All of this seems simple to the point of triteness, but the barriers to motivation can be overwhelming. Dire industry news is everywhere, and we know journalists love to wallow in the negative. Tighter papers mean shorter stories, and a sense that there’s less appetite for ambitious journalism. Design concerns can trump content—sometimes rightfully, but not always. The earlier and heavier planning that goes into every morning’s paper can lead to more management-driven assignments and, thus, a disempowered staff. Downsizing means fewer journalists doing more work with less depth. It produces staff shake-ups, new assignments, labor strife and other disruptions. All of this understandably can keep managers in their offices and away from the staff.

Those managers must compensate by keeping the hand-wringing out of the newsroom and stressing quality journalism more than ever—even while the search for a business model continues.

Many of the best journalists I know are driven in large part by ego. They claim an independent streak, but they’ll do anything to please a boss who talks their language and challenges them to be great. They are energized by top editors who’ll stop by their desk and talk about stories—not to fulfill an MBO, but passionately and informally. They want to be empowered to find the best story, not told what the story is by a manager who hasn’t reported on the street in years. If reporters push deadlines to improve quality, they want to be seen as committed, not disruptive to the planning process.

In other words, they want leaders who share their values. Without that, more good journalists will go.

I was never going. The newspaper was the only institution I knew, and one I still love. But I left—first taking an extended leave of absence to teach journalism, and then quitting last year. No buyout necessary. I didn’t leave solely because of the desperate mood, distracted leaders, or customer satisfaction tone that I believed unnecessarily complicated news judgment. But those things did make it easier.

How badly would I miss being part of a newsroom? I wondered that aloud to a friend who also was considering leaving his newspaper. His response: “Newspapers aren’t the strong community institutions they used to be. They aren’t the places we came to work at.”

In other words, we aren’t leaving the institution as much as the institution has left us. As the business model has slipped away, some of the core values that energize journalists have, too. I hope it’s a short hiatus. Those values are vital to the newsroom—and the business.


The steady drip of layoffs and buyouts, slowly desiccating once-vibrant newsrooms around the country, has also produced a reservoir of anger, sadness, fear, uncertainty—even some cautious optimism here and there—among reporters and editors who invested years, decades in some cases, of their lives to print journalism. We’ve asked anyone so inclined to channel these emotions, not into rant—although there will be a bit of that—but rather into reflection on what went wrong, and where we might go from here. We will publish these periodically under the headline “Parting Thoughts.” All of the letters we publish will be collected here.

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Chris Ison is now an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He was a reporter at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis from 1986 to 2001, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 1990. He was assistant managing editor for projects from 2001 to 2004, then took a leave of absence before resigning from the newspaper last year.