Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Working in a Restructured News Organization
Total numbers of laid off journalists are hard to find. Numbers for broadcast journalists seem to be particularly hard to track down. Neither the National Association of Broadcasters website nor the Society of Professional Journalists seem willing to allow the word "layoff" on their websites. All is well in the land of commercial broadcasting and journalistic lobbyists, it seems. Feels like whistling past the graveyard, to me...
But for print, the search is easier. Fifteen thousand newspaper employees in the US have now been laid off according to NPR (where 70 positions have just been lost). And that's just since September, 2008. Whether some, all or none find jobs in journalism again is impossible to predict. My guess is that very few will ever set foot inside a news operation again.
Much is being written, especially in an excellent New York Times series on the news operation of the future.
Let's assume that journalism, in various forms, will survive. What will it be like to work inside one of those new organizations?
My fear is that it will be an awful lot like working in an old newsroom, with the stress on the "awful." That's because in the past, news organizations may have produced a valuable product. But working there was often a dreadful experience.
I've never been a print journalist so I have no direct knowledge of what it's like to be an ink-stained wretch. Rather like being an electronic wretch, I always assumed.
At a Washington, DC gathering a few years ago, I chanced to chat with a reporter for the New York Times. A woman joined us and told us that her mornings were incomplete without NPR on the kitchen radio and the Times in her hand.
"The Times must be a wonderful place," she opined.
"You haven't worked there," he replied.
We agreed that there was an looming irony here between the intellectually open and generous vibe of both the Times and NPR and the often oppressive and depressive environment of both newsrooms.
Part of that is I believe, because both organizations see themselves as the acme of their respective media. As a result, people who end up there guard their prerogatives jealously. Newcomers are given a very hard time. New ideas are give a worse reception.
So with all the "restructuring," downsizing and re-thinking going on, perhaps a better approach and attitude might emerge inside news organizations, especially with regard to creating a better approach to the organization and one that is managed less by fear and reprimand.
One positive outcome of these changes to media might be that the "Moses" generation of older journalists will be gone and the journalistic "Joshuas" might take their place. Some things (mentoring, institutional memory) will be lost and that would be regrettable.
But if a new approach to news management might emerge that would be a result devoutly to be achieved. And not a moment too soon.