Will Murphy couldn’t believe it.
After all, he recalled being “tickled pink” in 1973, when he landed his first reporting job as a stringer for a weekly newspaper. Years of journalism awaited, and he had caught a fingerhold.
That’s why, as news director at National Public Radio’s WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., Murphy was dumbfounded recently when one of his student news reporters walked out and never came back. No notice or reason was given. She simply quit.
“To me, I can’t conceive of that,” said Murphy, 49. Maybe the pay wasn’t great, he admitted, but stories at WFIU have a chance of being picked up by NPR stations across the state and even the country. When he was young, he would’ve clung to the chance regardless of money.
Of course, that was then, and Murphy had the makings of a career journalist. Still, newsroom veterans today are seeing newcomers who display dazzling potential but who, old-timers add, often come with skills and attitudes they can’t understand. They’re technology whizzes but are repulsed by old-school criticism. They work hard but guard their personal time.
Rifts between veterans and newcomers are eternal in any profession. These days, however, the stakes are high for the news industry as it deals with cutbacks, Internet competition, consolidations and new hires who are well aware of other, higher paying and seemingly more secure options.
During the past few years, journalists have begun talking about generational differences in a more organized and prominent fashion, although some warn the topic still isn’t being discussed enough at a time when it’s too easy for young journalists to turn elsewhere.
Sacramento, Calif., resident Gregory Favre, who retired as vice president of news for The McClatchy Co. and now conducts writing workshops for Poynter Institute, has written about the issue. He said keeping young people interested in the news industry is imperative.
“We need that influx. New minds and new talent keep enriching us. That’s the soul of our business,” said Favre, 71, who started in newspapers some 60 years ago at his father’s weekly in Mississippi, and managed several newsrooms along the way. “I know the value of having the balance of young and old on your staff. You can’t have either or.”
By that standard, bridging the generation gap is more important now than ever. Newsrooms are aging. According to Indiana University’s American Journalist Survey, a widely regarded barometer on journalist demographics and attitudes, the average age of journalists was 41 in 2002. In 1992 it was 36, and in 1982 it was 32. The survey is completed once every 10 years.
According to the findings, journalists younger than 24 make up just 4.4 percent of the news industry’s labor pool, compared to 16.1 percent for the entire U.S. labor force.
Journalists have made headway in at least defining the differences between the generations. For example, Poynter columnist Jill Geisler tried to explain the young journalists with help from the book “Managing Generation Y,” by Dr. Carolyn Martin and Bruce Tulgan, which analyzes the group born between the late 1970s and late 1990s.
Geisler wrote in August 2005 that members of Generation Y, among other things:
Have high self-esteem and don’t tolerate intimidation.
Are accustomed to immediate results.
She added that a recent Poynter survey showed that journalists between the ages of 20 and 34 are more likely than other age groups to consider leaving journalism because of conflicts between work and personal lives.
Young journalists also are contributing to the discussion. Chris Frates, 27, a reporter at the Denver Post, felt that veterans unfairly indicted young journalists in 2003 after the Jayson Blair reporting scandal broke at The New York Times. A few months after the scandal, he and three other colleagues founded a support group for young journalists to share ideas, experiences and support.
Now the Association of Young Journalists (youngjournos.org) claims more than 1,200 members, with active chapters in several states. The idea is to make young journalists’ career easier and, ultimately, keep them in journalism.
“Most young journalists are intelligent and talented people who could make a lot more money someplace else,” said Frates, the association’s president. “We need to prevent that.”
Frates said that while the association is effective, the best mentoring takes place within the newsroom between veterans and newcomers. Young journalists need to initiate contact with veterans more often, he said, but he added that veterans must realize that younger journalists need help even if they don’t ask for assistance.
“It’s a two-way street. It’s one thing that newspapers frankly don’t take a whole lot of time to (facilitate),” Frates said. “It’s really incumbent on journalists, young and old, to reach out to each other.”
The specific challenges to overcome, however, vary with the medium. Broadcasters in particular talk of newcomers seeking the glory of newscasting but being unprepared for – or unwilling to do –the mundane tasks. Even young broadcasters condemn their own generation for this trait.
Adam Ragusea, 24, was studying music at Indiana University when he joined WFIU to announce the station’s classical music broadcasts. He quickly joined the news staff and began reporting and editing with hopes of being hired as WFIU’s assistant news director.
Ragusea admires what he called NPR’s straightforward and “un-sexy” style of delivering news, but he believes many members of his generation are too inclined otherwise.
He said the young person who left WFIU unexpectedly was ill-fitted for NPR’s tempered style, although he did not pin the blame fully on the person. After all, Ragusea said, many of today’s younger people grew up watching what he described as a modern era of often flashy and melodramatic television news coverage.
“If they’re just watching television, look at what their role models are,” he said. “To do something a lot more subtle, that kind of distinction is hard for young people to make. They just don’t know any better.
“(Young people) want to be news people. They want to be on camera and wear the pant suits and make smart sign-offs. That’s a totally different concept than someone who sits in a room on the phone getting the nitty gritty.”
Tom Cochrun, 60, retired in January as news director of CBS affiliate WISH-TV in Indianapolis. He also spoke of some young journalists being unprepared for the dirty work, but he noted that many newcomers are as dedicated to the craft as they’ve ever been.
Through the years, however, Cochrun has noticed the disappearance of what he called the middle ground in the quality of young journalists. Today’s young journalists seem either very dedicated and talented, he said, or else they’re in the business for the wrong reasons. He doesn’t see as many in the middle, with decent skills and untapped potential.
By the time he retired, Cochrun believed in a balance between newcomers and veterans, but his idea of balance leaves more newcomers than veterans in the cold.
“I think a good news shop has a good balance of young and old, skewing slightly toward veterans,” he said. “It helps build your gut instinct the longer you’re in it.”
Indeed, young and veteran journalists at least agree that some form of age balance in newsrooms is necessary. They also seem to agree that bridging the gap between the generations must be actively supported, if not initiated, by management.
As far as newspapers, Frates suggested occasional morning meetings – away from deadline – to address mentoring. Favre, however, said the generation gap could be closed instead with steady pressure from the top.
“It’s not an overnight thing,” Favre said. “You have to set a tone with your newsroom over time. The idea is to best serve your community. Over time you work toward that.
“It’s not a magic wand you wave,” Favre added. “And (top managers) can’t say, ‘Oh, this is the way it’s going to be.’ All managers need to get involved in the process, all the way down the ranks. Everyone has to sign on … You can’t mandate that people love each other. But you can mandate that people respect each other.”
Adherence to work standards and principles is often enough to breed healthy newsroom relations, journalists said. Cochrun detected no rifts between young and veteran journalists at WISH.
“There are operating principles that we used, and those applied to everyone in the shop,” he said. “Our (mission statement) was a great rallier, and management ensured everyone was hitting the marks.”
Marlee Ginter, 29, has worked for almost three years at WISH. The reporter said she’s seen a two-way relationship between older veterans and their younger counterparts: The veterans mentor young journalists on “the big J” – journalistic principles – while newcomers assist on technology matters.
That’s no small contribution in a TV newsroom. Some TV veterans have seen bygone days of splicing news reel replaced by computers that now do all the work, Ginter said, leaving newsrooms tapeless.
“I’ve seen main anchors who’ve been in the business for decades, and they were intimidated,” she said. “(The new technology) was foreign to them.”
Ginter said they help each other along partly out of empathy and partly out of the need to complete the newscast. She acknowledged that such assistance can lead to feelings of intimidation, but she added that those emotions must be sidetracked to survive a competitive industry.
“Everyone feels a slight anxiety that someone younger is coming and they’ll step on your toes,” Ginter said. “But I think as a whole, and when you’re on a team, a lot of that goes away. You direct those competitive feelings toward other stations.”
Indeed, a working formula for newsroom harmony requires a good deal of perspective. At WFIU, Ragusea said his boss, Murphy, has strong opinions on how his employees should pursue the news, but Ragusea added that Murphy recognizes his ideas aren’t the only valid approaches.
Murphy, for his part, conceded that his younger counterparts often have “an ingenuity that eludes me.”
Ragusea admires his boss’s restraint, but he added that Murphy sometimes tries too hard to hold back his opinions. The situation leaves Ragusea sometimes feeling that he’s walking on eggshells and unsure if he’s in good graces with his boss.
Still, Murphy has managed an encouraging environment, which heads off many problems before they arise. Generation Y has been tagged as passive-aggressive, but WFIU’s Catherine Hageman, 22, said she absorbs her lessons from news veterans without resistance or reservation.
Hageman, a senior at IU’s School of Journalism, is also allowed to produce her own call-in show. It’s a gesture of trust that, along with other things, appears to be paying off as she said tension was at a minimum in the newsroom.
“I’ve really had no conflict with what (managers) are saying,” Hageman said. “Of course it helps that I love working here.”
Bridging the gap to Generation
Journalists give tips on smoothing the differences between veterans and newcomers in today’s newsrooms.
The latest crop of journalists is a new breed. They are tech savvy, tolerant and success-oriented. On the other hand, they expect immediate results, guard their personal time and want positive reinforcement. Here are things to remember so those differences don’t prevent a successful relationship between today’s veterans and young journalists:
*Focus on mentoring. Young journalists are not motivated by intimidation. They seek guidance but also want room to fail and grow. Job evaluations should include talk of the job’s purpose, not just the journalist’s performance.
*Get to know newcomers better. Young journalists want bosses who are organized and open-minded, who show expertise, refrain from intimidation, are willing to mentor and are respectful of their personal time. A recent Poynter survey said those most likely to leave newsrooms because of work-life issues were between 20 and 34 years old.
*Don’t assume a lack of passion. New journalists spend a lot of time talking to colleagues. It’s not necessarily slacking. They have been taught to collaborate, and they will seek input for their stories from people even outside the newsroom.
*Veterans need mentoring, too. Newcomers have a lot to add in terms of technology and culture savvy. They bring fresh ideas and energy. They need to be heard, and not in a patronizing way.
*Management sets the tone. Newsroom meetings should be open to originality and tolerant of incomplete ideas.
*Overcome miscommunication. Newcomers are often reluctant to pose questions to veterans for fear of annoying them, and veterans are often reluctant to offer advice for fear of being overbearing. These misunderstandings can often be overcome by more communication, even if it means simply taking each other out to lunch.
— Source: Committee of Concerned Journalists, Poynter Institute and “Managing Generation Y,” by Carolyn Martin and Bruce Tulgan.