The talent shortage threatening journalism
“Journalists can be so good at reporting others, but they are rarely good at reporting themselves.”
So wrote my friend Kevin d’Arcy, a prominent British journalist, in an article entitled “Living in Interesting Times”, recently published on the website of the British section of the Association of European Journalists.
D’Arcy, who has worked for major publications in the UK and Canada including The Economist and the Financial Times, says: “The biggest change is that the job of journalism is no longer just for journalists. To some extent this has always been true, but largely due to social media, the scale is touching the sky.
“It is important for the simple reason that the public does not benefit from the traditional protection of legal and social rules. There is no one in charge. … The common domain is sinking rapidly.
So true. But his argument begs the question: is journalism itself doing its job these days?
I generally avoid any discussion of journalism – its current state, its imagined biases and its future. Dan Raviv, a former CBS News radio and television correspondent, told me in a TV interview, “My job is simple: I try to find out what’s going on, then I tell people.
I have never heard a better explanation of the job of journalist.
Of course, the journalist knows other things: the tricks of the trade, like judging the news; how to get the reader to read, the viewer to watch and the listener to listen and hopefully hold their attention.
Professionals know how to guess what readers, viewers, and listeners might want to know about a particular issue. They know how to avoid defamation and steer clear of questionable and manipulative sources. But the skills of journalism are fading, along with the newspapers and broadcasters that fostered and cherished them.
Publications die or survive on the uncertain drip of a life support system. Newspapers that once boasted global coverage are now just pamphlets. The Baltimore Sun, for example, at the time a major newspaper, once had 12 foreign bureaus. No more.
Three newspapers dominate: the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times. They took the lead and owed their position to the success of early promotion of their brands on the internet. Now they have advertising revenue and even more revenue thanks to the introduction of paywalls.
Local news coverage may return as before, but this time through local digital sites. I prefer traditional newspapers, but the future of local news seems to be online.
A major and critical threat to journalism comes from within: it is a shortage of talent. In for money; publishers don’t pay for talent, and that’s corrosive. Salaries for newspapers and regional television and radio have always been extremely low, and now they are the worst they have been in 50 years. This discourages the necessary talents.
For over 30 years, I owned a newsletter publishing company in Washington, and I hired summer interns — and paid them. Some of the early recruits achieved success in journalism, and others remarkable success.
Later, I had the same brilliant journalism students — young men and women so capable you could send them to an audience on Capitol Hill or trust them with a complex story with confidence.
The most gifted, alas, did not go to the newsrooms but to law school. They told me that while they were interested in reporting, they weren’t interested in low-wage lives.
Most journalists across America earn less than $40,000. Even at the mighty Washington Post, a syndicated newspaper, battered reporters earn just $62,000 a year.
To tell the story of a turbulent world, you need people who are gifted, creative, cultured and committed to the job. The bold and the brilliant will not engage in a life of scarcity.
To my friend Kevin, I have to say that if we can’t offer a viable alternative to the cacophony of social media, if we have a second-rate workforce, if the information product is inadequate and untouched by competent human writers, then the slide will be Continue. Desktop publishing is not publishing. I enjoy editing, and I know how much better my job is for it.
The journalism that Kevin and I have reveled in over these many decades will perish without new talent. The talent will come out and, I hope, will provide the answers that our profession needs.