In late 1992, the Freedom Forum issued a study called “No Train, No Gain,” about staff development at America’s newspapers. The situation then was “abysmal,” recalled Dick Thien, who helped write the report. Training often meant just getting an employee handbook on the first day of work. Reporters rarely received instruction on how to improve their writing or interviewing; most editors had to learn management by trial and error. Since then, the situation has improved dramatically. Many newsrooms have designated training coordinators and increased efforts to help staff members hone their reporting, writing, editing and other skills. More papers are holding brown-bag seminars, offering courses at on-site classrooms and providing training over the Internet. “Ten years ago, there was virtually nothing in terms of formal training,” said Sue Burzynski, associate editor at The Detroit News. “The expectation was that by the time you got here, you should know what you’re doing. Now we realize that no matter how good you are, there’s always more to learn.” Added Eric Newton, who co-wrote the Freedom Forum study: “Daily newspapers have been training and gaining.” “Some newspapers train more because they have more new equipment; some because training can boost morale; some because Baby Boom editors – most of them training believers – have taken over; some because market pressures have scared them into change, and they simply had to get better to survive and thrive,” said Newton, director of journalism initiatives for the Knight Foundation. To be sure, not every paper has subscribed to the training movement – and newspapers as a whole spend far less than other industries on training. But papers clearly put a higher priority on training than they did a decade ago. “There is widespread agreement that education can happen in the newsroom – and that’s a big change,” said Jack Hart, managing editor of The Oregonian. “The overall trend in training is way, way up.” That trend, however, now faces a significant challenge: budget cuts prompted by the advertising slump and other economic pressures on newspapers. “Newsrooms across the U.S. have slashed – if not obliterated – training budgets this year,” said Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. Tough financial times will test newspapers’ commitment to training. Training editors said they may have to rely less on sending staff members to distant conferences and more on conducting in-house programs. They said they are used to navigating economic straits – and that newspapers have come too far with training programs to turn back. “Training has gone from being viewed as a frill to being viewed as a strategic tool,” said Michael Roberts, training editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Training is seen as a key to retaining good people, attracting good people and putting out a better newspaper.” A RECENT REALIZATION It hasn’t always been that way. “Newspapers have traditionally been anti-intellectual places,” said Hart, who in 1989 became The Oregonian’s first news staff development director. “You had macho reporters walking around with the attitude that ‘You can’t tell me how to do my job!’” About a decade ago, he said, newspapers started panicking about circulation and competition, and they started searching for better ways to do journalism. “Look at how much publishers have spent upgrading their printing equipment,” Hart said. “And yet in many ways, they have ignored the basic product we sell” – accurate and well-written stories. Out of that concern, he said, came such changes as the writing improvement movement: the realization that not every story conforms to an inverted pyramid and that journalists must learn narrative storytelling and other techniques. Many newsrooms began fostering “a culture of learning and an attitude that you need to work every day to get better,” Hart said. “And at the heart of it is training.” This cultural shift got a nudge with the publication of the Freedom Forum’s “No Train, No Gain” report. Based on a survey of about 650 journalists at 123 U.S. newspapers, it concluded that: • “Almost all journalists want training, and they want it far more frequently than it is being provided.” • “Regular training programs do not reach most American newspaper journalists.” • “The training gap hurts an industry struggling to re-invent itself and remain competitive in the information age.” The report linked three industry-wide problems – newspaper quality, staff morale and employee retention – to the shortage of professional training.” • “Many editors train with the Sink-or-Swim method,” according to the study. “They say: Reporters are supposed to report, so why coddle them? To see if they have what it takes, just throw them in.” Some reporters surveyed said they had been assigned to bureaus without so much as “a memo saying where the bureau office is.” • The report contained bleak statistics: Nine in 10 journalists had no regular editing training at their newspapers; eight in 10 had no management training; seven in 10 had no writing training. “We might cringe at the notion of only three in 10 teachers receiving ongoing professional development, or wonder about how Detroit could ever produce re-engineered cars if only three of 10 autoworkers knew how to build them. Yet this is happening at the USA’s daily and weekly newspapers,” the study said. It blamed the lack of training on various factors: stingy publishers, change-resistant newsrooms and a mentality that “yuppies who eat quiche go to training programs.” The study kicked off the Freedom Forum’s National Project on Newsroom Staff Development for the 1990s. After preparing the report, the Gannett-funded organization invited journalists to discuss it at a conference in May 1993. About 35 people attended. Since then, the Freedom Forum has hosted an annual conference on newsroom training; it typically draws 70 people – the most the group can accommodate. The conferences have served as swap meets for ideas and have generated publications of training advice for newspapers. The Freedom Forum also created an e-mail list to discuss training issues. It has grown to include 235 training editors. Last year, the trainers created a Web site (www.notrain-nogain.org) with tip sheets, exercises and other resources for newsroom staff development. It gets more than 1,000 unique visitors a month. While most of the visitors, like the listserv subscribers, are from the United States, they include journalists from such countries as Australia, China, Germany, Spain and Zimbabwe. As trainers evangelized, more newspapers instituted formal training programs: The Cincinnati Enquirer appointed a training editor in 1993, the St. Petersburg Times in 1995, The Detroit News in 1996. “There are more training editors than ever bringing more trainers into more newsrooms,” said Newton, former managing editor of The Oakland Tribune. Burzynski agreed. In 1997, she surveyed editors at The Detroit News about how much management training they had received. “Few of our managers had received any training,” she said. So Burzynski created a program to teach new editors how to do employee evaluations, interview job candidates and handle other tricky tasks. “Most editors are plucked from the ranks of reporters and copy editors, and they have no clue about personnel and legal issues,” she said. Burzynski also brings in national experts to conduct seminars for staff members. And she sends reporters and editors to national conferences – and then has them give presentations to the newsroom. Such activities, she said, are “not considered unusual anymore. Newspapers are definitely paying more attention to training.” But that doesn’t mean they’re paying enough attention to it. “We are far behind other industries in training,” Hart said. “Newspapers are a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ to the importance of training.” Many editors say it is hard to schedule training in the unpredictable, fast-paced environment of a newsroom. Ted Pease, who designed the survey for the “No Train, No Gain” report, puts it this way: “Newspaper people have been too busy fighting alligators to drain the swamp.” Training can help newspapers address chronic problems such as turnover, said Pease, head of the journalism department at Utah State University. “Papers end up losing people just as they’re becoming seasoned journalists. They can’t take it any more because of the workload and the lack of care and feeding. And that’s what training is – care and feeding.” Training boosts newsroom morale, said Karen Dunlap, dean of the Poynter Institute. “It gives them assurance that their organizations care about their development and are investing in their growth. That inspires them, and they inspire others.” Training also produces better journalism and better newspapers. Hart said it is no surprise that The Oregonian won a string of Pulitzers and other prizes after it instituted training. That is true for small papers, too, said Denise Williams, professional development coordinator for the Virginia Press Association, which holds seminars on story development, layout, photography and other skills. She noted, for example, that The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg and the Northern Virginia Daily in Strasburg consistently send staff members to the workshops – and consistently win awards. “I’d say there’s a direct connection,” Williams said. Another benefit of training is that it can save money – if not immediately, then down the road. “There is a strong case that training pays for itself,” said Joe Grimm, recruitment and development editor at the Detroit Free Press. “Training is necessary, of course, to make the most of new technology, which often is brought in to reduce costs. Training has been used to protect companies from the expensive liabilities of libel, harassment and other issues.” MAKING TRAINING HAPPEN What kinds of training do journalists need? Even though it was produced when audiotext was the Next Big Thing and newsroom staffers were tethered to mainframes, the “No Train, No Gain” report offers a good starting point. It says journalists need training in writing, editing, ethics, media law, computer-assisted reporting and specialized beats like business, politics and the environment. Spanish classes are popular at several newspapers. Many newsrooms survey staff members about the training they want. Training editors say they also must identify and anticipate needs – such as skills to cover an upcoming election or the release of the latest census data. Training can take a variety of forms, from a lunch-hour seminar on preparing photo requests to a month-long stint working with a newspaper’s computer-assisted reporting team. Debbie Wolfe, technology training editor at the St. Petersburg Times, offers courses on more than 40 topics, including searching the Internet and obtaining public records. The classroom at her newspaper has eight computers and can be expanded to 16. Training is voluntary, Wolfe said, but there is an incentive: While staff members learn how to use a particular software, the program is installed on their office computer. Wolfe also brings in outside experts. Phil Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, recently conducted a three-day workshop on statistics for St. Petersburg Times reporters. Wolfe uses newsletters and the newsroom’s intranet to disseminate training tips. And she does on-demand troubleshooting – working with journalists on deadline. She does that with reporters across the room and across the state; thanks to special networking software, Wolfe can access computers in remote bureaus and give reporters there step-by-step directions on how to crunch data. Wolfe also provides extensive follow-up. “Training isn’t a one-shot deal,” she said. She checks on reporters to see how they are applying the skills they have learned. Roberts, who holds seminars for The Cincinnati Enquirer and other Gannett papers, said good editing is a form of training. He provides one-on-one and one-on-two coaching while doing “real work” – planning or editing a story. That is “one of the better ways to do training” because the skills transfer immediately to the job, he said. Training needn’t be expensive, said Beverly Kees, senior projects manager for the Freedom Forum. Instead of bringing in a consultant, papers can use in-house experts: a top reporter to discuss writing, or a member of the accounting department to discuss math. Newsrooms have invited gun enthusiasts to explain the difference between a rifle and a shotgun and police officials to explain the difference between a burglary and a robbery. Kees, former executive editor of The Fresno Bee, said newspapers can partner with universities; in exchange for helping teach a journalism class, reporters might be able take courses related to their beats. Newsrooms also can get training assistance from journalism organizations – notably the Poynter Institute, which is taking over the Freedom Forum’s staff development initiative. In June, the Freedom Forum announced that it is refocusing its resources on a few key areas, such as newsroom diversity and the First Amendment. Poynter, whose only mission is training, agreed to administer the training editors’ listserv and host their annual conferences. Several trainers are sad to break from the Freedom Forum, but many training editors believe they will be a better fit at Poynter. As part of the switch, some want to make their informal group a real organization with a real name. Suggestions have included ITEM, for International Trainers for Excellence in the Media, and ETA, for Editorial Trainers of America. Formal name or not, the training editors’ group will be a critical resource as newsrooms grapple with budget cuts. “When times get tough – and even when times are good – the first thing cut in a newsroom is staff training and development money,” said Thien, who teaches journalism at the University of Nebraska and is an editor-in-residence for the Freedom Forum. “It’s easy to cut something you never had in the first place.” Travel budgets have been decimated at some papers. Attendance at the Wilmington Writers’ Workshop dropped from 510 last year to 360 this year. “The unofficial word: cutbacks,” said John Sweeney, director of the Delaware event. Some newspapers balked at paying $75 for the two-day conference. Attendance also fell at workshops in Texas, Florida and other states. Against that backdrop, newsroom trainers said they must work hard to protect their budgets and to spend money wisely. They also said journalists may have to make personal sacrifices to pay for training. “Good companies ought to invest in quality training if they want a quality news presentation,” said Dunlap, who has headed Poynter the past eight years. “At the same time, individuals must take responsibility for their careers. They need to keep learning, even if the organization won’t help.” Sweeney, the training editor at The (Wilmington) News Journal, said: “Other industries realize that training yields a great return on investment. Why can’t newspapers?”
Jeff South teaches journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been a reporter and editor in Arizona, Texas and Virginia.