'Reverse Mentoring'

By RJI on January 12, 2007 0 Comments

by Jeffrey Dvorkin, Executive Director - Committee of Concerned Journalists

A few weeks ago, I expressed some thoughts in this column - a lament really - about the decline of newsroom mentoring. The recent spate of buy-outs in newspapers and broadcasters means that there are fewer people in newsrooms with both the historical and institutional memory to help younger journalists sort out the best practices to serve them well in their careers. The article evoked strong responses from readers who tend to agree – newsrooms just aren’t what they used to be.…many of the folks I came up with in the 80s and 90s are also gone from the paper and I do believe it shows when younger reporters make mistakes in local history and geography. I learned more from my own mentors than I did in any J-school class. -- Kathryn I shudder often these days when reading the local newspaper where I worked for 14 years. There is a hole wide enough to drive a tractor trailer truck through in local knowledge, including recognition of prominent people whose obits require news stories. Sometimes I feel like volunteering my services free of charge just to bring some depth to the desk. -- Ethyl S.

I remember walking down the street with our city hall reporter and longtime photographer about a month after I started at our paper. Judges would stop them on the sidewalk. Cops in patrol cars would pull over for a chat. That's what's missing today. You can't replace that with a 25-year-old interested in writing about "leverage topics" to boost circulation. -- Andy C. But rather than allowing nostalgia for the old newsroom culture, one reader took a counter-intuitive perspective. It’s from (I presume) a younger journalist who identified him or herself as Chris: (I)…guess it just depends on how picky you are about mentors. There are plenty of them around if you don't mind having someone in his or her late 20s. Ever notice how few people there are who know more about life in general than a 28-year-old cops reporter?

That got me thinking about how often – or how infrequently – longtime journalists would ask a newcomer for his or her ideas or opinions? Probably not often enough. But it should happen and it could be called “reverse mentoring.” In the morning editorial meetings that I’ve attended over the years, there are usually a few senior editors who dominate the discussions. That may be in part because those meetings tend to be short on time and long on lists of offerings from the editors. They just don’t lend themselves for leisurely intellectual exchanges. But too often, the editorial meetings are about newsroom power: who has it, who doesn’t and who shouldn’t. The daily editorial meetings should set the tone for how ideas and the people who express them are regarded and respected in the newsroom. They say a lot about morale in a newsroom and even about how that news medium considers its public. Too often, these meetings squelch originality. In low-morale newsrooms, they tend to resemble the late Soviet politburo – speeches and pronouncements from the few with power while others listen quietly. Even so, there should be ways in which a morning editorial meeting should be open enough to allow for questions, and not just from the senior staffers. The newcomers need to find a way in which their ideas can be heard, and not in a patronizing way, either. It’s not easy to do this. Newsrooms can be places where communication is, too often, not always welcome. As one boss once warned me, “journalism is a contact sport.” Older journalists can be dismissive and don’t think younger journalists have anything to add. Younger journalists find it almost impossible to have their ideas treated seriously. But management needs to set the proper tone for these discussions by trying to find a way to make sure that all good ideas are welcome and where unformed or incomplete ideas are helped to achieve their potential. Some older journalists often have odd assumptions about younger journalists…and vice versa. Too often journalists engage in mutual stereotyping about younger or older journalists that wouldn’t be appreciated if it were applied to other groups. But in my experience, younger staffers have much to add. They often have areas of expertise that involve cultural matters, or in technology. I’ve had a number of younger journalists explain the deconstructed meaning behind hip-hop lyrics. I still may not download the tunes (or even know how), but at least I can now understand the phenomenon, even if I don’t personally connect to the music. And I suppose, that is what journalism is supposed to do – make connections for people with ideas they don’t at first understand. Younger journalists also have had experiences either in other jobs or in travel that can be invaluable to help shape a story or to find unexpected angles that hadn’t been considered. In short, the issue about “reverse mentoring” is precisely about looking at the people in the newsroom as untapped areas of expertise. It’s also called “diversity” and at a time when newsrooms are being downsized, it may be an opportunity to garner fresh editorial resources as the usual sources of knowledge are accepting the offered buy-outs.