A Newsroom Manifesto: No More Whining  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 1994

A Newsroom Manifesto: No More Whining   

By Rebecca Nappi
     

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   » Editor Admits: We Whine Too

I wanted to clap my hands over my ears and sing like a child so I couldn't hear: "LaLaLaLa..."

Halfway through a writers' workshop held earlier this year in Portland, Oregon, I couldn't stand it anymore. The Whine. Everywhere I went, reporters whined about editors. Editors whined about reporters. Everyone whined about limited resources, unhealthy work spaces, shrinking news holes.

I work at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. Reporters and editors here are encouraged to have lives outside of work, and good writers are appreciated. We have an informal paternity leave policy, several people job-share and workaholics are not revered. And many of my colleagues still whine.

Not me. Not anymore. Not that I haven't done my share, mind you. For the first six years of my career, I could whine anyone under the table.

Take my first job. I covered the suburbs for the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel. One, Coconut Creek, was populated largely by retirees who called themselves "Creekers." The residents picketed the ceramic shop when it shortened its hours. They counted the trees, one by one, in their neighborhood and then complained that the developer had cheated them out of five.

I was 23. I thought: "I got a master's degree in journalism to cover this ?" I whined. Every day. To my editors, to my coworkers, to my sources.

Looking back, I realize my constant complaints blinded me to the excellence of the editors I was working with in that tiny bureau. One cared enough to distribute lists each week of common spelling, grammar and style errors. Another asked great questions. "What kind of trees? How did they count them? Didn't the older people get tired doing it?"

The lessons I learned in that job have lasted 15 years, but I was too busy whining to thank anyone.

Job two: The Wilmington News Journal, in Delaware. Hired as a night rewrite person, I whined that I didn't have enough time to report any features. Even after editors gave me the time, I whined. I felt "above" rewrite.

Those rewrite skills have helped me tremendously at the Review, where part of my job is to help readers write editorials.

Job three: USA Today. I covered the 1984 presidential election. Great experience. Of course, I whined. I wanted to write longer stories. At USA Today? Was I crazy?

Yriting tight with pizzazz has come in handy now that I write editorials for the Review.

Job four: In 1985, I returned home to Spokane and became a feature writer at the Review. Not much to complain about. I picked any story I wanted and wrote 70 inches, if needed.

But more important, events outside the newsroom helped me lose my whining habits. Five years ago, I underwent an emergency hysterectomy and had to face the fact that I will never have a child. Both my parents have battled cancer and my father, once a brilliant lawyer, is showing signs of Alzheimer's. And one day last year, my 55-year-old brother-in-law suffered a massive stroke. He died 10 days later. I remember walking back in the newsroom a few days after the funeral, touching my desk, talking with my coworkers, listening to my voice-mail messages. I felt grateful to be alive, to be working at a job I loved.

A man I once dated told me: "I'm only a male chauvinist when I'm tired." I'm 39 now and I only whine when I'm tired. Then I take a day off.

The culture of the whine is dangerous to newsrooms. It pollutes morale. It saps energy that could be spent on more careful reporting and more thoughtful writing. As Michael Fancher, executive editor of the Seattle Times, said at the Portland workshop: "T\e minute you think the problem is out there, that becomes the problem. How do you work on you ? You have control over that."

Author Marianne Williamson likes to tell people in bad relationships that even if 90 percent of the fault lies with the other person, you can only change the 10 percent that is yours. Reporters should ask themselves: What can I do about my 10 percent?

I never have time or support for doing the really great stories.

10 percent solution: There will never be "enough" time for pet projects. And more challenging stories can also be harrowing. You have to venture out of your comfort zone, and it's easier to blame a newsroom environment or an editor than to admit fear of failure.

My editor doesn't respect me, appreciate how hard I work, listen to me, praise me enough.

10 percent solution: Bad editors are everywhere in the newsroom, according to whiners. But how can there be so many good reporters and so many terrible editors? Manage, instead of being managed. When I was a teenager, my dad had two rules: Be home by 12:30 a.m. on weekends and get good grades. I did both, whereas my brother and sister didn't. They were always in trouble. I was just as wild, but I figured out how to keep my dad happy.

Editors are always too busy or in meetings.

10 percent solution: Get out of the office so you won't notice. Whiners resonate with other whiners in the community; I'm convinced that's a major reason why so many of our stories are dismal, angry and negative.

I'm not advocating "happy news," but I believe editors pay too little attention to how reporters choose the news, and how much that reveals about their mental health. When I was grieving the loss of my fertility, I wrote many stories about death and grief and sick children. One editor finally said: "Becky, enough with the depressing stories!"

He was right. It was time to move on – and stop whining.

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