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American Journalism Review
Anger In The Newsroom  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1991

Anger In The Newsroom   

Past and present reporters will tell you: Newspapers are dying, it's no fun anymore. Is this just everyday bitching – or something new?

By Louis Peck
Louis Peck, who spent 14 years as a newspaper reporter, now edits a daily newsletter covering Congress.      


During the past year and a half, Bill Walker, Greenpeace's Western regional media coordinator, has become a celebrity of sorts in newsrooms around the country.

"I'd call a newspaper and identify myself, and people would say 'Oh, the article,' " says Walker, who is based in San Francisco.

"The article" was a first-person account in a July 1990 issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian in which Walker, 37, described his former life as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Denver Post and, finally, the Sacramento Bee. In the article, "Why I Quit: Confessions of a burned-out, fed-up, pissed-off, smart-ass newspaperman," Walker listed three lessons he says he learned while on the beat: First, the press is inherently biased toward protecting the status quo and hides behind the myth that objectivity equals truth. Second, newspapers are more concerned with packaging and superficiality than content and now reflect the same values as TV news. And third, newspapers pay and treat their staffs as badly as any other U.S. corporation. Newspaper journalists, Walker concluded, are in the same business as "Geraldo Rivera, Arsenio Hall and Arnold Schwarzenegger: Show business."

"The piece apparently ended up on bulletin boards from San Francisco to Miami," says Walker. "I don't want to sound egotistical, but I sense that a lot of people are excited to talk to me. They want to find out whether there is life outside newsrooms. And a lot of them are excited to find there is."

The reception that has greeted Walker's story raises a number of troubling questions that relate not only to the morale in today's newsrooms, but to the future health and vitality of the American newspaper industry:

3 Is there rampant unhappiness among reporters and editors? If so, are the underlying causes unique to the present generation, or do they simply echo traditional complaints of the past?

3 Are newspapers facing the threat of a "brain drain"?

3 Are morale problems in today's newsrooms affecting the quantity and quality of future recruits?

3 To what degree are newspaper managements addressing these questions? And to what extent do they have a responsibility to do so?

High Anxiety

Because the evidence of newsroom discontent is mainly anecdotal, some media observers, such as Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, dismiss the grousing as merely the latest manifestation of a long-term journalistic preoccupation. As Hess succinctly puts it, "Journalists love to bitch."

Others write off current rumblings as little more than a short-term reaction to the sour economy of the past two years, which have been marked by salary freezes and layoffs. Such management moves have traumatized not only newspaper editors and reporters but their counterparts at magazines and radio and television networks as well.

But newspapers, and the people who work for them, face problems that transcend the current recession. Given dour long-term advertising and readership trends, newspapers are trying to reinvent themselves. As even management concedes, the result is hit-and-miss experimentation that is hardly consoling to editors and reporters who remember being left to their own devices when times were good. "Because there is change, there is heightened anxiety," says Mary Jean Connors, Knight-Ridder's vice president for human resources and a former editor. "No longer do you feel that the newsroom of tomorrow is going to be like the newsroom of today."

Hess does acknowledge that baby boom journalists have had to make a particularly difficult adjustment. They entered the job market at a time when newspapers had resources to commit teams of reporters to lengthy investigations of often speculative leads. Now those resources have dried up. "[The baby boomers] are part of a generation that enjoyed unusual freedom," he says.

The empirical evidence that does exist provides conflicting answers on how well current newsroom employees are adapting. At Knight-Ridder, which administers a handful of surveys each year measuring employee attitudes at the chain's newspapers, Connors sees little evidence that newsroom morale problems are intensifying: "There is not a substantial enough difference today [in survey results] as compared to a few years ago to make us stand back and say, 'Hey, what's this all about?' "

But a couple of recent independent surveys of newsrooms suggest that newsroom anxiety has produced disenchantment and, in some cases, anger.

A study of 12 newspapers in three western states, conducted by University of Washington communications professors Keith Stamm and Doug Underwood, surveyed reporters and editors at independent and chain-owned papers on the effects of having coverage determined more by increasing market surveys and less by "seat of the pants" editorial decision-making. The result: 40 percent of the respondents felt the quality of their paper had declined in recent years. "Clearly, the evidence of market orientation came out strongest at the chain papers, and that's where the unhappiness was the strongest," says Underwood, 43, who spent 13 years as a reporter with Gannett newspapers and the Seattle Times.

Underwood also believes that his survey may understate the problem, noting, "The papers where I think conditions may be the worst were the ones that didn't let us in to survey."

Another newsroom survey, conducted a year ago by Ted Pease, then a doctoral candidate at Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, found that 46 percent of 1,328 respondents did not want their child to pursue a career in newspapers. A large part of the reason: Many respondents felt that they work in a "dying profession" in which the number of newspapers and job quality will continue to decline.

"There are a lot of angry people in newsrooms," says Pease, now the chairman of the journalism department at St. Michael's College in Vermont. His study, involving 28 newspapers ranging from some with a circulation of 50,000 to major metropolitan dailies, also found mounting hostility between reporters and editors. While his dissertation examines the role of minorities in newsrooms, he said the disenchantment crosses racial and gender lines.

"Regardless of race, color, creed or sex, people say horrible things about their managers," says Pease. "It's not just dissatisfaction; there's real anger about mismanagement. In a word, they're pissed." Reporters complained that editors do little to work with or train them, often "pigeonholing" them in the process. Some editors responded defensively, attributing such comments to a sour grapes attitude on the part of reporters passed over for a desired slot.

Evidence suggests that newsroom managers aren't much happier.

"The rules have changed in the middle of the game," says William Winter, president and executive director of the Reston, Virginia-based American Press Institute, which sponsors seminars for newspaper managers. Noting that many publishers pressure editors to serve on "marketing committees" designed to find ways to attract new readers, Winter adds, "The editor has become more of a businessperson. A lot of editors came up through newsrooms when the job was much more focused on the news product than it is today. Many were not trained in business-side procedures, and don't particularly enjoy them. So they are feeling this tension."

Winter detects a notable contrast in attitude between editorial and non-editorial managers who have attended API's seminars in recent years. The contrast reflects the transformation of the newspaper industry into a more bottom-line enterprise focused on identifying new advertising and readership markets. "We see a real change in the groups of advertising and circulation people coming through," he says. "There's a more positive, entre-preneurial attitude among them...The newsroom types tend to be more serious and a little less happy."

This is consistent with the findings in the survey conducted by Stamm and Underwood. "We thought the editors would be very pro-marketing," says Underwood. "But their responses were very similar to everyone else in the newsroom."

Life After Journalism

Notwithstanding this restiveness, reporters are not stampeding to the nearest exit – at least not yet. Pease's survey found that, despite complaints, 80 to 85 percent of the respondents expect to be in the newspaper business four years from now. There are a couple of possible explanations.

One is that, for all their frustrations, many reporters and editors continue to find the rewards outweigh the irritations. As Winter puts it, the reaction from many editors to such a question is: "What do you mean get out of it? It's what I do, and there's a lot of stuff that I love."

A second explanation is that many journalists would like to change professions but are held back by emotional attachments and are uncertain how to make a switch. They wonder whether there is "life after journalism."

Bill Walker of Greenpeace says that many of his former colleagues in newsrooms around the country "hate their jobs and....want to get out." What's stopping them? "Perhaps journalists have so much of their identity wrapped up in being a journalist," Walker says. "It's difficult to turn your back on that sort of thing."

Several who have gotten out report continuing inquiries from those still in the business. "Since I've left daily journalism, I've had a half a dozen reporters take me to lunch and pick my brain," says Mark Nelson, a former congressional and political correspondent for the Dallas Morning News who is now a lobbyist for a consortium of high technology firms. "There are a lot of people who would like to leave, but don't quite know how to go about it. It's a little intimidating."

Stephen Hagey, whose career included UPI, the Baltimore Sun and Hearst Newspapers, got a similar reaction when he left the business in 1990 to become a vice president of a Washington-based public relations firm. "The people who knew me the best were wrestling with the same questions I was," says Hagey. "Almost to a person, they said 'Good for you. How did you do it? I want to do it, but I'm afraid to.' "

It is not easy to neatly categorize those who have left newspapers. Interviews with a sample of them reveal that their grievances tend to break down into two categories: complaints relating directly to recent changes in newspaper management, and more personal, "quality of life" issues. The latter include several concerns hardly unique to this generation of reporters and editors, or even to the newspaper industry: a desire to spend more time with family or pursue outside interests, a need for new on-the-job challenges, and a lack of opportunity for further advancement.

Several former reporters in their late 30s or early 40s interviewed for this article said they didn't want to be a "50-year-old reporter." As reporter-turned-lobbyist Nelson puts it: "Being a reporter is not a very graceful way to grow old."

Underwood, who cites a dislike of the recent developments in the newspaper industry in his decision to pursue a career in academia, says, "Journalists always have left the business for those 'midlife' reasons, and will continue to do so. But there is also an undercurrent. All those midlife reasons for leaving have been accelerated by the changes people see in newspapers."

Few have been more affected by this undercurrent than the baby boom generation, which entered the business in the late 1960s and early 1970s during an extraordinary time in U.S. history. "My sense is that we will probably look back at that period as being much like the muckraking period at the turn of the century, a 'golden age of journalism' if you will," says Underwood. "It produced some very, very exceptional pieces of journalism, and a lot of us were raised on that ethic."

It was perhaps inevitable that, as newspapers in the late 1970s faced stagnating readership and consolidation among large retail advertisers, youthful expectations would collide with tighter newsroom management. "That was an unusual generation," says Ralph Izard, director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. "They were a monumentally idealistic group of people who truly wanted to be in a position where they could contribute to social change.

"Over a period of time, that kind of person would have trouble with what I perceive now to be an increasing bottom-line orientation."

Again, this source of unhappiness does not stop with reporters. "We hear a lot of editors worrying," says API's Winter. "They were trained in the Watergate way of pursuing journalism. There's now a real concern that, with libel suits and financial considerations such as a tighter news hole, we are going to lose a strong emphasis on investigative, in-depth reporting."

The Thrill Is Gone

Complaints in the newsroom are not limited to watching 90-inch investigative stories supplanted by 10-inch news nuggets. The disillusioned say the once freewheeling nature of newsrooms has been replaced by an almost daily stream of restrictive management edicts.

"What made newspapers so attractive to me was that you didn't have to worry about the external things – there was an internal set of values that always held up in the newsroom," says Robert Barkin, 39, a former Miami Herald editor who earned an M.B.A. and now works for a Washington-based financial services company. "Toward the end, it was getting external, with considerations of 'How many prizes can we win?' That turned me off."

Recalls another veteran reporter for a metropolitan daily, who asked not to be identified: "Some days, the edict would come down that stories couldn't be more than 700 words. You would tear your hair out. The next day, they would want more substance, the next more glitz, and the next more writing. There was not a clear notion of what the paper was going to look like, what role we were playing, and what our jobs as reporters were."

Some say the fun has gone out of the newsroom. "The profession is not idiosyncratic anymore. There's less room for eccentrics and oddballs, less commitment to raising hell," remarked one reporter in his 40s who responded to Pease's survey. Says Stephen Hagey, 38, the Washington public relations executive, "When I started out, I used to see people older than I am now with a lot of enthusiasm. The business is not 'Lou Grant' anymore."

On the more personal side, several who left newspapers cited a desire to be a participant instead of an observer. "I got to the point where I would rather be doing it than writing about it," says Barkin, a former business editor. "That's ironic, because at one point just being there was the greatest thing in my life. I felt like a participant. As I grew older, I began to ask 'Why am I always an onlooker?' "

Jeff Raimundo, who covered politics for many of his 23 years at the Sacramento Bee, left four years ago to join a Sacramento-based political consulting firm. "I got imbued with the fun and the sport of politics," he says. "I also thought I could do it better than some of the people I covered."

Recalling some of his reporting experiences, Raimundo adds: "When George Bush shows up at a flag factory or when Ronald Reagan poses on a bluff overlooking Normandy, you have to report it. But it really bothered me that they were so blatantly manipulating images.

"I find it more satisfying to be the manipulator than the 'manipulatee,' " he says with a smile.

The dominant role of TV news may also help explain why many of today's print reporters are anxious. As demonstrated during the Persian Gulf War, TV news has more than the advantage of immediacy. In many respects, it has become part of the story.

Susan Rasky, who left the New York Times early last January to take a break from daily journalism, arrived at the University of California in Berkeley to teach journalism just as the Persian Gulf situation was coming to a head. "I was asked repeatedly 'Aren't you gnashing your teeth?' " laughs Rasky, who had been a correspondent in the Times' Washington bureau. "I said, 'Are you kidding?' The only person less relevant than a member of Congress during the war was a print journalist in Washington."

"I am a great critic of television news, but I became addicted to CNN for 36 days," says Paul Poorman, a former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal who is now a journalism professor at Kent State University. "The newspaper stuff on the war was remarkably good and insightful, but I'm not sure anybody was reading it. If you're not in the newspaper business for the money or the opportunity, you must be in it for the glory – and here's everybody watching Arthur Kent."

Too Much Pressure

Despite the yawning gap between television and print salaries, money does not appear to be a primary factor among those who have left the business. "There are still a lot of underpaid reporters," says Nelson. "But there are a lot making more money than they ever dreamed of." Notes Poorman, now 61: "When newspaper reporters at medium-sized papers are making $400 to $500 a week and I was making $50 when I got into the business, that's more than an inflationary increase."

However, recent developments are pushing economic issues higher on the list of reporter complaints, particularly at smaller papers. Pease's respondents listed low pay and high stress as additional reasons why they didn't want their children to follow them in the business.

According to The Newspaper Guild, the average top minimum wage for unionized reporters more than doubled during the 1970s – a period of high inflation – and increased more than 60 percent during the 1980s. But the increases clearly slowed down during the latter half of the 1980s, when the increase was only 17.9 percent over five years, averaging a 3.3 percent gain every year. As of December 1990, the Guild's average top minimum stood at just over $34,000 a year. At the same time, cost-conscious newspaper managers are pushing more and more for acceptance of "pay for performance," or merit pay, plans.

"To some degree, the issues troubling people go beyond the traditional issues the Guild has dealt with," Underwood says, referring to the results of his survey. "But 'pay for performance' is clearly one of the ways that management wants to run newsrooms."

Linda Foley, executive secretary of the Newspaper Guild Contracts Committee, says that the Guild's evaluation of such plans has found them disadvantageous to women and minorities. "Whenever you move from objective criteria to subjective criteria, it's always going to be biased in favor of those making the subjective decisions," she says. "Because supervisors are by and large white males, that's going to weigh the system in favor of the white males they evaluate."

Economic pressures are building at a time when many of the traditional avenues of advancement are narrowing, if not altogether disappearing. Stephen Hess of Brookings notes that newspapers have traditionally been "very pyramidal," adding: "There always are going to be people who feel they are getting shafted as you get closer to the apex." He says the increasing dominance of chains may help to mitigate this. "In past days, there was only one editor, and those who didn't get the job left," he notes. "Now, with chains, there are options at other papers for those who don't make editor at one paper."

Perhaps, but the total number of newspapers, chain-owned or independent, continues to diminish. There were 1,745 morning and evening newspapers in 1980, according to the American Newspaper Publishers Association. In 1990, there were 1,611, a drop of almost 8 percent. Obviously, this presents fewer opportunities to be editor, managing editor, city editor, editorial page editor, Washington bureau chief or political columnist.

"I think the point that is causing people to leave newspapers is not so much that it isn't fun or that it's too much of a business – it's the dwindling opportunities," says Poorman. "There are fewer newspapers and fewer people on them." This trend has clearly accelerated during the past year, when several major newspapers responded to recessionary pressures by offering "buyouts" to encourage early retirements and reduce staff size.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, total newsroom employment actually went up from 45,500 in December 1980 to 55,700 in December 1990 despite the drop in the number of newspapers. But those figures can be deceiving: The growth has been in production and graphics – not the kind of jobs to which journalists traditionally have tended to aspire.

"You're seeing whole new desks cropping up in the newsroom, such as the design desk," says the Guild's Foley. "And you're seeing whole new functions come about because of pagination."

Knight-Ridder's Connors notes: "In pure numerical terms, it's true that the number of executive editors and city editors may be down. But we have more technology, and we've created managerial or leadership slots that didn't exist before. We didn't have an assistant managing editor for graphics – we had a couple of photo guys.

"And it's no longer a completely ridiculous idea for people with newsroom experience to apply their talents to another part of the business. When I was a young editor, that idea never even occurred to us."

Notwithstanding such new opportunities, limited prospects for advancement in the newsroom appear to be breeding tensions along racial and gender lines.

Pease's newsroom survey found minorities and women complaining of a "glass ceiling" on promotions, resulting from editorial hierarchies dominated by white men. "There's a real sense that the white males in power say the right things in meetings but, when they go back to the shop, they surround themselves with white males," says Pease.

Although Pease's survey did not ask about reverse discrimination, 6 percent of the middle management white males who responded volunteered caustic remarks. "I expected resentment, but there was virulence in some of the comments," Pease recalls. "I got long rambling comments that 'I can't make it up the ladder because I'm a white male.' What is being bred is a lot of resentment, and the resentment starts manifesting itself in how they treat the people who work for them."

School Daze

Such widespread resentments, coupled with doubts about the long-term viability of the business, may explain some of the current trends in journalism schools. The malaise in many of today's newsrooms coincides with a drop in the percentage of journalism school students pursuing newspaper careers.

While precise figures from a generation ago are hard to come by, the news-editorial track at some schools not only attracts fewer students than broadcast studies, but trails public relations and advertising as well. The downturn in newspaper majors is even more stark considering that, overall, journalism school enrollments went up in the 1980s.

"A big change has occurred in the past generation: The interest in newspaper work as a career has declined and continues to decline," says Joseph Shoquist, a former managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal who until last summer was dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of South Carolina. "Nationally, probably no more than 20 percent of journalism students are in a field of study that would lead to newspaper careers. At [the University of South Carolina] it's less than 20 percent."

Poorman sees the same trend. "College kids today are very materialistic and not very idealistic," he says. "There are record enrollments [in journalism schools], but not many want to get into the news sequence. They want to get into advertising and public relations. The jobs are not out there in newspapers; it is not perceived as a good future."

Shoquist believes the situation is getting worse because editors are ignoring the problem. "If they don't do something, I believe we're going to see a continued decrease in the number of really good, bright talented young people who want to work in the newspaper business," he says. "The industry ought to start looking a lot harder at what kind of quality they want to see in their newsrooms."

The problem is most acute at medium-sized and small dailies, he adds. "In my experience, the big dailies have had their choice of talent, and found some kids out of journalism school who were good prospects for their staffs," Shoquist says. "Consequently, the lesser papers that don't have the means to attract top students are looking at less talented students right off the bat."

Shoquist suggests "missionary work" to ensure the future of newsrooms, but others say efforts should be directed at the reporters and editors already in the business.

"I really don't know that top management has grasped the tension that editors have felt over their changing role, and appreciated that tension," says Winter of API. "There are some publishers and group executives who have some improving to do in showing empathy for and helping editors to adjust. It's not easy when you came out of journalism school at a boom time for newspapers financially, and gradually have seen the role change."

Poorman, who left newspapers five years ago after a career as a top manager at both the Beacon Journal and the Detroit News, observes: "From a business standpoint, newspapers are trying to innovate. I don't think they're treating their people very well in the process. With increasing public ownership, I don't think the climate is there to treat people right. The pressures are too enormous with profit increases."

One Knight-Ridder alumnus remembers the reaction at the company's Bradenton, Florida, newspaper several years ago when an employee survey revealed dissatisfaction in the newsroom. "The publisher complained that newsrooms are full of a bunch of grumblers," this ex-reporter recalls. "Well, that's what reporters are supposed to be."

Says Connors of Knight-Ridder: "The issue of communications is one we address a lot better than we used to. We urge the publisher to be a communicator to help folks in the newsroom understand the environment today. If we have a program, it is plain old communication day in and day out – communication that probably wasn't necessary in the past."

To some newspaper exiles, such a strategy begs more substantive questions. "The root cause of the problems today is that reporters want to know that their newsrooms are being run by true journalists who have journalism first and foremost in their minds," says Underwood. "You can bring in touchy-feely programs. But if the quality of journalism is not being addressed, you are going to have stress."

Such comments illustrate the gap between current-day financial realities and the expectations of those who entered the business when it was both flush and less restrained. Is there a way to bridge that gap?

Some suggest that newspapers need to be more sensitive to both the professional and personal needs of baby boom journalists now approaching middle age. This includes a willingness to construct beat-sharing arrangements to facilitate child-rearing, and to provide sabbaticals for teaching, study or more in-depth writing than the constraints of daily journalism traditionally allow.

"It's true of our generation that we have certain expectations of personal satisfaction in our lives," says Rasky, 39, who had what she describes as an "amicable" departure from the New York Times after being turned down for a leave to teach and write a book. "The daily grind of the business does not make room for flexible beat-sharing arrangements. That's probably true in all businesses, but, in some ways, newspapers are behind the curve of other private industries."

Rasky, who says she has not yet decided whether she will ultimately return to daily journalism, adds: "Newspapers haven't quite figured out whether they are fish or fowl in this new world. Maybe it will take awhile for the newspaper industry to sort itself out and figure what it wants to be. I personally found that transition to be frustrating. Even papers with talented resources like the New York Times are struggling to figure out what our job is." l

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