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Thursday, November 01, 2007

What happens to the mid-career journalist?

Fellowships, sabbatical, grad school—all those things sound like wonderful opportunities to me at age 40. I am what's commonly referred to as the "mid-career journalist," though I can tell you that after nearly 20 years, I've got a lot of career still ahead.

I'm smart, resourceful, experienced, well-read and innovative. But I am not the stuff of newspapers today. Here's why, according to a piece by Maryn McKenna.
It's true: Reporters must be entrepreneurial on their own behalf and look for opportunities to innovate. But a problem -- and this is not a new observation -- is that the traditional layered organization of newsrooms is structurally hostile to innovation. (Context: I currently do magazine freelance and work at a Web site, but spent 20 years at four newspapers, exiting a year ago.) It's incredibly hard for journalists who are trying to innovate to push a Web-related idea up the ladder. The answer might seem to be to try it yourself -- but at some papers, personal, non-paper blogs are explicitly forbidden, or must be pre-approved and vetted.

New journalistic opportunities appear to be developing around local and hyperlocal coverage. But the news profession generally denigrates local news -- not just at newspapers, but through our entire reward system. Who's the aspirational model in j-schools: William Allen White, or Woodward & Bernstein? John Fetterman, or Seymour Hirsch?

When they hear "hyperlocal," most mid-career people also hear some extra unspoken words attached: "...and short." That's an obvious deterrent: No one older than, say, 38 went into and stuck with journalism because their ultimate career aspiration was tapping out neighborhood shorts in the front seat of their car.

Here's the opportunity that's being missed: The central issue for writers isn't where the story is, local or national; it's how rich the story is, and how deep they are allowed to go. People stay in journalism because it lets them exercise particular talents as fact finders and storytellers, and that exercise gives them joy. (God knows no one stays for the money.)

(Emphasis is mine.)

Amen! Richness, depth, detail, story...those are the values for which I strive in my work.


Jill said...

Wow - is that timely or what???

Michelle O'Neil said...

...and those values are what make your work shine!

Anyone can write a snippet.

Bad American said...

And the biggest problem I had was the number of story ideas I had that were DOA upon submission. My last newspaper didn't do investigative and they didn't do any bold enterprise either. The editors once convened a roundtable of reporters to actually DO some great enterprise work and then shot down all the best ideas one by one - mostly for being too difficult to staff or in my pitch (for a comprehensive look at peak oil theory and what it would mean for Iowa agriculture vis a vis ethanol) I had a section editor say "but what if we're wrong?" I wanted to run screaming from the room - its not about being right or wrong but to explain all the sides of the story to let the reader decide. In the end, we didn't do ANY of the suggestions. Damn laziness. I really don't know why any reporter/writer with any great ideas or anything on the ball would want to work for a metro daily nowadays.

Wendy Hoke said...

Hi Michelle,
Thanks for the compliment. As a recovering journalist, I'm sure you've experienced your share of hierarchical stumbling blocks.

Hi Keith,
The fundamental problem in newsrooms is that sickness known as groupthink. Bill Sloat at Daily Bellwether refers to the Journalistic Bubble. How can we trust editors to make decisions about what readers want and need to read when they A) have such disdain for readers, B) never seem to emerge from their bubble, and C) devalue those entrepreneurial skills that make for great writing and reporting?

I've got more than my share of war stories. We should trade notes sometime.