In September of 1991, in the depths of the Bush-the-Father recession, I penned a piece for CJR. Headlined “A Lost Generation,” it bemoaned the loss of young talent graduating from journalism schools with no job prospects. I was a hiring editor at the Los Angeles Times, and only a year or so before the economy tanked I had helped bring on almost seventy-five new editorial staff members. But that was then; 1991 was but an early version of now.
Now, I have another concern as I ready myself for a second career after twenty-four years at the paper. If it was young talent left knocking at the door in the early 90s, this current job loss is people being shown the door, and they are not newly scrubbed J-school graduates.
I’m a giant fan of the effect young talent can have on newsroom morale and the freshness of the news report. I’ve been a leader in the infusion of youth into editorial at the Times for the past twenty years. I argued in 1991 that already out-of-touch newsrooms could scarcely afford to forego the energy and new ideas that twenty-somethings would deliver. Today, however, with the exit of twenty-something-years-in-the-business journalists, the risks are even greater.
As for me, I’ve had enough time in the room. I’ve run reporters and I’ve run editions. I’ve hired and, yes, I’ve fired. I’m ready to pursue the next new thing, to bring new energy to a different work world. I’m excited, because I think we journalists typically undervalue our skill set, a very versatile toolbox with some giant advantages—we’re naturally curious and always ask questions; we know how and where to get information and quickly organize it; and we’re good connectors of seemingly disparate dots. Most of us will land quite well, thank you.
Still, I’m concerned for newspapers. I remain devoted to their ideals and their energy, and I worry that the wholesale exit of experience, of people who truly know how to do this, will result in a less skilled, less nuanced, less sophisticated report to readers.
I know if I were an elected official or a bureaucrat or a financier or a developer, I’d be dancing jigs about being covered by a rookie whom I can work rather than an experienced, no-nonsense veteran who can see right through the BS and work me over for the straight answer. We’re on the verge of a crisis of experience in journalism, where the people with wisdom are walking out the door, leaving the young people coming in with no one to learn from.
And don’t think the young talent doesn’t know this. In my room—I’m currently the administrative editor for Metro/California—the beginning reporters are as concerned about this as anyone. They learn fast, awesomely fast. But they also recognize that they have to learn from someone—by eavesdropping on a veteran conducting a tough phone interview, or watching an experienced beat reporter figure out how to get information even though the bureaucracy denies her access. Those someones are increasingly absent, walking out the door after buyout or layoff.
I fear the result. So should newsrooms, and so should readers. The great young talent will be brought along too quickly. They’ll be placed in positions of deadly responsibility before they’re ready. Just watch this show up in the next couple of years, when reporters with less than two or three years of experience are assigned to major beats. Watch it and watch out.
If experienced journalists are a casualty of the current unpleasantness, there is also another critical deficit being created by this roiling newspaper revolution—newsroom diversity. Energy for recruiting and hiring of minority talent is at its lowest ebb since I entered the business. In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors committed to a radical increase in the percentage of minorities in the nation’s newsrooms. Now, thirty years later, look at recent ASNE stats: the industry has a lower percentage of minorities on editorial staffs now than two years ago, even though there’s been an exodus of many veterans, almost all of whom are white. Concern about diversity in newsrooms has virtually disappeared. Survival is the byword; diversity, well, don’t you see what we’re up against?
I headed the TimesMirror/Tribune METPRO minority-training program for almost a decade and witnessed firsthand both enormous diversity strides in our newsrooms and extraordinary talent added to the profession. Foreign and national correspondents, Washington-based reporters and Metro reporters, assignment editors and copy chiefs and photojournalists—all products of METPRO.
In the midst of news-business chaos, the Times has recently committed to maintaining the METPRO program and plans to bring in at least ten minority journalist trainees for each of the next two years. What about the industry generally? Will it continue to pay lip service to its own diversity imperative? Has the rush to survive submerged the way to long-term survival?
A look at the country’s two presidential candidates should serve as a guide. On the one hand looms the historic prospect of the nation’s first black president; on the other stands a man whose defining experience was as a prisoner of war four decades ago. It would seem the height of folly for newspapers not to reinvigorate their so-far feeble attempts to increase diversity in our ranks. It would be equally foolish for newsrooms to encourage their older, experienced journalists—many of whom lived through that very conflict that shaped a presidential candidate—to leave the profession.
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 one per day, under the headline “Parting Thoughts.” All of the letters we publish will be collected here.