is metaphor, are bloggers equal to deacons?

  • The Digitalists

    “I don’t see this issue as one specific to journalism because I see it elsewhere as well. I happen to agree with “Josh” from New Orleans though. The dot com start-up fantasy applied to journalism is great for the people who are willing to eat ramen for the next decade, but some of us want a house and to be able to feed our families.”

    I agree with your first sentence, Leo, but I think the latter part of your response demonstrates that you’re still stuck in the same institutional mindset that Josh B is decrying. You assume that the only option available for a journalist who doesn’t want to work for a dead-tree publication is to go to a startup and eat ramen. But there are far more jobs than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    A good way to think of it is that being a good journalist helps you develop important core skills — such as effective communication and project management — that can be effective in many different jobs, including a few that most of us have probably never even heard of. Instead of asking themselves, “How can I get a job at a newspaper?” aspiring journalists should be thinking about what they’re good at, and how those abilities can translate to the job market.

    More on this topic here:

  • S.P. Sullivan

    Mr. Benton offered up the “Catholic Priests” metaphor at Nieman’s Georges Conference for college journalists last year, and it really, really stuck with me.

    What he and some of the other speakers said about young journalists’ Luddite tendencies had so much of an effect on me, in fact, that I had an almost-immediate change of heart. In less than a years’ time, I’ve learned how to shoot an edit video, record podcasts and run a campus news blog by myself.

    But as other commenters have pointed out, the problem isn’t necessarily getting the younger crew to embrace the digital age; we have a native intelligence when it comes to technology. But rather, as Non Vivant asks, “Why are people who want to be reporters being asked to be businessmen?”

    I’ve complained about this to some of my professors and to professionals, and the answer is to the tenor of: Too bad. And I agree. It sucks. I don’t wanna’ be a business man. But I also want to be able to make a living out of doing what I love best, so if we must, we must.

    But you must remember that we’re talking about the young and self-entitled [myself included], so to ask gumption of us is reasonable, but to ask us not to whine while we innovate is entirely out of the question.

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  • Gina Chen

    Josh Benton,

    A few points. First I really agree with your assessment of the “other Josh.” Old folks in upper management aren’t the problem (well, they are part of it, but it’s not because of their age.) As you point out, everyone has the option to innovate and invent.

    An as a lifelong “recovering” Catholic, I love your analogy to the priesthood. Never thought of it like that, but I think you’re right about the John Paul priests.

    Anyway, back to journalism. This graph really resonated with me:

    “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.)”

    Here’s why it resonates so much. I’m not young. I’m 42, and in my newsroom I’m younger than most of the upper managers but older than many reporters and editors.

    I don’t think age is the issue. In my newsroom, of the people who most embrace new media, social media, the interactive Web, the “new journalism — none are what most people mean when they say “young.”

    In general, the 20- and 30-somethings in my newsroom aren’t really embracing new media or at least not to the extent of some of us “middle-aged” folks. I don’t think that’s because they are young.

    Perhaps it is because they have tapped into the “fedora with the press card in the brim” myth that hasn’t really been the reality at newspapers since long before I walked into my first newsroom. Perhaps it’s because newspapers in the past 15 years are attracting a different type of person. Perhaps it’s because some people are just more open to new ideas (early innovators) than others, and that has nothing to do with age.

    But I do think it hurts the industry.

  • Patrick Thornton

    I think many of you have nailed it about young people who only want to work for a newspaper. A lot of people my age aren’t interested in innovating. You’ll never believe how much resistance I ran into when I worked for my college newspaper between 2003-2006.

    The students who worked on the college newspaper didn’t really care about online journalism. I pretty much had to do it myself. They wanted to work for the print edition, and working on the Web site was kind of like the minor leagues.

    Now I do have a lot of Web and social media skills. But, along with what others are saying, I’m not wedded to working for a big newspaper. I’ve tried to get some new media projects off the ground. Some went better than others, but I’ll keep plugging away.

    The kinds of people who only want to work for a newspaper are afraid of failure. That’s precisely why we cannot look to established newspapers to lead us to salvation, and, yes, we are in need of salvation. It is the people who aren’t afraid of failure who will take the risks necessary to get us out of this mess.

    Some people may look a what I do and think I’m just throwing things at a wall to see what sticks. In many ways I am, but I can’t say for sure what will stick. So, I’m just going to keep trying again and again.

    You know what? Most of what I try won’t stick, but I understand that going in. Failure is part of the learning process. One day, however, something really good will stick.

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  • Greg Linch

    @Non_Vivant @Tom I’d also throw in a little program called the Knight News Challenge:

    You don’t even need to hunt down venture capitalists — they give you money. There are other grant opportunities out there as well.

    Even without any outside funding, you can do. If you have a good idea and are passionate and driven, it can work.

    Shameless plug: check out CoPress. We’ve applied for Knight funding, but we’re not twirling our thumbs while we wait — we’re rolling on ahead.

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  • Alana Taylor

    First of all, your example of a “bright young kid with a brilliant idea, complaining to Bill Gates” does not hold water because you made a reference to the one industry that is ALWAYS changing. Technology is meant to be fast. So — of course a young kid would never bitch about Gates, precisely because Gates would never be slower on the uptake than that kid.

    The journalism industry, on the other hand, is the exact OPPOSITE of the tech sector. It’s founded on tradition, old values and rules, strict methods. Gates taught himself how to be at the forefront of change, Woodward and Bernstein were taught by editors at the Post to follow suit, despite their “revolutionary” reporting.

    In terms of Josh’s worldview, you may be right. Perhaps he doesn’t have the right attitude. But, what – pray tell – are the tools and military strategies would you offer to Josh in order for him to “beat The New York Times,” as if it were some sort of video game. Hmm?

    In my opinion, he IS doing something. He is saving himself from taking a career path that might not evolve into anything that can provide for a sustainable living. Right now, the only job in journalism is that of a philosopher. Thinkers like Shirky, Rosen, and Jarvis have the time and money to be able to sit around and write prose on what the future of journalism might look like. And they have the reputations they have built over the last two decades to provide an audience.

    Josh doesn’t. He just graduated.

    And, by the way, the news business IS more like the tech world now. Have you not read about newspaper companies like the Cedar Rapids Gazette radically reorganizing their “newsroom” to resemble more of a tech startup than a newsroom?

    And again with the Harris example — I’d argue that it’s easy for someone with 21 years experience just pack up and become an entrepreneur than a recent college graduate. I am just as sure that he relied “mostly on the reputation and institutional gravity of the organized [he] work[ed] for” in order to leave and start up Politico.

    And how do you know that Josh “and his ‘generation’” DON’T know how to run a news organization the right way? Obviously the Berke’s of the world haven’t gotten the answer. So, in reality, it seems likelier that the answer might very well be in the hands of the Gen Ys!

    Josh said “let my generation try all these ideas we have about how the news should be presented.” He didn’t say “move over and let me build a news organization.” Because perhaps news isn’t supposed to be organized in the same, OLD, fashion as it used to be. Maybe Josh’s ideas are so completely revolutionary that you can’t fathom their existence much like a 15th century peddler couldn’t possibly understand the internet.

    Josh doesn’t want the rewards of management while bypassing necessary responsibilities and stepping stones. He simply doesn’t want to waste his time climbing a broken ladder.

    Long story short: You lost me at Catholic priesthood.

    The reason Gen Ys want to work for newspapers and not web is clear: It’s what their institutions have told them to want. The rigid professors who tell them to bring the NY Times to class every day. And those who have broken away have found that writing for the web isn’t less legitimate — it pays shit, that’s what.

    So — as a 20 year old journalism student — I’m certainly not giving up. I’m with you on that much.

    But do I look down on Josh for leaving the industry?

    No way.

    I’m about to graduate during one of the worse economic times in history. I have second thoughts about jumping into a dying industry every day. If it weren’t for my deep involvement in social media marketing consulting and efforts to build a reputation for myself on LinkedIN, I don’t know what I would do.

    And despite inclinations to go to grad school for new media at NYU’s ITP program where I would actually take fun classes — I am now seriously considering dropping the idea to go business school.

  • Alana Taylor

    Apologies for the typos.

  • Suthichai Yoon

    I do think we need to let the young reporters know that they CAN make a difference and that the old linear institutional structure is not a desirable one anymore. Quite a few young journalists are still not too sure whether their seniors can accept the new reality.

  • http://toughloveforxerox.blogspot MichaelJ

    Wow. One more boomer weighing in. First to be clear, generation might not be the most useful clarifying concept. I think the issue is passion driven career paths and not passion driven career paths.

    Without passion in any field, you get whining and blaming and pointing to others as reasons for failure. Frankly that’s kid stuff. If you don’t have passion for what you’re doing, do something else. Until you find something that you are passionate about. There’s no crying in baseball and no whining for grown ups.

    The issue is not that a journalist student needs to become a business person. The point is that any successful person has to be driven by passion. That’s true for a teacher, a mechanic, a pressman, fireman or journalist.

    The key to succeed is passion + 10,000 hours of practice. If you have that no baby boomer is going to get in your way. If you don’t have that, then don’t complain. It’s your decision. Pays your money and take your choice.

  • EP

    I had somehow missed this -proof that the Web allows for non-sequential reading, if this had been printed it would have been thrown away weeks ago! I loved it, and I loved MichaelJ’s comment above.

    Teaching in different higher education institutions I realized how sometimes my students held more conservative ideas about technology than I did. Some of the most “rebellious” ones complained a lot, but wanted to achieve change within preconceived institutional frameworks.

    The economic and cultural or ideological background and current context of younger folk also has a lot to respond to. Some people have no problem in shifting from a career in journalism to one in business if they think they will earn more at the end if they do so.

    In my view real change can only be achieved by consensus and collaboration between younger and senior participants in an organization. Those participants need to be passionate about what they do, too, while having the willingness to accept different ideas.

  • http://toughloveforxerox.blogspot MichaelJ

    I think the root of the problem is that us old timers, I’m retired, have not taught shown our students how to look at history. Without integrating the lessons of yesterday, it’s very hard to make reasonable decisions to get from here to there.

    Even a conversational knowledge of the history of newspapers would get at the thought models that clarify what is basic and what is ephemeral.

    It’s a problem that is compounded, in my humble opinion, by a single minded focus on the next big thing. It’s all good to look forward. But without a geographically specific historical context to evaluate what you see, it’s too easy to connect the dots using the resident patterns in your own head, instead of the most useful patterns that to capture the most important elements of what is going on.

  • EP

    I totally agree. It’s also funny because in a way “the next big thing” is something that the media has helped institute…

    How to remain loyal to an initial ideal and survive throughout changing scenarios? It’s a challenge that newspapers for example have to learn how to face.

    I think there is a lot to learn if we are willing to…

  • EP

    Perhaps this is an example of the opposite trend, when the older generation is misinformed about current production/trends and therefore thinks that the past was always better?