When newsroom budgets are cut – as we’ve seen in the past several years – certain expenses just seem to get the ax first. Travel expenses. Support for enterprise reporting. Employer-paid memberships in journalism organizations (as you can imagine, this is one we hear a lot about).
Another thing that is usually quick to be cut from the budget is employee training. In 2002, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded a survey of reporters and editors and found that one in three journalists were unhappy with the training available in their newsrooms. Complaints about training topped complaints about salaries, promotions and job security.
But news executives who responded to the survey said the money just wasn’t there for training. Eight in 10 cited budget limitations as the reason for insufficient training, even though most editors recognized that more training was needed.
The survey found that most reporters preferred extended training opportunities at places outside of their local environment, but news executives – not surprisingly – reported that most journalism training is done locally or in-house. To keep travel costs and reporters’ time away from the office down to a minimum, managers favored training opportunities close to home: regional workshops, in-house consultants, or even just supplying employees with written instructional materials.
In this issue, you will read about an experiment conducted by two journalists at The (Portland) Oregonian. One of the journalists, Tom Hallman, is a veteran reporter known for his masterful use of narrative. You’ve read about him before in Quill; in addition to winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, Hallman has won several of SPJ’s Sigma Delta Chi Awards over the years. The other journalist, Kathleen Gorman, is an assistant team leader in one of The Oregonian’s suburban bureaus.
They conducted this experiment to help Gorman, a mid-level editor, better understand the process behind narrative reporting. Many of the stories Hallman writes are full of description and narrative detail, and those stories require different reporting than straight news stories. Gorman had asked him questions before about how he did his work, but this experiment went further than discussing Hallman’s techniques: Gorman accompanied him on several different assignments to see how his stories were created from start to finish.
Spending time with Hallman helped Gorman become a better editor, but that wasn’t the only reason for the experiment. As Hallman explains on Page 14, he came up with the idea of veteran reporters training editors after talking with young reporters who were unable to practice narrative storytelling in their newsrooms because untrained editors weren’t very receptive. Even when they were receptive to the idea, Hallman discovered, most editors – especially in small- and mid-size papers – simply didn’t have the knowledge to provide guidance for these young reporters.
Now that Gorman better understands the process of telling a story with narrative, she can use that knowledge to help train and mentor other reporters.
This kind of informal training provides a good lesson to other journalists who are in newsrooms without large training budgets. There are people around us who possess skills that we do not, and tapping into those skills can be a valuable way for us to improve our own abilities. At the same time, we have abilities that we can mentor to others on.
Granted, not everyone shares a newsroom with a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist – and not every Pulitzer winner is willing to spend time mentoring as Hallman did. And these kinds of impromptu one-on-one training experiments may not be as effective as more formal professional development programs. But in tight times, journalists – and news executives – are overlooking valuable resources in their own newsrooms if they ignore the example Hallman and Gorman provide.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.