What drives away young, talented journalists

We have an acute need to adapt journalism -- and especially newspapers -- to the societal changes brought by new technology, and to do that, we need the energy, optimism and willingness to try something new that comes with being young.

But Northwestern University's Vickey Williams observes:

"My work on changing culture in newsrooms shows that young journalists intend to leave because the pace of change is too slow. (Report here). They are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks. As Readership Institute research has shown, those are outcomes of newspaper people's tendencies to be oppositional, perfectionist and conventional."

Yes, we've seen a lot of that lately.


The change, if you can call it that, I've seen at many newspapers is really, really slow. It hasn't been resistance from veterans as it is institutional. Changes have to be researched, discussed, forgotten about, discussed more then implemented in small, small steps. Sllllllloow change must be a relic of being a monopoly. Meanwhile, the business continues to not-so-slowly lose money and readers.

I was sitting in a budget meeting a few years ago as a 25 year-old interactive editor for a ~60,000 circ paper. The ME asked me if I would read a story about traffic lights being installed near a local elementary school (a father's crusade to make areas around schools safer after his kid had been hit by a car due to poor lighting - looking to be our A1 story on a slow news day). I said no, I wouldn't read the story - I would rather read the story we had slated for B3 about something entertainment-esqe. I was told that I had poor news judgement and was wrong. The question they asked me wasn't about which story was more newsworthy, but rather which one I'd READ. And that, folks, is when I decided that the newsroom really didn't care about what those twenty-something readers are interested in and are slitting their own throats. A few months later, the executive editor asked why my participation in discussion at budget meetings had decreased. I told him that my contributions were routinely disregarded and I had a lot of other work to do so I figured it made more sense to keep my mouth shut. They didn't care anyway ... and then I found a new job. :) Still in newspapers, still in interactive, but away from the newsroom anti-interesting-story squad.

The comment above, about the 25-year-old who said an entertainment story would be more likely to draw his attention than a story about a father's crusade to keep school children safe, says a lot about the current battle in the newsrooms today across the country. First, as the father of two children, I thought the school-crossing crusade sounded kind of interesting to me. I have little time or interest in reading about entertainment, but I care deeply about my children’s safety. A second issue is more critical, from a business-strategy point of view. It revolves around the question of Unique Selling Proposition, a marketing phrase for selling something that no competitor can sell at a lower price. If you are a corn farmer, you sell your corn at the global price and you get whatever profit that leaves because corn is a commodity. Your corn is no different that what the farmer down the street or across the ocean is selling. But if you have something unique to sell, you can set the price and thereby determine the profit. Entertainment stories, except for coverage of local shows, fall into the category of commodity journalism. Anyone can publish a wire story about the latest movie or misadventures of a starlet. Same with national or international news. So the ME the post above is so disdainful of wasn't trying to lull his customers to sleep but to stay true to his product's Unique Selling Proposition. Most newspapers have succeeded for 50-100 years by selling local news, and they grew, gobbled up their competitors and wound up local monopolies as a reward. Everyone recognizes that the market place has changed, but no one has figured out if there is a customer base for the type of information that local papers can sell that would be unique. The fear publishers have is that today's customer places little value on that uniquely local information and that each newspaper will end up marketing commoditized news, in which case newspapers are no longer competing locally but against the entire media industry.

Our industry isn't unique in that young workers feel discouraged when their ideas aren't automatically accepted. That's universal. What may be unique is that young journalists seem to think that their suggestions should just be taken without hesitation. In other fields, new proposals have to be justified; young professionals have to earn their credentials. You don't think beginning building contractors or accountants chafe at having to first learn to do things in the accepted manner and gain credibility before they can start recommending changes? It's understandable for youth to be a little arrogant, but as journalists, we should at least use our professional skills of observation to realize that the budget meeting described isn't some monument to newspapers' failures.