by Jeffrey Dvorkin, Executive Director - Committee of Concerned Journalists, Delivered at a Meeting of the Florida Associated Press
I am delighted to be here in Florida, home to so many unique American institutions.
In thinking about the question of “newsroom management – egos and opportunities,”
I realize that managing in this environment is a lot trickier than it ever has been. After 17 years in line management, I have to say that I appreciate – more than ever – what you do. I must confess that I’m not sure that I miss every aspect of management.
But I’m still optimistic enough about it to think that I would still go back and do it again at some time. In the interim, I get to meet and talk with folks like you, have more out-of-building experiences, meet with students who still think that journalism is a noble craft that makes our world a better place.
I think it is still a great time to be in journalism in America. In the words of the poet Marianne Moore, “it is a privilege to be witness to so much confusion.”
So what are the challenges of newsroom management now? Easy for me to say: I don’t have to do the scut work of management – the middle of night calls, the rescuing of reporters trapped inside a jail either in Lagos or Louisiana, the drying out of reporters who spent too much time in Beirut, or more usually, the person that comes into your office and expects you to make their lives more meaningful. Small wonder there is a high burn-out rate among newsroom managers.
But the truth is, if we had to manage only the reporting, our lives would be a heck of a lot easier.
When I became ombudsman, I realized that, like a firehouse dog, I was addicted to the sound of the bell. When a story breaks, I thought…and still think of the three cardinal questions: Do we have someone there? How soon can we get there? How much will it cost?
A friend and colleague who finally left daily news after 30 plus years to teach actually felt sick for the first few months. He went to his doctor, and had a blood test. The test results showed he had extremely high levels of adrenalin in his blood. They declined after about six months and spike only when he watches NCAA basketball.
Newsroom management used to be about two things:
1. “Managing down,” which meant giving the reporters, producers and editors the tools to commit the best journalism possible; and occasionally saving them from themselves by helping the best among the reporters to find the strongest story with the most compelling facts…
2. “Managing up,” which meant telling your bosses, publishers and j-school deans that no, the newsroom is not out of control and yes, they do need more money and the heads-up warning that we are about to break a story that could upset some people, but not to worry…our sources are rock solid…really they are…
That’s the simple version of newsroom management. But I think that almost entirely disappeared and the reasons are simple: more money chasing fewer journalists.
Here’s what I think has happened:
In the olden days around 15 years ago, someone discovered that news could make money…a lot of money. Technology changed, cable proliferated, digital broadband meant that the economies of scale were blown out of the water. If you could do so much more with the same, think of what you could do with less!
So media convergence of money, acquisitions and new technology meant that Media with a capital M began to replace journalism with a lower case j.
At the same time news divisions in broadcasting or in newspapers came under the scrutiny of shareholders and market analysts. By the 1980s, news departments were no longer supported by entertainment and sports. News had to show a profit too.
And show a profit it did. In radio alone, before the recent stock market unpleasantness,
80% of all radio stations in the U.S. (there are more than 10,000) were sold, flipped, absorbed. The average rate of return of radio in the U.S. was 20%. The market value increased 100% last year. Not bad for a so-called “dying technology.’
You know as well as anyone what that has meant. I’m sure that all of you in this room have had serious meetings with budget and account managers. Most of us have probably had to down size, right size and rationalize our FTEs (full time effectives). Isn’t it interesting to note that whenever the company is thinking of lay-offs they start using euphemisms for their human employees?
So in order to help newsrooms turn a profit, superfluous workers such as writers, editors, etc. had to be let go, helped along by new technology which allowed one person to produce a program or put out a newspaper where before half a dozen might have been required.
Lest you think I’m a Luddite, I’m not. Work was changing and with it, so were the kinds of skilled workers necessary to produce the product. Some newspapers and broadcasters were hugely over-staffed and in some cases they were abetted by old style craft unions unable or unwilling to see the changes before it was too late.
What does all this have to do with newsroom management? Well a lot. With the decline of the old crafts came the rise of the celebrity journalist. I’m not sure it was entirely coincidental. But it is a fact that it is a lot cheaper to put a pundit on the radio or the TV than to staff a bureau in Moscow doing stories that focus group tell us are not as interesting as the latest plane crash or Madonna’s wedding.
So where does that leave us. Well, the future is not entirely grim. I think the readers and viewers and listeners know crap when they see it, hear it, or read it and they are saying “the hell with it,” more and more.
As ombudsman, I get the letters and the emails and the phone calls from listeners who tell me that they are grateful for journalism that doesn’t pander to their worst interests and treats them as citizens first and consumers second. They are delighted when they hear intelligent discussion on the radio that doesn’t put the reporters ahead of the story itself. Most of all, they are hungry for contact with like-minded, civic-oriented and curious citizens – a lot like themselves.
So here’s what I think we have to do to appeal to our better selves:
- Give your reporters and hosts and columnists a chance to address the issues that concern your communities.
- Surprise and delight the audience every day.
- Let them in on what you are doing.
- Be accountable and open.
- When you screw up, say you made a mistake and that you will try to learn from it.
- Tell the egomaniac in the newsroom to go ahead, but put your toughest, most cynical editor on top of him or her. Or better yet, edit him yourself.
- Take a chance with the new kid.
- Tell the bean counters “no” when they say you have to cut your training programs.
If we do those things, who knows, perhaps newsroom management will get a little closer to being the valued American institution it once was and can be again…
And we might even have more fun doing it…
Thanks and good luck.