It’s stating the obvious to say that newsrooms are places of enormous pressure these days. “News holes” (the space allocated in newspapers to actual stories) are shrinking, editors are under pressure to maximize productivity and reporters are being asked to think about any and all website components when they head out to get their assigned stories.
One of the casualties of this hothouse environment is the needed respite from the daily pressures to be able to think aloud with colleagues and with the more experienced folk about the nature of the job and the challenges that are facing journalists.
Sometimes this happens after work at a pub. But not everyone in a newsroom can extend their working days in alcoholic decompression. When I worked in a legislative bureau, we used to refer to this euphemistically as “adjourning to the Committee of Adjustment.”
A more useful method used to occur in the newsrooms themselves. That’s when those metaphoric water cooler conversations would happen, often spontaneously, around how coverage worked on a specific issue. More often, the discussions were about how the coverage didn’t work.
Either way, the ability of journalists – especially senior journalists – to impart their experience and their wisdom is being shortchanged these days. This is especially evident with the departure of many older journalists who are finding the corporate offers of a tempting buy-out hard to resist. The institutional memory of many news organizations is walking out the front door almost on a daily basis.
As a result, the role of the mentor in newsrooms is rapidly disappearing. Many of the better news organizations are active in finding ways in which senior journalists can meet with the newcomers on a regular basis.
At NPR, management encouraged this intellectual and cultural sharing. I found the experience of just talking about journalism in general and radio in particular with younger staffers to be a real benefit to me and I hope to the newcomers as well.
It was a benefit to me because it helped me think about what aspects of journalism I still found to be valuable. It forced me to articulate the best reasons why journalism is a vital and important way to live. It also helped me minimize any cynical tendencies I might be harboring, since young journalists get quickly bored with the old ones waxing eloquent about the so-called “good old days.” I understood that if I wanted to keep the conversation going, I had to talk about why journalism is STILL something worth doing.
I was lucky when I started in television news in the 1970s. I found two editors who inspired me then and with whom I am still in occasional contact.
My first editor was Andy Little. He was a Detroit native who had moved to Montreal in the 1950s and who helped me figure out how to write for TV and how to script a story which wouldn’t contradict the visuals. And at the same time he told us that what we were doing was important and that it was important to have some fun doing it.
One of my best producers was Vince Carlin, a transplanted New Yorker (do you detect a pattern here?) who never hesitated to help new journalists understand the craft. Vince came to Montreal with Time Magazine. He soon jumped to broadcasting at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) where he eventually became head of news for both radio and television. Vince is now the ombudsman for the CBC.
And consider those television newsrooms in the pre-video days. Stories were shot on film (cue the music from Jurassic Park!). Reporters would come back to the newsroom after gathering the story, only to wait around while the film was sent off to be developed in a lab.
That meant there was about a 45-minute period where the reporter had the luxury of thinking about what she or he wanted to say. That time period was highly valued because it gave the reporters time to develop the art of the “schmooze,” especially if their stories were assigned earlier in the day.
Andy and Vince used this hiatus pretty well, as I recall. We got to hear stories, anecdotes, recitations of the foibles of the great and the nearly great in TV journalism. Under their guidance, we became especially good at recognizing how a certain story had been done before and how a new angle needed to be found.
This was a requirement in local news whenever we would be doing those stories that mark the regular passing of the seasons: the first snowstorm, the last snowstorm, a municipal budget, an election, a spectacular mafia hit or a strike by some group of essential workers (teachers, cops, air-traffic controllers). These stories had the potential to create a sense of community in Montreal, and journalism was the way in which that community would be created every night at 6 pm.
So mentoring was going on, even if we didn’t call it that. It was part of the newsroom culture that deepened our commitment to our news organizations and to journalism in general.
When I look back on those two journalists I wonder what made them such natural teachers and why their qualities seem to be in such short supply these days.
Part of the reason may be that reporters just don’t have the same luxury of time to chat up the editor or the senior staffers. But there are natural moments in the day when those exchanges can happen. Younger journalists have to develop a new set of antennae to intuit when those conversations take place – over lunch in the cafeteria, while walking into the building, and yes, at the pub.
But older journalists who are left in the newsrooms have to appreciate that they are now the repositories of wisdom for those younger journalists. You, my fellow experienced, senior journalists, are now the ones who are expected to show the newcomers the ways of the craft.
In these difficult times of layoffs, cutbacks and pressured deadlines, it’s vital that new forms of mentoring – however you do it – are still practiced.
Here’s an idea: One way might be to use the newsroom intranet to communicate some of the values that make journalism worthwhile.
And blogging from inside news organizations might be a place where this can also happen for the benefit of both the staff and the public at the same time.
Consider blogging about a particularly difficult story that you just covered: What were the challenges? The complexities? The ethical dilemmas? Your readers would be eager to know this and this is what mentoring should be as well, only now you’ll be doing it for a wider audience.
And of course, you can always repair to the bar for a more in depth discussion.