Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Can Young Journalists Cope With An Uncertain Future?

I recently returned home from a long road trip that gave me a chance to catch up with media industry friends and mentors working in D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago. I welcomed the opportunity to talk about the trends that are affecting all of us and hear how they are coping, and strategically planning for their (uncertain) futures. Perhaps it’s my tendency to see optimism whenever possible, but it was refreshing to observe that my pals had not given up on our commitment to accurate news and thoughtful public discourse.

It was disappointing, however, to hear over and over again that as the economy continues to tank and that reflective (and expensive!) holiday time of year rears its ugly head, we’re all suffering from a feeling of paralysis, unsure of how to grow professionally when we’re anchored by financial realities and legitimate concerns about the substance of our chosen vocation.

With this on my mind, I began engaging a number of friends and colleagues on a subject that weighs on my thoughts constantly: Is what happened to classified advertising happening to editorial content, and if it is, are we building the skill sets we’ll need when an aggregator and revenue power house like Google jumps into the market and becomes a primary generator of original content?

What will the rules about ethics and transparency be in such a scenario, and in the meantime - as reporting beats are routinely eliminated - are we all really just becoming opining, mini-aggregators? (For the record: Decidedly I am, my MSM friends are not.)

“I don't think anyone in journalism today feels really good about their futures, whether they work at a small market paper or even if they've embraced new media,” says my 25-year-old friend who has worked for a major national daily and is now a content producer for a top political news site. “Everyone jokes, covering up real fears about how we'll all be laid off from old-school papers and about how professional online news won't actually take off like we hope it will.”

I’d feel less alarmed about prospects for the future if I felt that news organizations were safeguarding and evolving their core product: unbiased beat reporting. It’s one thing to lose a few excess Home & Garden reporters to streamline coverage and reduce production costs, but as companies like the Tribune prepare to consolidate something as essential as their Washington bureau, I see flashbacks to trying to sell recruitment ads at the L.A. Times while all my clients told me it was more effective to buy $25 ads on Craig’s list.

Instead, the profits associated with the valuable and expensive skill, and access, that separates reporters from Joe Schmoe (not to be confused with the Joe the Plumber), is being siphoned to Drudge, Talking Points Memo, Real Clear Politics and so on. Some of these sites do pay for their own content creation, but the arsenals are nowhere near as loaded as that of the still-functional newspaper industry, which retains the opportunity to be middle, if not early, adopters.

So, not only do young journalists have to ask whether their employers are innovative enough to compete even five years out with the complex user interfaces being designed by social media juggernauts who could easily enter the news content game, they also have to ask, simply, if they are wasting their time perfecting obsolete skills.

On Monday, I asked a variety of friends who’ve been journalists for anywhere from 2 – 12 years whether there is still value to the beat reporting skills that have been emphasized in our training at journalism school and in our first jobs. Most said it is incredibly important, but obviously on its way out the door or, at the very least, undergoing an extreme makeover: From riding with cops to vague, loosely-affiliated topics and keyword searches.

“Beat reporting is exceptional training from a fundamental perspective because it requires both intimacy and a hardened distance. The closer you are to a subject on a day-to-day basis, the harder it is to let your feelings not invade the work you are doing on that subject,” says my friend Chris Sprow, who has written for newspapers and now works for ESPN the magazine. “The demise of beat journalism to some extent will mirror the divided nature of actual journalism, where we are resigned to the notion that judgments invade every realm of coverage.”

I agree wholeheartedly, even though I have chosen to leave MSM-style journalism to write commentary for new media outlets. However, it’s a personal preference and not a reflection of my expectations for what constitutes adequate reporting, nor do I see what I do as the core value proposition of the news industry.

Chris continues: “The newspaper and the beat was nothing more than a local monopoly on the transfer of information, not the quality of the information itself. Now, news sources must use resources to bring the information better and more insightful than ever before, as opposed to just having it … Young people might believe that advocacy journalism is where they have to be, they believe there’s a fundamental right to pick a side, be clear about it, and report from that venue. It’s a modern belief in the loss of objectivity as okay as long as you’re honest about it, as if that’s a pillar of sainthood, but picking a side is the easiest thing we do. It’s instinctive. Somebody will still have to tell the stories, and the stories precede the sides.”
If you can wait it out to see who’ll sign your next paycheck, then hoorah. Some of my other friends, however, have opted to find practical applications for their existing skill sets. Justin Goldsborough, a copy-editing enthusiast who went to Medill with me and also studied millennial generation news consumption habits, has reinvented himself as a social media communications manager with Sprint in Kansas City, where he notes that the local KC Star beat reporter has launched a blog dedicated entirely to covering his company.

“The meaning of being ‘a journalist’ has changed a lot in the last 10 years,” says Justin, who is now an active blogger/Twitterer/social networker. “The journalist who used to report about Sprint is covering ‘traditional beats’ in a different way. Doesn't mean they should stop printing Sprint stories in the newspaper. But they should also provide people with an outlet to join the conversation, which adds a new chapter(s) to the story.”

I don’t worry that these big questions will sort themselves out, but I do worry about our collective well-being as we all make deeply personal choices about where to go from here. It is disconcerting when a young journalist seeks out guidance, but older colleagues, professors and friends can’t give any insight beyond “be a diversified storyteller” and “pay attention to business and revenue trends so you don’t get screwed” (which I, too, admittedly support at a basic level and espouse all the time). You walk away wondering if most of us are so resigned to the momentum shifts and so overextended that we no longer have energy for the endeavor we set out to pursue, or how we’re going to preserve it and establish unique contributions given a plethora of choices.

I believe the answer is to build your own vision for yourself, creating a clearly-defined niche or beat or whatever we label it, to own and be an expert in. (If your boss doesn’t get it, up-manage him.) I also think we must surround ourselves with veteran colleagues and mentors who recognize that our paths are not the same as theirs, who will not be affronted by our easy mastery of multi-media storytelling, but who will impart on us the nuances of the important trade of news gathering. It would also help if managers institutionalized this kind of mentorship and facilitated training opportunities that bridge this gap.

Please share your stories, coping mechanisms and professional development strategies with me at maegan.carberry@gmail.com. I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the questions I raised about the collapse of classified advertising, the likelihood that a company like Google will eventually bump the New York Times from its perch and concerns about ethics and transparency in an opinion-dominated news market. I will be addressing these topics in my next few columns.

Source: Editor & Publisher

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