What a Kansas professor learned after interviewing a ‘lost generation’ of journalists

When Scott Reinardy began studying the state of morale in newspaper newsrooms more than 10 years ago, he says, he was trying to “take the temperature” on job satisfaction and burnout in the profession. He didn’t know the industry was about to enter a traumatic period of upheaval that would deplete the ranks of journalists around the country and force newspapers to reassess their mission.

In Reinardy’s new book, Journalism’s Lost Generation: The Un-Doing of U.S. Newspaper Newsrooms, the University of Kansas journalism professor assesses the damage done in that tumultuous decade. In interviews with hundreds of journalists at small, midsize, and large newspapers, and surveys of thousands more, Reinardy collected data on job satisfaction and heard stories of uncertainty, anxiety, and burnout. Tens of thousands of layoffs and buyouts and an evolving, still unsettled business model have created what he calls a “lost generation” of journalists: those who have left the profession, voluntarily or not, and those who are left to pick up the slack in smaller newsrooms and try to forge a new path for the profession.

Reinardy spoke to CJR last week about his findings, and his views on what newspaper management should be doing in response. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

What did your surveys and interviews with newspaper journalists tell you about the state of morale in the newsroom?

I was on sabbatical in 2014 and I spent time in a number of newsrooms conducting interviews. Going into these newsrooms was enlightening, to say the least.

I don’t use this word lightly, but I would call it an organizational depression that’s occurring. There has been so much loss in those newsrooms. Journalists don’t necessarily just lose jobs, they lose careers and some real self-identity.

I had many journalists who broke down and cried, who were so genuinely upset about what had happened to the profession they loved so dearly. It was really troubling.

So I don’t have a statistical measurement for morale, but when you start walking into these newsrooms and talking to people who dedicated 20 years or 25 years or 30 years of their life to not only the profession but maybe even this individual newspaper, it was pretty telling to see how upset they were at what had occurred to their beloved industry.

Were there stories that you found especially compelling or surprising that came up in your interviews?

I talked to a gentleman who worked at a mid-sized newspaper. He was basically laid off twice—his job was cut twice—and he survived.

When he started talking—“I’m like a dead man walking; I’m like, on death row.” It was a union paper, and it was the usual rule of “last one in is first one out.” So when they started making cuts, he was among the bottom five on both occasions. The first time he lost his job, somebody ended up leaving the paper and he was able to stay on. The second time he was going to lose his job, an older gentleman volunteered to take a buyout and leave, and that saved his job.

And we talked about, “What’s your future? I mean, you’re still here and you’re still working.”

He said, “Yeah, but I probably won’t ever take another newspaper job, and I don’t know how long this one will last”—although he was very aware he was no longer among the bottom couple of people on the totem pole.

I was talking with a young lady who worked at a larger newspaper. Out of college she got the job she loved. She was a copy editor and designer, did great work amid continuous cuts at the paper. But her level of burnout—and she self-identified for burnout—she said, “You know, I was having migraine headaches, I was sick all the time.” She said the stress level and the things that had changed and the obligations in the newsroom had changed so much, “it wasn’t the job I really loved anymore.” And there were more cuts coming. And she went to her boss, and her boss said, “I don’t think you’ll be cut, I think you’re OK.” But there was a threat that she may have to go back to night work instead of day work, when she had two small children.

When she left the paper, her health immediately improved, migraines went away. She now works in media relations for a school district, and loves it. She said, “I miss the newspaper dearly and that work, but I just know that’s not my life anymore.” So those things really stick out.

Who makes up this “lost generation” that you write about in your book?

I think at the very least there are three “lost” generations. One are certainly those who lost their job and perhaps their profession in the layoffs and the cuts. The second, I think, are the older journalists. The culture has changed so drastically and the workload—the way newspapers cut their staff but continue to try to produce at the same rate they previously had. And then adding in the technology: “We want you to shoot videos or take photos or post online.” And the social media aspects: “You’ve got to tweet X amount per day, you have to blog X amount.” That culture has changed dramatically, so the older generation is feeling, certainly, some loss.

And then the younger generation is coming in and not really sure of the direction or the culture of the newspaper; they’re trying to figure it out. They come in with different perspectives. They can handle the multimedia and the social media, but then we have to talk about quality and depth of reporting. Are they just being driven to get more clicks and not worried about doing that second or third or fourth interview to make the content better? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure that generation—in talking with people—they’re not getting a lot of guidance from the older generation because the older generation is just too darned busy to instill some of the qualities and the mission that had previously been established.

So you have several generations that are trying to find their ways, and it’s challenging. And you have a gap in there as well. There are journalists between 35 and 45 who are leaving the profession—primarily women. There’s a generation gap that certainly changes the dimension of what the newsroom looks like and what the news looks like, quite frankly.

You have a chapter in the book about how women journalists in particular have been affected by the newsroom exodus. What stood out to you about the experiences of women in the newsroom?

The numbers alone were startling—the number of women in my 2014 survey [of 1,686 respondents from 142 newspapers] who said they did not expect to be in journalism within the next five years or were unsure. Three quarters of female journalists were looking elsewhere in terms of a long-term career or looking toward family, or looking toward another opportunity, at moving out of the newsroom.

That is going to have a tremendous adverse effect on the journalism being produced. We need those multitude of voices in those news meetings saying, “Wait a minute, what about this issue, what about that issue?”—representing different ideas. And that’s the same with minority groups as well. We need more diversity, and quite honestly, unfortunately, I think with the smaller newsrooms you’re going to end up with less diversity.

So it’s certainly a difficult situation for every newsroom to recruit that diversity—and to have women move into managerial positions where they’re making editorial decisions and having a serious effect on the news and the news outcomes.

What did you find is taking place in these newsrooms in the wake of layoffs, and what happens to the quality of the journalistic output?

As I talked about in the book, I don’t define quality. I let the journalists talk about quality on their terms. I think that’s far more important. Because when journalists are saying, “Look, we’re not doing as well as we used to,” that to me is really a red flag. If they’re saying it, it must be true.

I think we’re in a position, unfortunately, where newspaper journalists have been put in newsrooms that aren’t quite equipped to produce what they used to produce. I recently was talking with a publisher and he said, “Well, the number of people in a newsroom doesn’t necessarily equate to good quality.” I said, “You know, I’m not going to argue with you. However, I have many people who are telling me differently.” And you can’t expect the same rate of production, along with additional responsibilities through technology, without something giving way. And unfortunately, what thousands of journalists are telling me is it’s the quality.

In the wake of layoffs, are there ways for management and staff to more effectively make the transition to a smaller, Web-focused newsroom and avoid these pitfalls of low morale and lower quality?

My suggestions in the book were extracted from newsrooms that were working well and from what other journalists were telling me. I think one of the biggest mistakes that has been made is a local newspaper will continue to proceed as it always has proceeded without taking into account the resources, the number of people in the newsroom who can produce that content. It was, “OK we’re going to blog because we should blog and we should connect with audiences,” instead of considering, “OK, why are we blogging?”

I’ve talked with a lot of journalists who have said, “You know, they come in with a new initiative and tell me to do it, and I’ll do it, but I’m not sure why we’re doing it.” It can be an endless aspect of chasing one technology or one idea after another instead of formulating a real plan of action that says, “We’re going to do it like this, this is why we’re doing it, and here are the economic implications and the quality implications of what we’re doing.”

In talking with the people who are successful and have happy newsrooms where people are working hard and there are high levels of satisfaction and low levels of burnout, they had plans; they stepped back and said, “You know what, we’ve got to really assess what we’re doing.”

Personnel is the most vital and important aspect of any industry. If you’re just going to grind them up, it’s not going to end well for anybody.

Photo credit: Jon S., via Flickr

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.