The Lost Generations of Journalism

 

As is often the case with book authors, Scott Reinardy too had something else in mind when, more than a decade ago, he set out to write on the state of newsrooms across the States. He encountered ravaged newsrooms and journalists near breaking point, professionally and mentally. The combined effect of the Internet and social networks, and the downsizing the massive restructuring implied, has brought three generations of journalists to their knees.

In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Reinardy said, “I had many journalists who broke down and cried, who were so genuinely upset about what had happened to the profession they loved so dearly.” Reluctantly, he came to the conclusion that we are witnessing what he called “organizational depression.” So low is morale and so deep the loss of self-identity that professional burnout has caused that Reinardy believes the problem is generational. And so he states in Journalism’s Lost Generation: The Un-Doing of U.S. Newspaper Newsrooms.

There are three “lost” generations, he says. The first one are those journalists who lost their jobs in the layoffs, cuts, and newspaper shutdowns. Then are the older generation of journalists, those who made their career in print media and now, in much smaller newsrooms, have seen their workload rise. More acutely, they are being forced to learn new technologies in mid-career or as they approach retirement. The last one are the younger journalists and graduates, who are versed in multimedia and new technologies but miss the guidance by their confused or demoralized elders.

Dismal as the situation is, a few things can be done to address these issues. Indeed, the upheavals brought about by fundamental technological transformations will inevitably cause pain. Yet not a few of these problems are caused by panicked management that does not fully understand the changes the industry is undergoing.

Furthermore, as modern technologies allow real-time measurements, instant clicks are obscuring the larger picture. Hence, an appetite for instant audience is undermining the long-term perspective. Worse, the onus is put on older reporters who are as dazzled by technology as management. And the younger writers lack a sense of guidance and purpose.

The tenets of good journalism are unchanged: pursuit of truth, impartiality in news, and integrity in opinion. None of the new technologies conspires against that. So good journalists should keep on doing what they know best: doing good journalism. True, these are tough times. But as they say in those cases, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”

 

The ever-shrinking newsroom: is journalism doomed?

 

According to a survey by the American Society of News Editors, the staff size of newsrooms in the U.S. has fallen from 55,000 in 2007 to a mere 32,900 last year. As noted by Mike Rosenberg, formerly of the San Jose Mercury News and now a freelancer in Seattle, that is a drop of about 40 percent. Nobody knows where it will stop. But the havoc wreaked by the transformation of the newspaper industry makes itself felt in ways that may not be visible right away. It leads to concentration by large corporations, which is more acutely felt in Canada than in the U.S. But there are other ills that may escape the non-specialist. Shrinking staff and smaller budgets compromise coverage quality. Editing and fact-checking are sacrificed first. Journalists now wear many hats. With the growth of freelance journalism, most reporters now conceive the story, pitch it to the best bidder (if any), they edit it and off it goes. Not seldom, it goes into the page as it left the writer’s outbox. We live in complex societies that call for vigilant journalism. TV journalism and social media cannot replace the in-depth, fact-checked print journalism. The latter fosters critical thinking as only written word can.

The Shutdown of Al Jazeera America, One More Failed Media Project

In TV, the bias of “winner takes all” is especially strong, and Al Jazeera America succumbed to low ratings, an identity crisis and an adverse market. The network announced the shutdown of its operation by April 2016. This is bad for the hundreds of journalists and staff who will lose their jobs, in yet another case of media project failure (in the interests of full disclosure, the author of this FI column has been a contributor for the AJAM website). As is bound to happen, too, the company had some instances of hit and miss, yet all in all the quality of its reporting did not seem to be the problem. A losing TV operation can be very costly, and not even the well-endowed government of Qatar, owner of the network, could sustain it, especially at a time of low oil prices. This brings up an issue worth pondering: the money is essentially coming from the same coffers that also finance, let’s say, other government expenses, such as those linked to foreign policy, including towards Syria. And yet, freedom of expression gains from a diversity of voices, and it’s always sad to see one more going silent.