The Good Old Days of 2002  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

The Good Old Days of 2002   

The American Journalist in the 21st Century
By David H. Weaver, Randal A. Beam, Bonnie J. Brownlee, Paul S. Voakes and G. Cleveland Wilhoit
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
304 pages; $32.50

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


This book presents a detailed, collective portrait of journalists in what may seem like the good old days that heady golden age back in 2002.

Its conclusions come from a survey of 1,149 journalists, plus additional interviews with 315 minority and online journalists. It is the fourth in a series of once-a-decade studies, which yield a 30-year look at a profession in transition. Overall, comparing their 2002 survey with one 10 years earlier, the researchers found many positive signs:

"Journalists were slightly more satisfied with their work than a decade ago... The percentage of journalists planning to leave the profession during the next five years dipped slightly. Salaries outpaced inflation. The 'average grade' journalists gave their organizations' efforts to inform the public improved somewhat."

About 80 percent of journalists rated their news organizations as "good" or "very good," and 84 percent were "fairly" or "very" satisfied with their jobs both figures higher than the decade before.

Interestingly, working for an organization owned by a larger corporation was actually "positively associated with job satisfaction."

Just four years ago.

What's most striking, perhaps, is how quaint those figures already begin to sound, these few years later. The ambition of the lofty title to portray journalists in a new century seems to have barely held up for half a decade.

This survey was taken before the dismemberment of Knight Ridder, before the tumult at the Tribune Co., before the humiliating of the Los Angeles Times, before the latest drumbeat of buyouts and cutbacks, before we began to see ominous references to possible takeover attempts of the New York Times.

Its portrait of journalists is one we would like to embrace: confident, committed professionals, strivers not whiners, proud of their key role and good work, determined to stave off cynicism, accustomed to plowing forward no matter what the obstacles.

In fact, the entire 30 years of data assembled here testify to journalists' stoutness in refusing to crumple under repeated assaults of downsizing, profit-snatching and mission-cramping.

But there was already evidence in 2002 that disillusionment might be approaching critical mass, particularly in view of the full 30-year span of data.

Where 33 percent were "very satisfied" with their jobs in 2002, the figure represented a huge drop from the 49 percent response in 1971. More than a third thought that profits outweighed quality, and they were more likely to expect to leave the business.

The researchers also documented a "continuing erosion" in the professional autonomy and newsroom influence that reporters felt. The most common complaints centered on "commercial constraints," specifically "a shortage of news-gathering resources." "Journalist after journalist spoke of workplaces where too few people had too much to do," say the researchers.

"Perceived autonomy and perceived influence are both predictors of higher levels of job satisfaction," they conclude. "Though the report on job satisfaction is good this time, it may be hard to sustain."

So hard to sustain that just two years later, in 2004, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press suggested a further plummet in morale. The Pew researchers found that 51 percent of national journalists felt the profession was heading in the wrong direction and 66 percent thought that profit pressures were hurting coverage.

All these findings suggest at least a strong possibility that disillusion is setting in faster than pollsters can keep up with it. Perhaps that is too pessimistic, but the 2002 study offered sobering results in several other areas.

First, journalists' numbers were dropping. Between 1992 and 2002, the number of full-time editorial workers decreased by 6,000, nearly 5 percent.

Second, while pay rose to an average of $43,588, the actual purchasing power of journalists "remains below that of the early 1970s."

Third, diversity remained a problem. About one-third of journalists were female, a percentage static since 1982. About 9.5 percent were members of racial and ethnic minority groups, compared with 31 percent of the population.

Even if their findings already seem somewhat wilted, the American Journalist researchers have done a priceless service by amassing data over the decades.

If you're an optimist, you can see fortitude and resilience here. But it is hard to ignore the steady drift toward disenchantment. Idealism has always driven journalists more than material rewards. If it is crumbling at an accelerating pace, then what we face isn't a marginal loss of staff and resources. It is the moral downsizing of journalism.

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