Young Newspaper Journalists Could Flee Because of Slow Pace of Change

    by Mark Glaser
    July 23, 2008

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    As the layoffs and buyouts pile up in U.S. the newspaper industry, and Romenesko becomes a daily wake, there is one other troubling problem: Young journalists are less willing to stay at newspapers because the papers are so slow to change their culture.

    Newspapers have a history as top-down organizations where senior management huddles in conference rooms to decide what everyone else will do. Innovative ideas usually die on the vine or in bureaucratic red tape. And that’s frustrating for young folks who want to be change agents at newspapers and make a difference.


    Vickey Williams studied 10 print newsrooms as part of the Learning Newsroom project from 2004 to 2007, releasing the report All Eyes Forward (PDF) to detail the challenges in changing newsroom culture. One finding surprised the research team and upset the newsroom veterans:

    While a certain amount of turnover is expected and normal among the youngest practitioners of any craft — in pursuit of career advancement or reflecting a simple change of heart — these messages seemed different in both volume and intensity. A majority of younger journalists (age 29 and below) in nearly every pilot seemed to us to be saying, “We’re leaving because the changes we see as necessary aren’t happening fast enough.”

    Williams joined the Media Management Center at Northwestern University in April 2007 as director of its Digital Workforce Initiative. She recently sounded the alarm about young folks fleeing newspapers in a blog post on the Readership Institute’s website:

    “[Young journalists] are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks,” she wrote. “As Readership Institute research has shown, those are outcomes of newspaper people’s tendencies to be oppositional, perfectionist and conventional. I’ve seen the generational friction play out dozens of times as younger voices get shut down by veterans who fall back on ingrained behaviors.”

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    Vickey Williams

    Williams called for newsroom leaders to engage young folks in meaningful ways, give them timely responses to ideas, and teach them more about the business side of journalism. When I talked to Williams recently, she told me that young journalists — and really, all journalists — are going to have to become more business-savvy, whether they stay in media organizations or go freelance.

    As for what organizations can do to retain people who want change to come faster, Williams believes they have to give those people a seat at the table in discussions about innovation, and foster bottom-up communication and collaboration. The following is an edited transcript of our recent phone conversation.

    What brought you to the Readership Institute?

    Vickey Williams: I worked in seven newsrooms in reporting and editing jobs, from small papers in Alabama to mid-sized and large papers in Oakland and Tampa. Then I went to a corporate editorial job for Community Newspapers Holdings Inc. (CNHI). We had about 200 small dailies in 22 states. I realized the best way I could work for those journalists at those newspapers would be to come up with a national training program.

    It was really while recruiting and training talent and getting in the middle of some future-focused conversations that I came across the research of the Readership Institute. Long before I came to the Media Management Center and Readership Institute I was a consumer of their research. I left the corporate job in 2004 and went right into a Knight Foundation-funded research project [the Learning Newsroom] that was a joint venture of the American Press Institute and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. They had received a million-dollar Knight Foundation grant to look at the culture in newsrooms.

    I knew about the Impact Study that the Readership Institute had done of 100 newspapers; it was groundbreaking research that the industry hadn’t had before. I was the one who said, ‘You’re telling us about four cornerstones in helping to grow readership: content, service, branding, culture. When are you going to tell us what to do about culture?’ The Impact Study was the first signal we got that newspapers have a really lousy culture. I should stress that I’m a journalist, and a lot of my work naturally focuses on journalism and newsrooms. We have a bad culture in newspapers across departments.

    I was the program director [of the Learning Newsroom] and I contracted with two organizational development experts to help me with pieces of that training. And we went in to work with those newsrooms in-depth in-person for a year, and then we went back for six months of follow-up research. That’s where the age thing came up. I’ve enjoyed other people’s reactions to my blog post, and I agree with them strongly that this is not about age…I saw as many dyed-in-the-wool change-resistant 22-year-olds — I saw a lot of them — and I saw plenty of 60-year-olds who were very future-focused. It’s very complicated. And it will play out for years.

    What made you think that newspapers had a bad culture?

    Williams: I don’t know if you’ve waded much into organizational development or design topics, because I hadn’t as a journalist. There’s 40-plus years of research out there about how any organization can become more nimble, more anticipatory of change, can get more consumer-focused. The stories of companies that have remade themselves in the face of declining consumer demand — just as we’ve faced — there are many, many books on them. It’s not as if this problem hasn’t been studied, and it’s a common problem in mature industries.

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    Click to download the PDF

    I’m convinced this is the state in newspapers, and not just in newsrooms — that we’re very internally focused. When I first heard the Impact Study in early 2001, in classic journalist style I reacted strongly and negatively to the culture findings. I wanted to know what these people were looking for — these were news organizations we’re talking about. It took me a day or two to really think about it and realize that the profile of an aggressive-defensive workplace — was the profile of every single one of the seven newsrooms I worked in.

    When I was in newsrooms I was always in hard news, and I’m wired that way. This was in no way a touchy-feely exercise aimed at making people look forward to coming to work each day. It was all about saving the franchise, and to me, it still is.

    Do you think a lot of the cultural issues are about being too internally focused and not finding out what’s going on in the rest of the world, finding out what’s going on with readers in the community?

    Williams: It is. And it can play out in a number of ways. Certain people in an organization are going to play it safe and conventional, and say, ‘We don’t have any rules for that.’ Certain other people are going to argue down everything. Certain people will look for this to pass, because ‘gosh we’ve been through so many other things, let’s just wait until this gets off the radar too.’ We have different mechanisms for dealing with our reluctance to change, but they’re all equally effective at standing still and doing nothing.

    I think the volume on outright resistance to change is down even since the completion of that work in newsrooms, which wrapped up in early 2007. I would have to bet that in the 15 months since then that resistance is going down. I am not at all convinced that we know how to replace that with something constructive. So in short, we don’t fight it as hard and as loudly — the fact that we have to change — but we don’t know what to do instead.

    When students go into journalism schools, the people teaching them came from a traditional background, and the students want to land a job at the New York Times and don’t think about starting their own blog or podcast.

    Williams: Which is really a shame, because I think if you took Millennials in their untouched state, they would be very much inclined to be audience-focused because they are such notorious consumers themselves. They have such high expectations for what they consume. So I wonder if some of that is being shaved off of them in journalism schools so that they come out ready to fit in with the internal focus that still predominates in most newspapers.

    I’ve heard that some people in newsrooms who are skeptical about changes, who say ‘do we really want to do this digital initiative?’ — those people get shouted down. Is there room for criticism?

    Williams: Sure, there is. And not every digital idea is a good idea. On the other hand, look at the agenda for the last five years for all the industry conferences. Most of them have the word ‘innovation’ in their titles or it’s the theme for their conference. And it’s a long stretch. Innovation is almost the end game and brass ring, and we’re so far from a climate to foster that in our workplaces, that we have a long way to go.

    What will it take to create that kind of climate?

    Williams: I think we’re on the way, I don’t think it’s hopeless by any means. We saw progress in 10 out of 10 newsrooms, and we saw three almost make it to ‘constructive,’ which is extremely outwardly focused and those organizations are more successful. And they met that profile in 18 months, which is remarkable, because that’s usually a journey that takes five years. So I have hope and optimism that our industry can make it, but I wish it had started [to change] in 2001, when we first got the message, and we might have saved more jobs and had a lot less angst.

    I read one of your blog posts about community and being outwardly focused. Do you think that’s a key to a successful newsroom — involving the audience, involving the community?

    Williams: Absolutely. The move toward increased interaction in community and networks is both a challenge and a godsend, because it should force us to become more outwardly focused and build greater links with the community. My boss Mike Smith [executive director of the MMC], who is very much a business and strategy guy, would say we are in for several more years of pain. There’s no easy way out. If we can get more interactive and build community to build online traffic to build page views to build revenue… That’s part of it.

    The formula that we tried in the newsrooms was pretty valuable. In short, it was a prescription for journalists to get more business savvy — and they will get more business savvy one way or the other. If they become a victim of the cutbacks, then they will be looking at making their own living and be worried about income and attracting advertisers to their website. So getting more business savvy is only a plus.

    A lot of people in the hard news world, traditional reporters, feel like they work in their own silo. They develop their sources, they do their big investigative report. And when you ask them to go out in their community and involve readers, a lot of them don’t like that idea.

    Williams: Investigative types were some of my toughest audience, and were the most suspicious of my motives with this program. They thought I must have some ulterior motive, and bless them, that’s the way they’re supposed to be. I think they’re turning the corner as they see that databases [can help with] investigative reporting and using Twitter as a reporting tool is smart. As they see more applications and potential for the type of public service journalism that they love, and can see those opportunities in the digital realm, they’ll become less suspicious.

    What were some of your biggest challenges in doing culture-change training?

    Williams: Well, this was several years ago, but I’ll never forget a conversation I had in one newsroom where it was clearly the veterans vs. the bloggers. The veterans were diminishing the value of it, they didn’t get it, and the bloggers said ‘that’s what’s wrong and we’re out of here.’ I didn’t expect this when I did the research, but it was kind of the flaming headline to me: Young people had one eye on the door.

    Most of our meetings were tough because we set the stage for a very candid conversation and it was about what needs to change around here. By the topic and ground rules of this work, it made for difficult conversations — sometimes difficult to facilitate, sometimes difficult for leaders to hear.

    I asked people what they thought about the data [showing that young people wanted to leave], and the veterans even wanted to argue down that the data was correct. And if it was correct and young people were leaving, it was because they were wimps, and good riddance. I remember in one newsroom, a fairly large one, where we opened the floor and said, ‘Would anybody in this age group, which was 29 and younger, like to respond to this? Are we not reading you right?’ A twentysomething said, ‘We talk about this every single day. And the “this” is the slow pace of change, and how much time we spend talking to ourselves instead of looking outward.’

    One thing you mentioned on your blog was giving younger people more power and giving them a seat at the table to do things with a bottom-up approach.

    Williams: Bottom-up is exactly the right terminology. If you read one book on organizational development, you’ll get the message that often in troubled industries like ours, the answers we seek are held by people at the front lines. In newspapers that means giving feet-on-the-street people a seat at the table and gathering their feedback whether they’re in the newsroom or advertising or production about what’s going wrong with the product.

    In newspapers, even when leadership says ‘We want this kind of place, we want ideas to flow from the bottom up,’ it takes a long time to convince people that you’re serious. Because for years, we have been an industry with our panels and task forces and we’ve generated lots of reports that have gathered dust on the corners of bosses’ desks, and people don’t have the energy for that anymore. So there are a lot of dimensions for what it will take for us to change.

    I’m curious about the overall focus of the Readership Institute. Judging by the website, the main focus is getting people to read print newspapers, but now there are so many people going online. Does that change what you do as an Institute?

    Williams: I think that began several years ago. Rich Gordon has been on staff and he’s been looking into a whole host of digital projects for years. If you look at who’s on staff, we’re all digitally focused. At least it feels to us that we are. The Running While the Earth Shakes (PDF file) research is totally about digital innovation.

    Do you think it’s important to bring in an entrepreneurial aspect to newsrooms?

    Williams: Absolutely. My post was about traditional print companies, in those workforces. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that twentysomethings, Millennials in the traditional newspapers, would be given the key to the igloo where new products come out. And should they? Probably. I think it can’t come soon enough.

    Another question that MMC is asked is whether they should be part of the workforce or separate. And the answer is that it depends on every single situation, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that. I agree with Jeff Jarvis that it would be a very good gamble to allow Millennials to start up companies or products. But I can’t think of a single media company where that would be allowed to happen on a broad scale.

    Full disclosure: Like the Learning Newsroom, MediaShift has received funding from the Knight Foundation.

    Tagged: journalism skills new media newspapers

    14 responses to “Young Newspaper Journalists Could Flee Because of Slow Pace of Change”

    1. It’s the same in the UK. I have a web-savvy talented graduate who is leaving a regional newspaper and re-training to enter broadcasting because of her frustration.

    2. A bottom-up approach would be amazing! I work in a newsroom that takes more risks than most (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer), but the bureaucracy that keeps new, fresh ideas from happening gets harder to bear every day.

      I recently went to a tech conference in San Francisco where I became immersed in the energy, vibrancy and positivity of the startup culture. If only newspapers could embrace failure the way startups can. If only they could be as friendly to creativity. I don’t think this is impossible. I do think newspapers need to flip their models around. Fast.

      This blog post argues the startup culture thing well: http://eatsleeppublish.com/startup-mode-youve-got-to-spend-money-to-make-money/

    3. Grayson says:

      And I hear the National Enquirer is snapping up the best and the brightest out of J-schools. Now we know why. If MSM has worked themselves into a bureaucratic cluster-f of a corner, then they get what they deserve – obsoleteness. I have very little time to wring hands over the demise of newspapers at this point. Got new media to go make, while I still have the energy.

    4. MJBower says:

      Not just slow to change their culture, but their attitudes. Young people are more upbeat. If something goes wrong, we fix it. If something goes wrong with an older editor or publisher, it is the end of the world and journalism as we know it.

      As a somewhat young person myself, I think we want to contribute meaningfully and work hard. In my past experiences, that can be confusing to older supervisors who expect young people to be slack-offs. Or even threatening.

    5. ShaBay says:

      It’s hard to keep good people (and want to stay yourself) when you feel like the ship is going down and we’re constantly making little boats (quick revenue boosters) that can never carry the weight of our entire organization.

    6. I spent a little over a year at the San Jose Mercury News in ’06-’07. The talent level at the paper was high, and some great work was done on an almost-daily basis, but management just didn’t know how to take advantage of its resources, much less adapt. Those of us under 30 (and many who were much older) would joke about the irony of reporting on the most innovative companies in the world — in technology, management style, even HR — while many of our bosses were stuck in a 1996 mentality. Depressing.

    7. Gary says:

      Well, here we go again. Another round of, it’s the old coots versus the young whippersnappers and that’s why newspapers are dying.

      Sorry, but I have heard it all before, like all the way back in 1990 when I first started in journalism. Newspapers knew back then they were having trouble getting people to read. But ever since then, all newspapers have done is continue to dumb down their product with the hope this would get people to keep coming to the product. I remember sitting in a focus group in the early 90s with a twentysomething complaining that the newspaper didn’t have enough NBA coverage. Yet a few years later this same paper beefed up its NASCAR coverage when that became the hottest trend.

      Now I wholeheartedly agree that newspapers are top-down. As someone who is not under 29, I came up with ideas that were thrown back in my face, like when I suggested that my newspaper should focus more on developing stand-alone niche products because general interest products are dying and the paper should look at finding alternative revenue sources.

      But do you think it doesn’t work this way in many other major companies? The whole challenge for a large enterprise is remain nimble and adaptable. Did you see the losses that GM posted this week?

      Newspapers clearly deserve the fate they are getting because they have been way too reactive and not innovative. But this idea of responding more to what the community wants is going to turn every newspaper in America into nothing more than a crime blotter. Right now those are the stories that drive web traffic.

      The true debate over the next few years is whether newspapers have a moral obligation to truly cover their communities, or just do whatever drums up the most page views. And there is nothing new about this type of debate in journalism. You might even find it mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Edward R. Murrow.

    8. mike dunn says:

      solid post as usual mark, at hearst we’re doing something similar with the mit media lab – it is an industry in a constant state of change, nice to see that groups like vickey’s are proactively working to help improve and add relevance to it..

    9. Gary,
      I don’t think it’s as simple as the young vs. old battle playing out. Vickey is pretty clear that there are older folks who are willing to change and younger folks that aren’t. The problem is that if you can’t attract and retain younger workers, then you do have a problem as an industry.

      And yes, it is the same in other industries — I think that was another point that Vickey made. I don’t personally think that page views should be the ultimate indicator of success for any news organization. Are they serving the community? Serving as a watchdog? Allowing readers to participate widely? Those are better hallmarks for me than raw page views.

    10. tedn says:

      I’ll join the Amen Chorus.

      I’m 24, and just spent a year (my first out of college) in a small daily newsroom (20K circulation), and more than anything else – the lousy pay, the terrible hours, the weak morale – what frustrated me most was the incredibly ass-backwards way the place was run. The Internet was worse than an afterthought — it was poorly done, poorly managed, and (naturally) poorly received. Meanwhile we had all the usual Romenesko problems — fewer ads, shrinking base — plus some other ones, like too much weak journalism.

      They wouldn’t listen to the (few) young people on staff when we had ideas — not wacky ideas, but basic ones like the text size of our articles is too small and you can’t tell which stories are an editorial priority. It was massively frustrating.

      After 10 months, I couldn’t wait to get out of there — I felt much older than my then-23 years. It ground me down. I switched to a better paying gig at a business journal, which is less stressful and more interesting. But the whole experience has soured me on journalism — even if you do good reporting and writing, what are the odds of ending up in a place that can stay afloat?

      Also, I think the bitterness I hear in Gary’s post is part of the problem here. There seems to be a deep fear of ageism among the older editors and reporters, because they know they’re behind and often don’t care to renew their skills for a technology world that’s changed.

      There’s a deep resistance you feel: Why do I have to learn this? We never did that before. None of my other work gets taken away. Don’t I have enough to do?

      But journalism has clearly changed. And reporters will have to change, too.

      P.S. Someone said that all the J-school kids are backwards because we want to go to The New York Times rather than make a little iTunes podcast or start a blog. But did it occur to anyone that the reason we want to go to The Times is because the NYT *gets* the Internet and is the only paper connecting with our generation online?

    11. Gary says:

      Frankly, it’s not bitterness. It’s a taste of reality. Sorry, friend. But I did embrace change. I wrote constantly for online, did embedded video and audio, and had a blog that had the leading amount of web traffic on my paper’s website. Everything I was asked to do, I did it because I did see a need to change.

      I also suggested ideas to make money for the newspaper that went outside the normal journalistic product because I became worried that we had to start thinking differently. These ideas were ignored.

      None of the effort saved my job. I agreed in my earlier post that papers were poorly run, and I agreed that young people were probably not being listened to. I was reacting to this old vs. young mentality that has crept up in this debate.

      The problem is the same one that has confronted IBM, GM and every other business. Managers don’t listen to employees. Plain and simple. And doing everything you asked to do and more won’t save your job when the quarterly returns come in.

      The fact is that general interest publications are dead. Media consolidation will continue to happen and thousands more will lose their jobs. Life, however, will go on and there will be thousands of bloggers trying to get the word out and fill the void.

      But how much of it will be white noise, and fade into oblivion as quickly as the next Internet banner ad is the question to ponder.

    12. Jim Kevlin says:

      Are young people leaving newspapers because they “are slow to change their culture,” or because dailies are in a tailspin? Young people aren’t going into the harness business either.

    13. Journalists are fortuneate that most are able to enter their chosen field. Many, many graduates are not so lucky to find a job in even a related field.
      Young journalists have made a wonderful difference to my publications. I always provided the best in technology and working flexibility. Just about every change was considered.
      YOung journalists who recognized that they had to get the deadline material in place first, with yes, all the names of the people in the photo, the correct spelling of names, the basic W’s, necessary length of article, perhaps one suggestion on the next article, or related article, or even the correct date for the follow up article, went a long way.
      FOr every change that one journalist wanted there was a competing idea from another. Arguments went on for weeks over serif vs sans serif on particular sections.
      Ideas that were thrown out for discussion became hugely time consuming debates.
      All of it was stimulating, but there was a product to get to the market.
      And what did the reader want? Knowing the reader was a great benefit, but that takes time to understand. The single suggestion from a frustrated reader does not provide the reason for a full scale change at the paper.
      Youth and ideas are priceless, and it was always good to see the young journalists welcome the students, to ask for even more young input.

    14. Journalists are fortuneate that most are able to enter their chosen field. Many, many graduates are not so lucky to find a job in even a related field.
      Young journalists have made a wonderful difference to my publications. I always provided the best in technology and working flexibility. Just about every change was considered.
      YOung journalists who recognized that they had to get the deadline material in place first, with yes, all the names of the people in the photo, the correct spelling of names, the basic W’s, necessary length of article, perhaps one suggestion on the next article, or related article, or even the correct date for the follow up article, went a long way.
      FOr every change that one journalist wanted there was a competing idea from another. Arguments went on for weeks over serif vs sans serif on particular sections.
      Ideas that were thrown out for discussion became hugely time consuming debates.
      All of it was stimulating, but there was a product to get to the market.
      And what did the reader want? Knowing the reader was a great benefit, but that takes time to understand. The single suggestion from a frustrated reader does not provide the reason for a full scale change at the paper.
      Youth and ideas are priceless, and it was always good to see the young journalists welcome the students, to ask for even more young input.

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