Why Young Journalists in Big Newsrooms Are Risk Averse

    by Roland Legrand
    December 7, 2009
    Robert Bloomfield is the Nicholas H. Noyes professor of management at Cornell University. He hosts the Metanomics show in Second Life.

    I’m going to tell you a secret about my newsroom.

    The 20-somethings there are indeed fast to pick up new technology such as social networking, RSS and the use of Flip cameras. They are also wonderful colleagues, as well as dedicated and intensely engaged journalists. Of course, that’s not the secret. What is surprising is that our youngest colleagues are by no means revolutionaries. They’re not the ones looking to adopt or push disruptive innovations or invent new formats. That’s largely done by people who are well into their 30s or older.

    [Young journalists] are required to integrate, rather than upend convention."

    Opportunity Cost

    This has puzzled and, I admit, occasionally irritated me. Fortunately, I gained some insight into this issue a few weeks ago while attending the Metanomics show in Second Life. It is hosted by professor Robert Bloomfield and he interviewed blogger, author and economics Professor Tyler Cowen.


    Both men are media innovators. At the end of the show, Bloomfield talked about exploration, and he outlined the concept of “opportunity cost,” which refers to the cost of the alternatives you aren’t pursuing. Here’s a bit of what he said:

    Rough economic times like these are excellent for exploration. Some of you are unemployed. More of you are probably underemployed. It may sound counter-intuitive, but now is a time for exploration, because your opportunity costs are low.

    There is a second meaning to the age of exploration. The very young — by which I mean the 20-somethings — are filled with energy, ambition and creativity. But exploration is very expensive for them, because they get so much value from the pursuit of traditional credentials, like degrees from George Mason or Cornell. But if you are listening to this, you are probably in the 35 to 60 range. Many of you could be devoting far more of your time exploring new opportunities — again, the opportunity costs are lower for you.

    I think the concept of opportunity cost can help explain why the young journalists in our newsroom seem to be more risk adverse. Contrast this reality with the persona of the young Internet entrepreneur today. They are celebrated for upending convention. Either they succeed and are applauded, or they fail, which is considered normal in the world of entrepreneurs and startups.

    But the 20-somethings entering the newsroom of established media organizations seem to be a different breed. They are also entering a very different workplace environment than the one faced by young entrepreneurs. Within a large newsroom, the expectation and requirement is that young journalists work to acquire the skills and emulate the behaviors displayed by the older leaders within that environment. They are required to integrate, rather than upend convention.


    If young journalists choose to revolt against convention, they will likely be rejected by the group. This means isolation within the workplace, or outright dismissal. Pushing the limits of the organization can result in a very real cost for younger journalists. It’s high risk, with potentially few rewards.

    Common Good

    Professor Bloomfield also spoke of another concept that relates to this issue: social good. Here’s what he said:

    Finally, let me emphasize that exploration is a delight and a privilege that not everyone can pursue…but it is also your duty. Exploration is a social good. Explore to the extent your opportunity costs allow. We’re counting on you to help pull us out of troubled times, and give us new ways when we get to the other side.

    This means that older generations in the newsroom — those of us who have been professional journalists for quite some time and have less to lose — have a special responsibility. We have to explore, to innovate, to take risks. This is beneficial for society, and also for the 20-somethings who want to join us in exploration, but can be hamstrung by existing conventions.


    What about your experience? Does the “opportunity cost” theory make sense when it comes to your newsroom or media company? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

    Tagged: change disruption innovation learning newspapers young journalists

    31 responses to “Why Young Journalists in Big Newsrooms Are Risk Averse”

    1. john says:

      of course, the constant threat of lay-offs has nothing at all to do with people being afraid to innovate.

    2. Cody Brown says:

      The type of 20 somethings who would join a big newsroom after college are not representative of 20 something media types as a whole. This is where the point falls flat – it’s the equivilant of researching Gen Y’s attitudes towards the War in Iraq but only surveying those who just joined the Marines.

      Most 20 somethings I know would not accept a job offer from the NYT because they know they will have to work with people who think they are inovators but actually don’t understand the internet and it, ultimatly, will be a detremint to their career.

    3. Jared Newman says:

      The question is, are the reporters risk-averse because they are in your newsroom, or are they in your newsroom because they are risk-averse?

    4. Here’s something to consider. Our economy and most companies have been in the cycle of growing earnings by cutting costs and re-financing (or lowering the cost of cashflow) since the late 1980’s. So it may not be intuitive to someone, who never observed what an economy looks like (pre 1990), to go beyond distributing current forms of communication more efficiently. More on the idea that new technology can do more than cut costs: http://bit.ly/8nN7h7

      Katherine Warman Kern

    5. “The very young — by which I mean the 20-somethings — are filled with energy, ambition and creativity. But exploration is very expensive for them, because they get so much value from the pursuit of traditional credentials, like degrees from George Mason or Cornell.”

      In my experience, we don’t necessarily get personal “value” out of these traditional credentials, but we continue to pay thousands of dollars for these credentials because we are still expected to have them, despite the “media shift.” The journalism classes I’ve taken at NYU have all had one thing in common: the “duh” factor. My professors are great when it comes to media history and ethics, but they know very little about web journalism and innovation. It can be incredibly frustrating for someone who believes that ethics and innovation are of equal journalistic importance.

      My young journo friends and I all happily pay our dues– we make latte runs for our editor bosses and transcribe interviews and do all of the dull work that one is “supposed” to do if they want to break into the media world. The problem is that while all of this is still expected of us, it rarely ever pays off anymore. We’re just paying our dues over and over and over again, fearing that our destiny is one of the permanent unpaid intern. Before, internships had a great chance of leading to paying jobs, but now those companies don’t HAVE any paying jobs for us. This means that we are forced to innovate, while also maintaining the status quo by continuing to pay our dues at newspapers and blogs.

      I’m 21, and it’s not that I’m less interested in innovation than 30-somethings: I simply don’t have the time to put all of my effort into innovation because I’m also expected to intern/work/blog, even though apparently those things won’t even lead me to an entry-level paying job.

    6. With bare-bones reporting staffs, the tolerance in newsrooms for ideas that don’t immediately bear fruit is pretty low right now. So if a 20-something wants to keep his job, he might have to bunker down with what makes editors happy — quite often that’s feeding the print product as much as possible — and keep those innovative but time-consuming ideas to themselves.

    7. With bare-bones reporting staffs, the tolerance in newsrooms for ideas that don’t immediately bear fruit is pretty low right now. So if a 20-something wants to keep his job, he might have to bunker down with what makes editors happy — quite often that’s feeding the print product as much as possible — and keep those innovative but time-consuming ideas to themselves.

    8. Digidave says:

      I’m glad Daniel Victor chimed in because I was trying to think of the opposite example and he came to mind.

      A young reporter who has pushed boundaries in his newsroom.

      Not saying that it disproves your point (I’ve met other young journos that are risk averse) and I think Daniel explains what he might be up against at times (I suspect he has even more radical ideas!).

      But when thinking about this – he came to mind as somebody in a newsroom that has taken chances. Kudos to him. I never really think about what young reporters within traditional organizations might be up against.

    9. “This means that older generations in the newsroom — those of us who have been professional journalists for quite some time and have less to lose — have a special responsibility.”

      I would add the responsibility is not just for us “elderly” to explore, but to actively advocate and encourage the 20-somethings on that exploration with us. Help implement their experimental ideas.

      I’d say another strange thing about 20-somethings is that there are a lot who have no interest in online innovation. It’s more what Jared said, they’re in your newsroom because they’re risk averse. To put it another way, they’re desperate to get into your newsroom because they have no interest in the internets.

      That’s all very glum for mainstream media, but exciting innovation is still possible, and can be done by anyone, anywhere.

    10. As a journalist who has recently started micro blogging and established a personal blog on Posterous, I don’t see it is an extremely difficult crossover to go from traditional to new media. It opens up the possibility of self expression through many ways: photography, video, writing, drawing. But I’ve always experimented and pushed boundaries from the moment I began my life in newspapers and over the past four years in new media. I don’t work in a large news room any more.
      Often, journalists (young and old) are suspicious of new media journalists.
      No one in the news room ever asked me questions about how to use a video camera or how to video edit.
      I did courses in my own time at my own expense. It’s really the person you are. Journalism for some is mostly about being there more than exploring new ways of telling the story.
      If we insist on saying “this is how it’s done” then how do you find a new, better angle?
      I’ve had a couple of job interviews with large companies in the past year and they aren’t really pleased to hear that you have plans and projects of your own.
      They see only risk in hiring someone who does not entirely conform.
      But at the same time they wonder why they can’t entice their current employees to break the mould and move into the online space. Interesting?
      Young entrepreneurs are the antithesis of journalists conforming to the expectations and conventions of a centralised, top-heavy traditional company.

    11. John Zhu says:

      Regarding Cody and Jared’s comments, I think it’s an unfair generalization to say that the 20-somethings who go into big newsrooms are there b/c they are risk-averse. How about the simple fact that it’s a journalism job that actually pays money (however little it may be)? Not everyone can/wants to go to grad school or can get the financial backing for a startup. There IS such a thing as taking a job so you don’t starve and fall behind on your loan payments. And there is such a thing as trying to effect change from within. We keep saying newspapers must innovate, yet we scoff that anyone who joins a newspaper is risk-averse. Seems kind of contradictory. Besides, working at a newspaper is as risky as anything else these days, if not more. Even 20-somethings can see that.

      Second what Daniel said about what young journos go up against in newsrooms, and also what Digidave said about Daniel.

      Regarding Jessica’s comment about latte runs: Even when I was a lowly college freshman doing part-time work at my local paper, or when I was a summer intern, I was never asked or expected to make latte/food runs for anyone. Nor have I seen any editor or full-time staffer ask newbies or interns to do that for them. There’s paying your dues and then there’s blatant misuse of employees, and crap like latte runs fall into the latter. That’s the actions of a bad editor, not “paying your dues”. My never having made a latte run didn’t hinder my career advancement. Not saying that I was on my way to greatness, but there was definitely a path up in front of me had I chosen to stay in newspapers.

    12. @Jared said: “The question is, are the reporters risk-averse because they are in your newsroom, or are they in your newsroom because they are risk-averse?”
      That’s a very good question. Maybe we are risk-averse in this sense that we believed that by joining a “big” newsroom we could focus on that what we really love doing: writing news stories, eventually making news videos etc.
      As many colleagues see it, the only alternative would have been becoming a free lance journalist, having to struggle for an income, and living at the periphery of news organizations.
      Of course, now we have something like the media entrepreneur, not the peripheral free lance guy, but someone who launches a new venture using all the possibilities of new media to produce something compelling while keeping the investments (hence the cost of failure) as limited as possible.
      I think it’s crucial for journalism schools to make students aware of that possibility – often being risk-averse is just a consequence of lacking role-models and not being aware of other possibilities.

    13. sandro says:

      As a 20-something (not an 35 – 60-ager), and a student journalism, working at the same newsroom as Roland, I can only confirm his statements. Doing a simple count: in my class we have 5 tweeters but 45 facebookers,…Why? In a school, and studyprogramme where we should learn to be critical, most of us are only on social networks because of the games and pictures,…apparently nobody seeks for ‘more’, in this time of ‘less’.
      It’s true. we , the 20-somethings are not revolutionaries or innovators (yet!!!). We are to familiar with the big media so our critical minds start to explore on a later age. plus, I think, news isn’t democratized at all. News is still for the elite like it always has been. papers are expensive and soon online-papers will cost something as well. News is priceless, unfortunately i’m in a minority-group who thinks that.
      I think we have to wait what this generation will do after they graduate,… and in that time, after our news-baptism and the time we’ll need to explore the newsrooms and different angles, we will be 30-somethings as well

    14. Prof. Bloomfield is like the Marxists, always explaining everything by economic factors. They don’t account for everything.

      Young people don’t have opportunity costs. They’re young. They are not encumbered by families or tenure or job paths. They are free. Usually their college is paid for by parents, loans, the government — they aren’t working their way through college.

      Traditionally young people have always been able to be more mobile and experimental than the rest of the population. Now this isn’t the case.

      I have not seen such a conservative generation as the people in their 20s today. For those of us born in the 1950s and living through the 1960s, they appear appallingly orthodox, rigid and ideological. One could account for it by pointing to their fears of the economy, or they pick a conservative university and career path because they fear not earning a living.

      Yet young people in the Depression or World War II or even the 1950s face many more insecurities, and certainly they did in the 1970s in that recession as well.

      No, I think there’s a very important, overlooked factor at work, and that’s the teaching from their Marxist teachers. The rigid extremism of the 1960s that then passed for avant garde radicalism is the ideology of first their high school teachers, then their college professors. This “leftism” is in fact profoundly conservative and perpetuates the fallacy that everything is caused by economic imperative, and people are always victims of some powerful imperialist and exploitative force that “the people” have to fight through class warfare. Sometimes the kids seem to then absorb this message in reverse, but there are plenty of them that absorb the message “as is”.

      sandro is typical of this thinking. He imagines there is some exploitative elite class out to hide or manipulate news and exploit him — and this, in an era where this is nothing to stop him from becoming his own TV show or at least his own wire service — as millions in fact have been doing all over the world.

      As for why some pick big news agencies, it’s simple: they want to make more money. I have not seen such a status-conscious and money-seeking generation in a long time, either. For all their Marxism, it’s a laugh.

      Hmm, I bet I know which arrogant professor is sending Jessica on latte runs at NYU!

    15. For the record, Prokofy Neva’s comments are most enjoyable using your best Yakov Smirnov impression.

      (20-somethings: You can look that up on Wikipedia.)

      My own thinking is that we’re expecting too much from just-out-of-college 20-somethings. It’s not really fair. What about the old notion from art education, that first you have to learn all the forms and all the rules for the forms of your art BEFORE you can selectively break the rules and make new art?

      Straight out of college, wouldn’t you have a hard time innovating when you haven’t even vated yet? (Yes, I made that up.)

      Let’s focus attention on the 30-somethings and the geezers leading these organizations on their long, slow decline. Real power rests with owners, publishers, managers, editors and others further up the chain from the new kids on the block. Seems to me you have two major options: you go into the old-school organization and suck it up, or you pull a @digidave and chart your own course.

      But not everyone can chart their own course. And to suggest Marxism is to blame? Wha? We’re just dealing with people and their all-too-human reactions here, not some political or economic philosophy.

    16. This is an interesting page and discussion, and I have marked it here for further contemplation:


      and may comment in more detail in due course. Let me know if you plan to close off the discussion:
      (jb) aTt ymail point etc si tu veux.

    17. Every job I have ever had in life, whether I was an employee, freelancer, self employed, or owner of my own company, I have always been a creative innovator. That is what I do, and that is why people want me to work for/with them.

      As an employee, that is the reason they wanted to hire me. With boundaries set, they wanted me because I could make things more efficient, save them money, and make them more money.

      I feel like I am a rare exception to the norm though.

      Personally, I wouldn’t want to work for someone who isn’t wise enough to be open to new creative approaches.

    18. and by the way, I am 30. I consider myself in the 20-something’s group (based on how I live my real life, what I do, and what I am searching for in the world).

      I hate to say it, but you older people are out of touch. Reading stat reports and news articles about 20-somethings is not relaying a valuable impression onto you 40+ somethings. I wish there were a way to shine more light into the generation-Y group for you… but the only way you all are seeing it, is either by reading about them, seeing them in the workroom, or by employing them.

      (PS, I never want to respond to Prokofy, because she turns it into a battle, which I don’t bother replying to…. but Prokofy, you are very out of touch.)

    19. JD Lasica says:

      “Most 20 somethings I know would not accept a job offer from the NYT.”

      Really? The commenter’s point was well-taken until that wild overstatement. The Times, with its 24/7 online news desk, still looks good on any resume.

      Provocative discussion!

    20. Raman Nanda says:

      In the last couple of decades or so, the element of idealism and social sensitivity in the media itself has declined. The new generation of journalists, in their formative years, have not been exposed to such idealism as much as those who came into the profession earlier on. Perhaps that also explains their risk averse attitude.

    21. fvbailey says:

      lack of innovation is not the problem, the problem is degree inflation and veterans not doing enough to nurture the careers of newbies.

    22. I’m also thinking that similar dynamics prohibit non-traditional journalists from fully bringing their experience to journalistic practice.

    23. Nelly Bly says:

      Sorry but Gen Y or Z or whatever they’re called are neither creative nor open to risk, whatever the economic times may be. As a whole, they’ve been coddled and told they’re so tech savvy that they think they can get by on their labels, as opposed to actually creating something new.

      Gen X, on the other hand, gave us Google. For the post-Cold War generation, there was never any illusion there would be stable jobs in big companies — nor would anyone hire them because of an impressive list of schools behind their names.

      Unfortunately for the 20-somethings, they’ve been taught the power of the group is more important than the power of going against the group and inventing or innovating. Too bad there are so many of them. I have little hope they’ll amount to much more than their parents, the Baby Boomers, who, well… what good have they brought the world?

    24. Charles says:

      I’m currently a citizen journalist, and a twenty something. I graduated from my university in May of 2008, and haven’t found a job since. I know that I would be willing to take risks. Young journalists might not be willing to take risks because they may not know of all the laws behind what helps protect them.

    25. Divi Dia S says:

      Nelly Bly, I whole-heartedly agree. I recently went back to college to get a bachelors in journalism. I realize, most of the things that Gen “Me” (because it’s all about them) are playing with, hooked on or working with were created by Gen X. The video productions I have seen from them in our broadcast journalism classes, look more like auditions as MTV VJs and reality stars than journalism. Some even went as far as to just record themselves in front of blank walls attempting to discuss their stories (with overuse of “I”) so that “none of the focus would be taken away from ME and my story.
      One female student did an interview of a school athlete. In the editing room, she came to me and asked how would she put her story together. I looked at her logged tape and then asked, “where’s the athlete?” It was an hour long interview, with the camera just focused on herself, the interviewer. She replies, oh, the athlete was going to be the voice over.

      While I have to admit that 20-somethings are more tech-accepting than 40-60-somethings, All the coddling and MEism doesn’t work in the newsroom. In life, you don’t rewards just for showing up.

    26. UnitedStatesofErica says:

      If you are not getting the full potential of your internship, feel free to quit. You would be better off with the right internship, than the right name brand.

      I recently had the opportunity to intern with a large news corporation. From the horror stories I’d heard, I was ready to sit there transcribing tapes till my hair turned white. However, I was exposed to the most inspiring experience I could ever hope for. This was because I opened my mouth as to what my goals were and what I felt I should be learning during my internship. Everyone has a pleasant personality, eager to assist and ready to nose dive me into producing. The experience I had really boosted my productivity in my class. This was due to all of the training that was at my fingertips and beckoning. If you are not experiencing what you should and want to be, it’s perfectly fine to approach your manager and ask for me. Don’t become complacent with being the delivering barista. It’s just like being at the Doctor’s office. If you don’t tell them what’s wrong, they can’t help you. And who’s fault is it really?

    27. Parker says:

      If the best and brightest do not pursue journalism, there are a few conclusions one can draw from the data other than ones the author presents. 3 possible answers, briefly:

      1) the field is perceived as moribund and there are better venues for making change;
      2) the rewards are not sufficient to the task and/or better in other fields.
      3) the young that pursue journalism and the attendant credentials are quite comfortable with the status quo.

      In summary, the premise is misguided, the conclusions misleading: there are smart, young professionals out there. The question should not be why journalism lacks smart, technically savvy 20-somethings. Instead, ask: where are they and why?

    28. @Parker That’s an interesting take indeed. I just visited LeWeb in Paris, where hundreds of young internet entrepreneurs attended and networked. I wondered whether I could recruit some of them to work in the newsroom… I think they have other ambitions (I won’t say “higher” ambitions).
      I still think the “opportunity cost theory” is a possible explanation for behavior in the newsroom, but I would hesitate (a lot) to generalize it for a whole generation.

    29. Excellent observation – as a young journalist myself and as an adjunct journalism professor I see this in my students. The students who have a good, even mild tolerance for risk are saying no to staff jobs with terrible pay and are instead choosing to go out on their own. The opportunity cost for them is lower, and the upside potential to innovating on their own is much greater.

      Good article.

    30. As a young journalist myself, and as an adjunct professor of journalism I see my own students and colleagues following this same trend. Most qualified students, who have a good, or even mild tolerance for risk are refusing to take low paying jobs at traditional news outlets for that exact same reason. Why should they take a job at a newspaper ? I have friends who work at newspapers who make less than I did at 15-years-old selling computers at Staples. Its a joke.

    31. Parker says:

      M Legrand,

      perhaps I overstated my case. I agree with you that opportunity cost is a disincentive to dabble at haphazard careers. Re-reading my note, the first two options are opportunity costs of (1) an industry in peril; and, (2) individual income potential.

      Another way of stating the opportunity cost dilemna is, idealism is less (or not) a motivating factor in a career choice when expensive credentials factor heavily in access to jobs.

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