(not) WANTED: Careerist Journalists for a New Epoch

A new PEJ study looks at the future of journalism.

Media watchers heard from their Moses again on Monday when the Project for Excellence in Journalism came down the mountain with its fourth annual “State of the American News Media” report. In a deft synthesis of original and secondary research, it finds that the media business is entering a new phase in 2007 — one with fewer jobs, flashier content, smaller audience slices, and more elaborate, interactive Web sites. All of these changes are said to revolve around new technologies for delivering news to consumers, and, perhaps more important, consumers to advertisers.

“The transformation facing journalism is epochal, as momentous as the invention of television or the telegraph, perhaps on the order of the printing press itself,” the report says. The full document analyzes trends in newspapers, cable, network and local television, radio, ethnic and alternative media, and public attitudes toward news. But even with such ambitious scope and biblically phrased findings, it’s still a fibrous work of serious research that, perhaps understandably, is somewhat hard to digest. Clinical and impersonal, it’s also long on data, and short on relatable characters, anecdotes and illustrations.

Unfortunately, press coverage of the report has been similarly bloodless in its focus on numbers and faceless industry-level trends, overlooking the most interesting questions of all: What impact will all this have at the level of individual journalists? What kind of professional will emerge triumphant out of the scrum for shrinking audiences and dwindling job opportunities? If the industry is evolving, what about the skills and facilities most prized in the business? In short, what kind of journalist will actually staff this incredible new “epoch”?

It’s not hard to hypothesize possible answers based on some of PEJ’s fundamental findings.

First, it seems there will be more opportunities for journalists who can be one-person brands and buzz machines. Scores of these openings extend from what the report calls journalism’s “reduced ambition.” As media companies redefine their appeal, they are looking for narrow “franchise” areas of coverage, delivered by distinctive anchors, columnists, and reporters — all the better to build an audience around, explains the report. Evidence of this shift abounds. According to one young staffer at a news magazine, competency is hardly enough. “The way to advance around here is to write for other places. You have to make a name for yourself on the outside to be promoted on the inside.” Meanwhile, current recruitment posters for the Miami Herald tout the “Big Names” on staff and promise prospective interns that they will be treated like “the next Big Name.” Last fall, the New York Times altered its layout so keynote bylines in Arts, Business and Sports could fluoresce in capital letters about as large as drop-headlines on the front page. And last Friday, Time magazine unveiled its own redesign with the names of its columnists in what the New York Times’s Katharine Q. Seelye called “World War II size type — the better to brand with.”

Second, and related to the revved-up branding process, it seems more journalists will be asked to peddle naked opinions and ready-to-consume ideas. Driving this demand, according to the report, are cable news programs that will increasingly drop the pretense of objectivity as “Argument Culture” gives way to a new phenomena called “Answer Culture.” This trend, epitomized by the death of CNN’s debate show Crossfire and the birth of its lecture-esque show Lou Dobbs Tonight, is defined by a slew of shows offering “solutions, crusades, certainty and the impression of putting all the blur of information in clear order for people.”

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, it seems future journalists will have to navigate an insanely competitive job market. Though PEJ does not run the calculations, the math is chillingly simple: as the industry cuts an unprecedented number of jobs, journalism schools produce a record number of graduates. According to a study led by sociologist David Weaver, 6,000 print and broadcast jobs were slashed between 1992 and 2002, while enrollment in journalism schools jumped for the twelfth consecutive year, up to more than 210,000 students, according to 2006 figures from the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism. (PEJ predicts job cuts will deepen across media but especially in the newspaper business until the industry finds a way to make money online. It estimates that newspapers axed another 1,000 editorial employees in 2006, with more cuts likely in 2007.)

The obvious worry in all this is that, in order to succeed, the priorities of journalists will change — and not for the better. It’s easy to imagine a new type of journalist emerging — a Careerist Journalist who may work out of a sense of civic duty, but whose fierce personal ambition devalues professional ideals on the way to personal advancement. Like a modern scab or strikebreaker, the Careerist Journalist jumps the chasm separating the new market definition of “good” journalism from the professional standards traditionally espoused by journalists. First identified by two Harvard psychologists in the 2002 book Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, this gap has grown in recent years to the point where PEJ declared last year that “the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost.”

The media business seems to think it can save itself by asking journalists to generate glitzy, gripping content regardless of the day’s intrinsic drama or the complexity of events. Maybe it can, but not without creating a new kind of journalist at its top levels.

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Tony Dokoupil co-authors the Research Report column for CJR. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.