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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

Continuation of The Training Track   


By Winnie Hu
Winnie Hu is a reporter for the New York Times. She has also reported for the Pensacola News Journal and the Dallas Morning News. She is a Princeton graduate and has worked as a copy editor and freelance writer in Taiwan.      

Unlike doctors, lawyers and teachers, the journalist has no professional license, no requirement to take refresher classes to keep practicing. As a result, for generations there was no tradition of professional development beyond the newsroom walls. "The newspaper industry has always been a tremendous laggard when it comes to training," says Oregonian Managing Editor Jack Hart, who has researched what little early training existed. Newspaper executives established API in 1946, and a handful of fellowship programs like the Niemans have been around for decades, but there was little else. "When the rest of the economy was being transformed and upgrading, and other American industries were training to stay competitive, newspapers were still kind of snoozing along."

By the late 1970s, however, editors were scrambling to find ways to improve their products. ASNE introduced a contest to encourage good writing. At the same time, Gene Patterson, then editor of the St. Petersburg Times, recruited English professor Roy Peter Clark to consult with his staff. Other papers hired writing coaches of their own, launching a movement that laid the groundwork for training inside the newsroom.

Even so, many editors continued to view training suspiciously. Not without reason, they lamented the "fellowship syndrome"--in which good journalists were granted a year's leave only to depart not long afterward for more prestigious jobs. Then again, returning fellows often found little reason to stay. Bob Meyers was an assistant city editor at the San Diego Union in 1987 when he left for a yearlong fellowship to study public health. "I came back after a fellowship at Harvard--Harvard, hello it was Harvard--they put me on night rewrite," says Meyers. "It wasn't a demotion, but in my opinion it wasn't the best use of my talents." After that year, Meyers returned to Harvard to run the very same health fellowship program. Now he is president of the National Press Foundation in Washington.

While there are notable exceptions, it was not until this decade that many newspapers committed the resources to undertake training in the newsroom. In part, this shift was forced by the dizzying technological advances that have transformed the industry. As newspapers moved to computer networks and pagination, a certain amount of training was required just to put out the newspaper every day. Later, database and spreadsheet training sprang from that. Sarah Cohen, former training director of IRE and NICAR and now a database editor at the Washington Post, says publishers have been more willing to pay for training when it involves technology. "We had tried over the years to do newsroom seminars on reporting, and a lot of places felt like, 'No, we've hired people who know how to be reporters already. They don't need training,' " she says. "But you bring in this new tool, and you can say, 'We'll train you on a computer,' but what we were really doing is training them how to be better reporters."

In addition, as society became more litigious, there were harassment and discrimination lawsuits to guard against. Another type of training was introduced into the newsroom. "I think newspapers train defensively," says Joe Grimm, who directs editorial development at the Detroit Free Press. Its 300 journalists undergo mandatory sessions on diversity and sexual harassment.

And certainly they're training for business reasons--the mounting competition from electronic media and alternative information outlets. Says John Lavine, director of NMC, the media management center at Northwestern University, "At the end of the day, newspapers are based on brain power--they're based on how skilled, how smart and aware the staff is." By the same token, he says, "smart employees now recognize that investing in themselves is every bit as important as the company investing in them."

To oversee this training movement, newspapers created a new position--the training editor--to bridge the gap between the editorial and human resources departments. Today there is a close network of newsroom trainers, educators and supporters. "It's really like A.A. for trainers, it's a hand-holding experience," says Adell Crowe, who trains the 440-person news department at USA Today. "Some of my closest friends are through this group." Crowe and others brainstorm about how to reach journalists during a three-day conference--known as "train the trainers"--that the Freedom Forum sponsors each year. At the most recent one in June, there were 68 participants and a waiting list of 12. "The idea is to give other trainers something to take back to their newspapers and use right away," says Beverly Kees, editor and program director for the Freedom Forum's Pacific Coast Center. "It's one place you go where people are hurt if you don't steal their idea."

Mike Roberts unabashedly admits that he "borrowed" the idea for one of his latest workshops at the Cincinnati Enquirer. He invited a police officer to give a "Guns 101" primer that explained 15 kinds of firearms. "It was a gun show for people that don't know much about guns and need to," Roberts says. "Knowing more about it can make your stories more precise." Roberts, the training editor since 1993, has also put his own ideas to work for the newsroom staff of 190. This year, he organized sessions for mid-level editors to help them with coaching, framing stories and managing conflict. "These people have difficult jobs, and a lot of training beforehand has been aimed at reporters. They had been neglected," he says. Next year, he'll turn his attention to managers and department heads.

Another of the ironies about training is that the best-endowed papers traditionally spend the least amount of money on it, relatively speaking, although that is beginning to change. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today--to name just three examples--have rarely sent more than a half-dozen journalists to training conferences and fellowship programs in any given year. For instance, since 1988, 27 Times journalists have attended Poynter seminars; USA Today has had 23, the Wall Street Journal just three. By comparison, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution sent 61, the Oregonian 60.

Indeed, the 1997 Inland Press Association survey reveals that the largest newspapers as a group typically allocate the smallest percentage of their revenues to training. Among newspapers with a circulation between 360,800 and 696,000, just 0.2 percent of the revenue was spent on training. The smallest category of newspapers, those with between 8,000 and 9,500 circulation, spent an average of 0.46 percent of their revenue on training.

The discrepancy appears, in part, to be the latent sense among some journalists that training is for underachievers or apprentices. Yvonne Lamb, newsroom trainer for the Washington Post, remembers the lukewarm reception when she started organizing monthly seminars for local reporters in 1990. Executive Editor Ben Bradlee headlined the first offering on ethics. "I had to overcome the feeling in the room that training was about remedial work," she recalls. "It took a slow buildup to get people to where they would come to a seminar on..improving your writing." Today, Post reporters vie for 12 spots, twice a year, in an intensive five-day writing program. And brown-bag lunches with the likes of David Halberstam, Wendy Wasserstein and Nora Ephron have packed the conference room.

When Crowe took over training at USA Today in 1992, she deliberately made her sessions "playful" because she was so desperate for participants. She bought candy for the copy desk, ran an occasional "spelling bee" and supplied popcorn for a movie about the First Amendment. "We used to be like the feel-good people," she says. "Well, now we're not doing that. Now it's much more job-specific, skill-specific." Crowe created USA Today University--known to the staff as USATU--a series of daily one-hour brown-bag lunches in the spring and fall. And more training is in the works.

Training programs are also evolving within the newsrooms of other industry leaders. This fall, the New York Times plans to start a "writing circle" for less experienced reporters that will be led by Senior Editor Bill Connolly. "I believe we learn best from our peers, with guidance," says Nancy Sharkey, the paper's former education editor who was tapped this year to promote staff development. "The Times has opposed a formal writing coach program, since so many writing coaches wind up getting the whole paper written in their own voice." Since 1995, a series of seminars organized through the paper's "Deadline U" have brought together hundreds of staff writers and editors to discuss their craft; recent speakers have included Pulitzer Prize winners Rick Bragg, Isabel Wilkerson and Jeff Gerth. Transcripts of some classes are posted on the Web. In addition, the Times has provided in-house Spanish lessons and offered seminars on press law, investigative and beat reporting, copy editing and management.

But there are still holdouts. At the Wall Street Journal, Assistant Managing Editor Carolyn Phillips says her paper's 500 full-time news professionals join an environment where they learn on the job--or as she says, receive "training by osmosis" from their peers and bosses. "We actually still do believe the best training--the most enduring, critical training--is what's going on every day with every story." She acknowledges that the Journal's staff does not participate in many outside training and fellowship programs. "We are hiring extremely able journalistic talent to start with," she says. "Smaller papers are encountering a greater need to bolster hard skills than most big papers are--that's certainly still the case for the Wall Street Journal."

At those smaller papers, meanwhile, editors concede the need for training; indeed, as Phillips suggests, they have the kind of green talent most in need of the basics. But they also plead practical problems that giants like the Journal don't have--mustering enough people to get tomorrow's paper out, for instance, or investing in journalists who will be moving on in a year or two. Perry Flippin, who directed training for Donrey from 1994 to 1998, used to spend several days at each property imparting his "practical, basic, shirtsleeve approach" to reporting, photography and page design. But the crowd was always different when he returned. "We have a lot of turnover--most of our folks start low on the food chain and once they develop their skills, they move on," he says. "You never really catch up. About the time you think you've got one group trained, you've got to start over."

Other small papers have sent rising stars to API and Poynter only to have them snatched away by bigger papers. "It gets your back up even though it may not be anyone's fault," says Dennis Hetzel, editor and publisher of the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania. "Some of the conferences become recruiting tools for other newspapers that send people there. It's not enough to stop us from doing it, but it's frustrating."

Then there is the unprecedented turnover in newspaper ownership. When new principals arrive, training is precisely the kind of thing that gets frozen, or worse. Flippin lost his $200,000 annual training budget--not to mention his job--when Donrey recently pared itself from 51 dailies to just 13 and decided there was no longer a need for a company trainer. "I'm going to make a pitch to reinstate" the position, says Flippin, now associate editor of Donrey's Southwest Times Record in Arkansas.

"Everybody's treading water because so many papers are being sold or swapped," says the Freedom Forum's Beverly Kees. "It's very hard on people."

Indeed, serious training--both in-house and outside the newsroom--requires serious cash, and most news companies have yet to show that kind of commitment. On the contrary, it is almost axiomatic among newspaper editors that training is one of the first things to go when the budget gets squeezed. During the recession of the early 1990s, many reporters and editors say they were told that there was not enough money for staff salaries, let alone conferences. "I mean, there were some really lean times in the early years," says the Post's Yvonne Lamb. "People didn't go. Even for the big papers, we were a little better off, but there were lean years in the late '80s and early '90s."

The paucity of training dollars was one reason why outside training organizations and fellowship programs came to rely so heavily on philanthropic and media foundations. With few exceptions, they are still the largest benefactors, but news companies are also beginning to invest in programs. For instance, Times Mirror gave $20,000 to fund 10 minority fellowships for a one-week management program sponsored by Oakland's Maynard Institute.

But several training organizations have turned to more lucrative sources. Bob Meyers says his National Press Foundation could not afford to offer its all-expense-paid seminars without the sponsorship of industry groups. In recent years, Visa, MCI and State Farm have each paid between $35,000 and $50,000 to underwrite weeklong programs for journalists on electronic banking, telecommunications and auto insurance. "Where else are we going to get the money? We are a pay-as-you-go foundation," Meyers says. Although newspaper companies do make donations, they don't begin to cover the foundation's $1.3 million annual budget.

Meyers says he meets with company officials beforehand to set ground rules. As sponsors, they are invited to a welcoming dinner for the journalists. And if the company has an expert, that person has the same opportunity to speak as everyone else--20 minutes on the record, with questions. "You're not going to be able to propagandize them," Meyers tells the sponsors. "You're not going to be able to have 15 flacks in the room, and your worst enemy may well be on the program." Meyers says his sponsors are not at all involved in designing the programs. Still, others caution that such arrangements can foster a public perception of undue influence on the media. "I mean, you could explain all you wanted to, all you're able to, but if the public believes that there is influence, that's all that matters," says the Media Studies Center's Giles. "It is that perception that is so dangerous."

In spite of--in some cases because of--all the management and money constraints, papers have become increasingly innovative in finding ways to train their staffs. At Community Newspaper Co., Vicki Ogden has helped centralize training for the 450 news staffers. Her monthly seminars at the corporate office in Needham, Massachusetts, draw as many as 50 journalists curious about municipal budgets, Internet searching, even the "wisdom of phone-in opinion lines." In May, she started a CNC University with sessions on time management, page design, copy editing and libel law. "You can't farm out all your training, plus some of it isn't taught anywhere," Ogden says. "This is an opportunity to look at what our people do every day."

Media General, which owns the Tampa Tribune and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, stepped up training throughout the chain after acquiring 21 small dailies in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida in 1995. "A lot of newsrooms were left alone and adrift, and people at these papers would tell me no one ever cared about the newsroom," says Tom Silvestri, the company's director of news synergy. In March, he organized a workshop on banking and finances led by two professors from the College of William and Mary. Twenty-four reporters and editors attended. Newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina have also sponsored their own one-day training sessions on reporting, editing, layout and design, government reporting and photography.

Similarly, the Associated Press has made training a priority for its 2,300 editorial employees. A full-time training director spends about 40 percent of her time visiting the bureaus to conduct critiques. There are also trainers for the international desk and for computer-assisted reporting. Since 1994, AP has sent 26 journalists to NICAR's boot camps--the most of any news service or paper. "To me, the training we do today is the future of tomorrow," says Bill Ahearn, AP's vice president and executive editor. He believes that training has led to better reporting and writing--and a "more compelling product."

The San Jose Mercury News' 300 journalists also participate in year-round training programs. Two writing coaches work with reporters during the week. Cross-training (in which an editor can work for several months as a reporter, or vice versa) is encouraged. Some years, four or five journalists are temporarily away on fellowships, their stipends often augmented by the paper. Every staff member's annual review includes a "professional development plan" that asks the journalist to list desired training. "The culture here in Silicon Valley is to be constantly learning," says Pat Thompson, an assistant managing editor. "There's a fast pace of change here, and I think people feel they have to learn to keep up."

Savvy editors also are partnering with universities, press associations and established training organizations to take advantage of their expertise and resources. Last year, the Oregonian spent $35,000 for a five-day seminar in Portland that was taught by three faculty members from Poynter. Twenty-five editors and reporters met in a hotel conference room about 15 miles from the newsroom. The training emphasized their newspaper's priorities: story development, newsroom diversity and ethical decision making. "It was the best training we've done, and we do a lot of it," says Editor Sandra Rowe.

Similarly, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, San Antonio Express-News and Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel have teamed up with the Maynard Institute to diversify news coverage at a time of shifting demographics in their communities. Maynard instructors come into the newsrooms to analyze news content and educate journalists about their newspaper's values. The "Total Community Coverage" programs cost from $2,500 for one workshop to $40,000 for training over several months. "It was a new idea to take training to newspapers," says Institute President Steve Montiel. "But I think the revolutionary part of it was not just training, but going in to examine the news values and practices. The long-term goal was to bring change there."

And the biggest changes in training are still to come. As computers and the Internet remake society, training has begun to leap from classrooms to chatrooms. Newspapers are signing up journalists for online courses that cost a fraction of traditional training programs. "It vastly increases the options," says Steven Ross, a Columbia associate professor who has taught an online computer-assisted reporting class for API. "It means you can get first-class training at even small newspapers."

API has spent nearly $1 million to develop online courses to supplement its residential programs for mid-level managers and executives. These online courses--the first half-dozen were unveiled in 1997--emphasize practical skills for younger journalists. Mary Lynn Martin, API's associate director for extended learning, says nearly 400 reporters and editors log on every year. The courses run between three and five weeks, but typically require only an hour or two each day. In Ross' course, for example, students work on exercises, readings and homework assignments on their own time. "We're teaching it to 11 people, and they're getting it. They're already doing stories or gathering data," Ross says. "If you learn spreadsheets in a day--and you can--you're not sleeping on it. It sticks to your mind better if you do a little over five days rather than cramming it in."

At Poynter, James Naughton says the staff is upgrading its Web site to "a teaching tool"--at a cost of $400,000--that will eventually offer reading materials from seminars and encourage e-mail exchanges with instructors. "If your news organization doesn't send you anywhere for training, at least while you're browsing you can find something of value here," says Naughton. Poynter holds controlling stock in the profitable St. Petersburg Times, and of late it has used some of the proceeds to make its residential seminars one of journalism's better bargains. As recently as 1995, Poynter charged $750 tuition for a one-week seminar plus $400 for a hotel room. Today that same seminar would cost just $350 total. Explains Naughton, "It's a mission at Poynter, it's not a business."

In many ways, then, newspaper training has gained an across-the-board level of respect that simply wasn't there 10 or even five years ago. The NPPA's "Visual Edge" seminar, for instance, regularly draws 300 photographers eager to learn all facets of digital photography. Gannett and the Boston Globe each donated $10,000 to NICAR's annual conference in March.

On the other hand, long-term training--like the traditional fellowship--has become harder to justify. Despite the new emphasis on professional development, applications for the major fellowships seem to have peaked. Stanford has averaged 94 applicants each year for the last four years, compared with its previous average of 119, says Jim Bettinger, the program's deputy director. Bill Kovach, curator of the Niemans, says that his applicant pool has remained steady overall, although slightly fewer have come from American newspapers and more from freelance writers during the past decade. Several fellowship programs are even exploring alternatives. Next year Boyce Rensberger, director of the MIT program, will offer 48 journalists a "mini-fellowship" in science, each lasting a week. "There are many reporters who will never get the opportunity to take a whole year off," he says.

Others worry whether the new emphasis on training will survive the next economic downturn. "Training goes, and then newshole goes, and then jobs get frozen--but training is first," declares Giles. "You would hope that [newspaper executives] will have learned that it has a great value, but I've seen it happen too many times."

What may be different this time is that many journalists themselves have come to recognize the value of training and continuing education. From what I have seen, even if their newspapers forget, the journalists won't. That's why in Wilmington, Delaware, this year, more than 500 of us took part in a National Writers Workshop.

This popular event was born out of desperation in 1992, during the height of the recession. John Walston, then managing editor of the Wilmington News Journal, scraped together a few thousand dollars for a bare-bones writing weekend. When best-selling author James Michener opened the conference by saying, "My fellow writers," that was enough to hook the 325 journalists who came that first year--most having paid their own way. "That's the beauty of it," Walston says. "It had nothing to do with companies or their budgets. We didn't market it to newspapers. We marketed it directly to journalists."

I felt that same spirit come alive at this year's Wilmington workshop, watching writer Ron Suskind prowl the auditorium stage, microphone in hand. "This is going to be group therapy," he promises his rapt audience. "We'll laugh, we'll cry, we'll hug."

Before he won that Pulitzer, Suskind tells us, before that job at the Wall Street Journal came along, he was just another underpaid, overworked guy on the beat. "We're journalists, we need to feel like we're special because we make so little money. What else are we going to think? We live next to lawyers, lobbyists and doctors and they have additions on their houses--but no, no, no, we're in the high-fulfillment, discounted-pay profession," he says to appreciative laughter.

For 80 minutes Suskind holds forth like this--freely confessing his disappointments, but also testifying to many more joys. And in the end, he reminds us why we became journalists--not for money or bylines, but for stories that stir the heart.

"You'll have enough, and maybe you'll be interesting rather than rich," Suskind says. "You'll learn because what we do in our jobs--I call it 'living by other people'--it's hard to weigh and measure that stuff by scale, by salary and benefits, but it makes us better, I think, as people."

As Suskind tries to leave the stage, audience members surround him. I push my way to the front. They are asking for more stories, more advice, more understanding. Says Mike Harris, a sportswriter from Richmond, "You could tell he really, really cared about the business and the craft."

Another writer confides to me, "I feel like I've been to church."


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