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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cuts at NPR and the Decline of Newsroom Memory

NPR announced that it would be offering buy-outs for 10% of its staff. That's more than 80 people.

As an NPR journalist wrote to me:

"What worries me is that the longest-employed people are the most desired buyout candidates from the company’s POV… ; they tend to be the radio veterans. Gjelten, Ydstie, Joyce come to mind. Also Elving, Naylor, Liasson. Totenberg. The sound of NPR. "

It's not just the sound that will change. The institutional memory of senior reporters, editors, engineers and managers will be going out the door over the next few months.

Waving good-bye will be young, eager journalists, ready to prove that they have what it takes to keep the best values of public radio alive and kicking. No doubt there will be an unspoken sense of relief: "Finally, those old folks are going."

Media organizations are acknowledging that change is necessary for survival. Journalism in North America is less of a trusted profession. The mood on the shop floor is less comfortable than it once was.

While there is gloom among the veterans, the young journalists I meet are eager to take over. My students in the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus are not put off by the moaners in the media.

This is good and augers well for the future of journalism.

But if newsrooms are losing their veterans, they are also losing their historical memory and connection to the newsroom's culture. And that is irreplaceable.

This is an opportunity for journalism schools to fill some of that role of mentorship and institutional memory. J-School profs can't all know the minutiae of each newsroom. But we can impart what some of the best values all media share. Ideally, we should be imparting that sense of mission and excitement about what journalism can offer.

As Marc Ambinder says in this month's Columbia Journalism Review, "The best thing a journalist can hear is 'Wait, what?" Nothing better than that...

And even if some, perhaps a majority of our students don't end up in a newsroom job, they will have the skills that any smart organization should want: graceful and quick writing, a deep commitment to accuracy, a sceptical attitude to most things, inventiveness, impatience and above all - curiosity.

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