Caught in the Contradiction  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2007

Caught in the Contradiction   

Young journalists at the Charlotte Observer love their jobs. They value what papers do but find them often dull, out of touch and sluggish. They have passion for their craft but are positioning themselves for a future that may leave newspapers behind.

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.

     


From his old-timer's perch after three years in newspaper design, 27-year-old Luke Trautwein barely hesitates when asked if he would advise young people to join today's newspapers.

"No," he says firmly. "I've been in the newspaper business for three years, and I've only seen the negatives. Papers being sold and bought, and sold and bought, and people not knowing if they would have a job. I don't know if there ever were the glory days, but I haven't seen them. It seems like I can see it ending, and you wouldn't want to tell people to get into that."

Would he himself do it again?

"I'd totally do it again," he exclaims. "I love it. Any job where you can ride your bike to work and come in and joke around and high five and wear what you want to wear, and they respect you for who you are, and they need you for who you are.

"The people are so different and you get them all together and work harmoniously--most of the time--to put out something good every day. That's very cool."

Caught in the obvious contradiction, Trautwein grins.

"It doesn't make sense," he concedes, "but I love what I do."

With one big exception, Trautwein typifies his generation of media consumers. He posts on his own Web site, contributes to YouTube, follows serious sites like MSNBC and irreverent ones like The Onion, and sees ink-on-paper newspapers as fading fast.

The big exception, of course, is that he works for a traditional newspaper, the Charlotte Observer. He makes his living producing exactly the content that people his age are abandoning and sometimes ridiculing.

Trautwein, like other young journalists I interviewed, find themselves torn by competing emotions. They love their jobs but fear newspapers are dinosaurs. They value what papers do but find them often dull, out of touch and sluggish. They respect older colleagues but are bewildered at things they don't know. They have lots of ideas but limited power. And they have passion for their craft but are positioning themselves for a future that may leave newspapers behind.

These themes all emerged during a visit to the Charlotte Observer, where I was a young journalist 30 years ago. The most striking impression in conversations with under-30 journalists (the Observer lists more than 40 among its newsroom staff of around 250) was the almost painful bipolarity between their love and hopes for newspapers and their anxiety and dismay about current directions.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about this stuff," says Binyamin Appelbaum, 28, a business writer at the paper for almost three years. "You'd have to be crazy not to wonder whether this industry will be around to employ me for a long time."

Aggravating that uncertainty was last year's sale of Knight Ridder (which had owned the Observer since 1955) to McClatchy and the months of suspense preceding the deal. Reporter Emily S. Achenbaum, 28, says the period was "the first time I thought, 'Wow, I'm part of a dying industry.'"

"I came here to work for a company that doesn't exist anymore," transportation reporter Richard Rubin, 28, who joined the paper in 2001, told me in January. "I've got 39 years until Social Security checks start coming in. Is Social Security going to be there in 39 years? Will the newspaper industry be there in 39 years? I've started to think about it that way, and it is daunting."

For a new hire, "It would be hard to walk in here today and say, 'Aha, I've made it. I can be an employee here for the next 45 years.'"

Not long after our interview, Rubin left the Observer to cover tax policy for Congressional Quarterly.

Especially discouraging is the generational flight from newspapers by their peers. Daily readership for people aged 25 to 34 plunged from 77 percent in 1970 to 35 percent last year, according to Newspaper Association of America figures. A study last year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that just 22 percent of those under 30 had read a print newspaper the previous day.

"Out of all my friends, single or married, about my age, one of them gets the paper, and he only gets it on weekends," says reporter Deborah Hirsch, 24, who covers adjacent York County, South Carolina. "Everybody thinks it's cool to know a reporter, but when it comes to do they really care or are they reading on a daily basis, the answer is no."

While several still swear by ink-on-paper, most of those I interviewed prefer to read the paper online. Several admitted neglecting or not even subscribing to the paper version. "I subscribe," says clerk-reporter Emily Benton, 24, "but I'll be honest. They pile up outside my door on weekdays."

At 24, higher education reporter April Bethea knows she is fortunate to work at a paper of the Observer's standing. But she already is nervous about her future.

"You're writing things, and people aren't reading," Bethea says. "I'm vain. I want people to read what I write. I don't know if I will retire as a journalist, I guess because there have been so many changes at the paper in the last two years. I will never stop wanting to be a storyteller, but I feel I may get burned out by all the changes."

To reach the Observer newsroom, you take the same old escalator to the same fourth floor of the same downtown stone building as when I joined the paper as a 23-year-old copy editor in 1972. When I left after 10 years in various reporting and editing roles, the paper was robust. It won Pulitzer Prizes for public service in 1981 and 1988. The newsroom annexed space across the hall when the evening Charlotte News closed in 1985.

Charlotte is a boom town, in more ways than one. In the Observer lobby, a sign gives the time of the next scheduled explosion at a construction site across the street. The old Firestone car care center is being replaced by a 48-story office tower with accompanying museums and theater, joining dozens of skyscrapers, condos and commercial complexes that have turned the center city into a humming whirl both day and night.

Given such a vibrant market, the newspaper remains comparatively healthy, and its Web site (charlotte.com) is flourishing, with a million unique visitors a month, 20 percent of them local. Circulation is about 225,000, down from its peak of 246,000 in 1999 but significantly larger than in my days there. Still, the newsroom has lost about 10 positions in recent years, fewer than many other papers but enough to be noticed. The place feels simultaneously upbeat and jumpy.

As copy editor Adam Isaguirre talks about these conflicting realities, it's impossible not to remember my own Charlotte experience. Like me, Isaguirre, 26, came to the Observer as a young copy editor after studying journalism in college, participating in the Dow Jones editing program and enjoying internships at major dailies. But the newspaper world looks very different to him than it did to me at that stage of my career.

"I'm a news junkie. The passion would be there whether or not anyone was reading the paper," Isaguirre says. "But it is disheartening sometimes to look at the state of the industry.

"People my age look at things a little differently. There is not a lot of job security. We have grown up in an era where we have seen repeated cases of people who spend 15 or 20 or 25 years at a company and have the rug pulled out from under them. It's changed how we look at our careers. We have less of a strong connection with our companies than previous generations had."

Observer Editor Rick Thames, 52, readily acknowledges the agitation among young staffers. "They have a right to be impatient with us," he says. "Our industry is slow to change, and it still doesn't understand itself. There is so much off track that it must be frustrating to be in their shoes and wonder if we are ever going to see straight."

But he accents the positive. "I'm concerned that young people don't get the wrong idea about all the turmoil. Whether you work for a newspaper or Web site or something else, what we do is too important to the community to disappear. It won't. If you enjoy journalism, there will always be a place."

As I visit with the handful of veterans remaining from my days, we recall our own restlessness as headstrong young journalists. But one huge difference stands out, as noted by Jim Walser, 57, senior editor for recruiting and staff development. I helped lure Walser to the Observer in 1979, after we had competed as editors of rival college papers a decade before.

"In our day," Walser observes, "we knew we weren't going to be paid a lot or ever get rich. But at least we knew there was going to be a newspaper in the form we loved."

The older colleague who didn't know what IM means.

The editor who confused MySpace with YouTube.

The refusal to print the term "hoodie" ("hooded garment" was substituted).

The battle, eventually won, over writing "his big weenie was missing" in a lead about thieves stealing a hot dog restaurant's rooftop sign.

And the many times, as copy editor Isaguirre says tactfully, that "some online tool or function surprises someone and you get a little ping inside that says, 'I really wish they knew about this.' Because they need to know."

Young Observer journalists don't come across as bitter, but they do speak out, and they detect a lot of oldthink. They find the paper too often boring, too slow to change and too tied to middle-age tastes.

"The newspaper delivered to my door isn't that much different from the newspaper that was delivered to my parents' door when I was 5 years old," says reporter Deborah Hirsch.

Many think it is already too late to sell young people on ink-on-paper. "Habits are changed already for people my age," says designer Luke Trautwein.

Emily Achenbaum, based in nearby Union County, thinks newspapers will eventually become the kind of specialty mementoes "you get through a Vermont country store that tracks down old items." Belated attempts to lure the young through blogs and entertainment features are "doomed," she says. "They always feel like the not-cool kids trying to force the cool kids to be their friends."

Reporter Binyamin Appelbaum goes further. "We're so excited because we have discovered blogs and the ability to tell stories online with pictures. You want to know what my generation thinks? My generation laughs."

The young journalists admit to a narrow perspective, but everywhere they seem to encounter articles aimed at readers different from them: garden columns for people living in houses rather than apartments; abundant education coverage that leaves out single people without children; food topics geared to family meals; concentration on the symphony over pop and rock music.

"It's very rare to find a story that appeals to young people on 1A or a section front," says general assignment reporter Dànica Coto, 29. "You have to think as a young person and say how stories are going to affect them. It's not just saying the mayor announces a light rail project. You have to think: I see young people riding the trolley every day. How will this affect them? Will they be able to sleep later or get to different jobs or what? You don't have to do the whole story from their perspective, but you have to think about it."

Repeatedly, young staff members called for more surprise. "People my age tend to react to buzz," says Emily Benton. "Most single adults are not going to read a schools story as the second lead every day. Give them something that has a national reach, but also has a hip reach."

Leslie Wilkinson, 29, agrees. "We need to surprise people, take more risks, print some things that shock people out there on the front page," says Wilkinson, a design team leader and one of the Observer's youngest supervisors. "Do some things that make your parents or grandparents cluck."

Change would come faster, Wilkinson says, "if there was more autonomy or risk taking..if you spent the time worrying about, 'Are people going to like this?' as opposed to, 'Is my boss going to think it's a good idea?'"

Instead, she says, "we've got to have a meeting about a meeting about a meeting to get things done."

What would they recommend?

More "fire," says Appelbaum: "We're not smart enough and we're not funny enough. Stop taking yourself so seriously and produce something people enjoy."

More variation, says Benton: Produce different versions for subscribers, commuters and people in delis and bars, plus a Web site with more shared content, snazzier design and greater flexibility to customize the page.

More choice, says Hirsch: Let customers decide which sections they want delivered, or if they want the paper by podcast or adapted for handheld screens.

More urgency, says 27-year-old Alisha Hord, a former copy editor and designer who is now an online sports producer: "My parents waited for the paper at 6 a.m. If we want to know, we go online at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. or 4 p.m. We're constantly connected. We want iPods, we want podcasting, we want slide shows, we want alternative story forms. My generation isn't going to sit down and read a 60-inch story every day."

And more flair, says Trautwein: "Be bold, baby. Go big."

At the same time, some worry about leaping from change to change. Stan Choe, 30, worked at the Observer from age 23 till 29, then joined the Associated Press in New York as a business writer. He remembers the paper fondly but felt concern about what he saw as an unsettled mission. "There was a new buzzword every month," Choe recalls. "We have to put more audio on the Web. We have to write shorter. We have to write more features. We have to put in what it means to you. You felt like we must not be achieving what we wanted if we were switching every month."

How can young journalists gain influence and implement their ideas?

A couple of years back, Trautwein and others organized a group of young staffers, calling themselves YO! for "young Observer" and hoping to lobby for change. But the effort fizzled after a few months. Now, he thinks, they need a renewed campaign to "make allies with people in the glass offices and show them your thinking works."

Copy editor Adam Isaguirre recently volunteered for a task force considering a new tabloid on city nightlife. "I'm pretty new at this," he says, "but one of my goals is to get more involved with some of the planning and new ventures. As a young person, you have to put yourself into a situation where you can have your voice heard. There is a fear of how things will shake out, but also a desire to be part of the solution."

Reporter Dànica Coto suggests convening monthly meetings where younger and older staff members brainstorm together. A big bonus, she says, is that such measures cost little. "I don't think it really requires money. We have the resources within each of us," she adds. "All you have to do is start talking and setting goals and making it happen."

April Bethea grew up in a home filled with newspapers. She remembers seeing her own name in Neighbors section stories about school honors. From her first journalism course as a high school freshman, she wanted to work for a paper.

She remains a reader, still influenced by her dad's love of newspapers. And she doesn't think the printed paper should be left for dead. "I want to be able to serve people like my dad who want the hard copy in front of them," Bethea says.

The Observer's youthful staffers may be younger, hipper and more plugged in than many colleagues, but they have a vestigial soft spot for print.

Binyamin Appelbaum, whose parents "once showed me a newspaper I put together when I was 3 years old," says that "my idea of a good Saturday is to work my way all the way through the paper."

Reporter Richard Rubin thinks the print version is better organized and gives a stronger sense of what is important than its immediacy-obsessed online cousin. He also resists stereotyping his generation as tuned out. "People my age consume a lot of news," he says.

But, like others, he is primed to switch to new formats. "I enjoy a complete paragraph just as much as the next guy," Rubin continues. "I love newspapers on paper, but if they are not economically viable anymore, the value of the news outweighs the value of the paper."

Rubin and others worry about whether newspapers, particularly in their business operations, are attracting innovative brainpower. "I don't have a sense of the talent pool on the business side," he says. "If you have a great idea for a Web site, are you going to start it through a newspaper or are you going to start it yourself?" It seems clear, Appelbaum concludes, that newspapers "are being run by people who are not on the cutting edge."

Self-preservation, then, leads to guardedness. "Most days I come to work and it is a lot of fun," Rubin said not long before his departure from the paper. "But you have to be aware of the rapid pace of change and know that the place you work and the job you do will probably be very different in the next five or 10 years."

To Deborah Hirsch, the print format isn't vital, but good journalism is. "It does matter that it is the Charlotte Observer. There is an expectation of quality that comes from representing a major metro newspaper, whether I'm in front of a camera or online or on paper."

As 23-year-old Neighbors reporter Kirsten Valle puts it: "If people are reading your stuff, I guess it doesn't matter what format they're reading it in."

"I would miss doing the headlines and other aspects that go with the print product," says Isaguirre. "These are some of my biggest opportunities to be creative. But I'm trying to build my skill set so I am never in the position of being unneeded or un-useful."

The Observer's morning news meeting chugs along, in a room like the ones where I presided as metro editor 25 years ago. Today, 13 people occupy the room. None is under 30. At the afternoon news meeting, three of 19 people are under 30.

Outside the meeting room, the Observer devotes about 14 journalists full time to the Web, with regular contributions from the paper's news staff of about 250. Managing Editor Cheryl Carpenter, 49, knows her young staff members would like to see even more energy flowing into the Web. But she is quick to show me a chart showing where the paper's advertising revenue comes from--far more from print than online.

It is another incongruity. She and Editor Rick Thames appreciate that they have to move toward the Web, but they also resist sudden reactions that would destabilize print.

They now hold weekly stand-up newsroom meetings to discuss these very matters. On a day I visited, they handed out awards for excellent reporting and writing, prodded for more aggressive posting to the Web and announced a new goal of reducing story lengths.

"They really want to hear what is going on," Thames says later of his young staff. "They are way beyond the 'trust me, I'll do what's good for you' generation. And I don't blame them.

"But I also remember what it's like to be young and impatient, and it's hard at that age to see the big picture. We have to learn from each other."

Young staff members seem to like and respect Thames and Carpenter, while worrying that the editors' power is limited by forces beyond their control.

"I've never really bought into the idea of hiring young people and putting them in charge, and then everything will be sexy and profitable," says Emily Achenbaum. "I like having a lot of experienced people in charge."

So the competing emotions abound--stability versus change, tradition versus innovation, fun versus frustration, the security of so-called normal work versus the turbulence of today's journalism.

Two of the youngest Observer staffers--Emily Benton and Deborah Hirsch, both 24--illustrate the point.

Since I visited the Observer, Benton has left for a job outside the newspaper business, editing for a weekly music marketing magazine, although she plans to continue a blog aimed at young readers. "The doom and gloom of working for a newspaper doesn't really make people want to stick around," she says.

Hirsch will keep fighting. "I knew I was coming into a 'dying industry' when I started this," she says. "But I don't think it's really dying. People will always need information. I will have a job. It may be different, but I will have a job.

"You just have to be flexible and optimistic in the face of all the things that really suck."

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