Parting Thoughts: Chris Ison

A note to editors: talk journalism, and win back the newsroom

It was one of the first management meetings in my career as an assistant managing editor, and our boss was talking about “aligning our values.” I was resisting drinking the management Kool-Aid, and I peeked around the room to see how the more experienced editors were taking in the message.

They looked pretty serious, so I refrained from the usual eye-roll.

The newsroom needed to change, the editor continued, because the business was changing. Our aging newsroom was entrenched in the old way of doing journalism. We needed to listen more to readers and write more for the young ones. We needed to focus more on utility and less on bureaucracy, and harness the opportunity provided by the Internet. He didn’t know how long revenues would fall, when classified advertising would rebound, or how important the Internet would be. This was 2001, after all, and no one in the industry knew, much less those of us at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

It turned out to be a prescient message, of course, but I remember not being at all interested. I’d just been promoted after nearly twenty years as a reporter, most recently on the investigative team. This sounded like business, and I only knew how to talk about stories.

Seven years later, the gloomy business talk is much the same, except that it has leaked—no, flooded—out of the management meetings and overtaken the newsroom and the industry. We got the message, finally. The journalists on the street have, indeed, changed. A recent survey by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that journalists, worried more about the business and less about quality, have embraced digital technology, citizen journalism and the like. “And in that new focus, we see signs of new openness to change,” wrote Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

But in the transition, a different kind of values gap has grown. The same Pew survey shows that fewer than a third of the journalists in the trenches feel that managers share their values. Few gave their bosses an “excellent” rating. And many more reporters than managers expressed concerns about the influence that business and advertising has had on news content.

I am convinced that newsroom leaders must deal with this if they are to retain the good journalists essential to recovery. And this time, it means the leaders need to change.

The workers have shown they’ll change how they do the work; they just don’t want to change what the work is for. Is our central purpose still “to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society,” the mission adopted seven years ago by the Committee of Concerned Journalists? Or have we lost that focus while reaching for younger readers, more unique visitors to the Web site, and shallow suburban coverage meant to draw more ads? Asked more simply, are we here to serve the community or ourselves?

The answer is crucial if good journalism has any role in the comeback. News as business feels calculated, cynical and desperate. News as community service produces passion and energy. And because good journalism is very hard work, passion and energy are everything.

I was reminded of this truth recently as Twin Cities media covered the one-year anniversary of the I-35W bridge collapse. Amid that tragedy a year ago, my old newsroom came to life again. Staffers hustled to the scene from vacations and dinners and days off. They worked tirelessly for weeks on every angle, producing investigative stories, photo pages, and multimedia packages. And for those weeks, the language in the newsroom changed. It was about the story. The focus and energy were back, and the great journalism that emerged was no coincidence.

The challenge for newsrooms is to instill that sense of purpose—and yes, pride—every day, because most days, the best stories are much harder to come by. A motivated reporter sees a story in almost every document and interview. On a bad day, the same reporter can manage to never see a story. He can file the easy 12-incher, and no one needs to know that he avoided the riskier one.

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.