Yes, there’s a crisis of trust in journalism. But it’s inside newsrooms, too

February 28, 2018
A rally on November 6, 2017, to fight for the unionized editorial employees at DNAinfo and Gothamist. Image: Iryna Yafimchyk for Working Families/flickr.

Journalists in America’s major newsrooms are asking a question of their bosses: Is anyone in charge here?

Turmoil is currently engulfing The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Time Inc., NPR, and others—enough in fact to mark this moment as one in which internal civil wars are threatening to break out unless something changes. And the only thing that will fix it is a wholesale reckoning with newsroom culture that many newsrooms have long ignored and only just started to address. (Here’s a hint: It starts with something media executives are not particularly practiced at, which is listening to staff instead of talking at them).

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The basic problem: The intensifying economic pressures on the media industry have caused executives to ping-pong among bright, new ideas—Branded content! Pivot to video! Newsletters!—with hopes that the latest strategy will be the messianic answer to the media industry’s ills. (Spoiler: none of them are, nor can be.) The head-swirling shifts in strategy—paired, usually, with restructuring and layoffs—have created deep rifts between reporters and newspaper management, a mutual wariness that’s appearing across the industry as unprecedented mistrust.

The roots of staff dissatisfaction arise from well-justified existential worry: Media executives and newsroom managers have, in the last few years, responded to industry pressures with decisions that have ended up deeply harming—or ending—journalists’ livelihoods or sense of humanity in their work.

These decisions include fickle strategy moves—such as the disastrous pivot to video, which wiped out staff numbers, revenues, and readers in under 12 months in some newsrooms. The bad decisions also include allowing cultural problems in journalism to fester, such as the explosive power of long-ignored sexual harassment scandals in the wake of the #MeToo movement; ideological rifts in coverage of the Trump administration; management resistance to efforts by employees to unionize; struggles over equal pay; and lagging diversity.

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Newsroom dissatisfaction is of course nothing new. The rise of digital media in the early 2000s not only created extensive restructuring of newsrooms, but also prompted much internecine warfare largely along generational lines, as old-school newspapermen (usually men) predicted (incorrectly) that the internet would create an apocalypse for good journalism.

What is new is that the displays of dissatisfaction are becoming both more emphatic and more public—through leaks and tweets—and thus picking up momentum through journalists’ extensive social networks. Protests against newsroom leadership have increasingly come with an eye towards taking complaints public. Last year, Times employees walked out to protest layoffs and show solidarity with copy editors who had been compared to “dogs urinating on fire hydrants.” At The Wall Street Journal, someone displeased with leaders’ gentleness towards Donald Trump took the rare step of leaking a draft of a story about the president, showing that Editor Gerry Baker had tried to tone it down. Unionization efforts at outlets like the LA Times, Vox, and Mic have reporters changing their avatars and publicly criticizing leadership, while asking for (and getting) signal boosts for their efforts from fellow journalists. A New York Times Slack channel for young employees seems to keep getting leaked into media stories, whether it is to protest the reinstatement of accused harasser Glenn Thrush or to cite objections to op-ed columnist Bari Weiss.

The displays of dissatisfaction are becoming both more emphatic and more public—through leaks and tweets.

The public displays are a proportionate response by journalists to increasing job insecurity. In many cases, even in relatively new digital newsrooms, management put aside issues of culture to focus on revenue growth; the result was that both suffered. The flavor-of-the-month strategies didn’t work, revenues fell, and there were more layoffs and more insecurity. Meanwhile, executives ignored important cultural issues like diversity, equal pay, and sexual harassment until they set off newsroom-wide ruptures.

But the undercurrent of much of the turmoil is jobs. It’s safe to say that job insecurity is the major cause of distrust between newsroom staffers and media executives. While newspaper ranks have been shrinking for years, a rising set of digital competitors promised to take up the slack. Instead, media companies saw digital media as an excuse to keep costs low, which ushered in a gig economy of permalancing and low-paid piece work in journalism. Now even the full-time digital media jobs are getting cut in industry-wide layoffs.

The prospect of arbitrary firings and paltry severance encouraged digital newsrooms including Gawker to start unionizing in 2015. Unionization efforts increased friction between owners and journalists. What made the tension worse over time is that, whether related or not, unionization efforts have been succeeded by layoffs at Slate, Vox, Upworthy, BuzzFeed, and BuzzFeed UK. In each case, management either resisted or delayed response to the unionization efforts, which alarmed some staffers. (At Slate, Chairman Jacob Weisberg said a union wouldn’t be “Slate-y”; Vox took nearly two months to recognize its union; at BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti said a union was unnecessary, DNAInfo owner Joe Ricketts shut down the entire national publication as soon as it unionized; and Upworthy’s Eli Pariser suggested the company would lose venture capital money if staff unionized.)

Job insecurity is the major cause of distrust between newsroom staffers and media executives.

With the business-side tensions already palpable, ideological rifts have only amped things up. Journal reporters are said to be in despair over Baker’s tendency to cut criticism of Trump, as well as the paper’s Trump-friendly right-wing editorial page. New York Times newsroom staffers are reportedly embarrassed by some of the pieces on the paper’s editorial page and face restrictions on what they can say about Trump on social media.

Then there’s the almost universal mishandling of sexual harassment complaints in media over not months, not years, but decades. WNYC, the beloved New York radio station, revealed years of accusations of abuse by hosts including Leonard Lopate, Jonathan Schwartz, and John Hockenberry; the station’s employees interrogated executives for tolerating creepy behavior and ignoring complaints. NPR had to overhaul its entire human resources structure after repeatedly failing to address complaints about former executive editor Michael Oreskes; an independent report found that a “high level of distrust” in management to handle sexual harassment issues.

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Then there’s equal pay and diversity. Vice Media faces a lawsuit alleging it underpaid female journalists for years. The former China editor of the BBC, Carrie Gracie, said trust is broken between executives and news staff after revelations that women were consistently paid less than their male colleagues for similar work. The share of women in newsrooms has increased barely one percentage point in 16 years; the ranks of people of color have only grown by 3 percent in that time. The overall result is that many journalists—especially minorities—don’t trust newsroom management to judge their value and accomplishments.

All of that is…a lot. But it’s not impossible to fix. The only thing that needs to happen is that media executives and management have to want to fix it. I would argue there are three steps to follow.

  1. Acknowledge the tensions. For an industry as confrontational with the facts as journalism can be, real conversations about newsroom challenges are harder to have. Management has to acknowledge that journalists should have a voice in their own newsrooms, and that problems exist and are being heard.
  2. Listen to what employees are saying. In too many “town halls” in journalism, managers address touchy issues by talking at employees for extended periods of time, leaving a panicky few minutes for questions. This is not a good format. Instead, executives should actively solicit ideas from journalists and provide ample time for discussion. If many people are raising a similar point, it’s most likely not mob justice or hysteria but a genuine pointer at a growing problem.
  3. Solve the problem. Basic, right? But too many newsrooms leave problems to fester until they end up fracturing morale. To prevent good intentions from turning into endless talky meetings, set up a series of 10 micro-steps for each problem that can be finished in under a week or two each. In four months, there should be visible progress. Then check in again with employees on how it’s going.

Fixing the culture of journalism isn’t an exercise in crunchy bonding; it’s a necessity for creating better journalism. We have to acknowledge that trust is either broken or dented in too many newsrooms. What journalism has is a failure to communicate. It’s about time we started listening to each other.

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Correction: The spelling of Carrie Gracie’s name has been corrected.

Heidi N. Moore is a digital media strategist based in New York City. She most recently co-founded a publication on the future of work. She has been an editor, columnist and reporter for publications including the Guardian U.S. and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter @moorehn.