When Journalists Aren’t Happy, the Industry Isn’t Happy

By: Steve Outing

Earlier this month, Kiyoshi Martinez started an experimental website that gives journalists a chance to vent their feelings about their profession and their work lives. And have they ever.

AngryJournalist.com is a simple yet powerful concept: a gripe board where journalists are asked to say what’s making them angry today. It’s the modern-day equivalent of the anonymous suggestion box in the company lunchroom. All posts to the site are anonymous. Everything submitted goes through Martinez, who screens out trolls and spammers and non-relevant stuff.

Most of the gripes are from journalists, though a few non-journalists manage to get their comments through Martinez’ filter. (He spends about an hour a night on moderation duties.) The postings appear to come mostly from newspaper and TV news people (traditional and new media sides), with the occasional magazine or radio journalist chiming in.

Martinez, a young journalist who now has moved into communications (working for the Illinois Senate Republican Caucus), created the site “to give angry journalists a place to vent, and to let them know they?re not alone.”

While he created the site in part to serve his own generation (“In private conversations with friends I sensed that there is a growing angst among the upcoming crop of journalists entering the field right now,” he wrote in introducing the site), the site also should be viewed as a management tool. Newsroom managers will read things on this site — and they may even see their own news organizations mentioned — that I’m sure have been uttered to co-workers, but never up the food chain.

Though the complaints cover the gamut of life-is-hard-as-a-journalist, I was especially intrigued by the comments by journalists about how their employers are coping with the transition to the digital age and new-media issues. There’s some good stuff here.

Top Gripes
I noticed a bunch of significant trends on AngryJournalist.com, and I asked Martinez what things stuck in his mind in reviewing incoming complaints. Here are a few.

Martinez: “The people on the bottom are frustrated by people on the top. Editors, publishers, management, executives, etc. That’s where I’m finding a lot of commenters point their fingers. They’re looking for better leadership and some accountability, not just hot air and new directives from a memo full of buzz words.”

That’s a trend I noticed in many posts, especially those that commented on the rise of new media and the fall of traditional media. There’s concern among the ranks that today’s news executives lack the vision to steer their organizations across the chasm, and journalists who claim to understand the way forward are held back by those still in power.

Wrote one journalist: “This is like the last days of the USSR before Gorbachev, when old men in power knew that what stood couldn?t last, but couldn?t be bothered to fix things, since they were going to be dead soon anyway. The media, unfortunately, still has its Brezhnevs and Andropovs in control. But they won?t always be.”

Another wrote: “I spent about an hour today teaching our publisher how to add an attachment to an e-mail. I then had to teach her how to empty the trash can on her computer.” It’s remarkable, really, that there are newsroom leaders who remain unfamiliar with technology. I doubt that a publisher who can’t even use basic e-mail functions can lead her newsroom through the digital transition effectively.

Note to newsroom executives: Your people are watching you closely. Demonstrate that you not only understand new technology, but are enthusiastic in embracing it — for the company as well as in your personal life.

New-Old Disconnect — Still
Martinez: “Misunderstanding of roles. Different positions don’t understand each other and the difficulties of each of their roles. I get a sense that lots of people feel like others disrespect them and what they contribute. It’s very divisive and not unified in newsrooms, where job titles wall people off.”

I find this one sad. Fifteen years into the Internet media revolution we’re still hearing comments from journalists like these:

“The reporters don?t understand the Internet department and the Internet department doesn?t understand reporters. The worst part — some of them aren?t even trying. These debates are important; no one has the answers yet. Let?s recognize that. Let?s be frank about that. Let?s talk honestly with our newsroom about the pressures of the online media landscape.”

“The web is constantly misused by journalists. The managers think it?s a dumping ground (‘oh, let?s just put it on the web’). The reporters don’t care about it. The photographers don?t know what to do with it. Promotions doesn?t know how to promote it.”

While you might think that younger journalists are immune from that sort of thinking, perhaps it’s not so. Consider this comment: “I don?t like seeing young journalists scoff at the Internet. I never knew there were Luddites under 30 until I started working in the news business. I hate you people.”

You’d also think that with newspapers, especially, the industry would be further along with the cultural change that’s necessary to stem what has become a bad downward slide. Yet throughout the hundreds of gripes on AngryJournalist.com, ones like this are typical: “It?s very frustrating working with these dinosaurs (vainly) fighting change.”

If you think about how the Internet has created untold billions of dollars in wealth for so many pure-play companies, the attitudes as expressed above go far in explaining why traditional media companies seldom hit it big online. There’s still too much in-fighting, even today.

J-schools: The root of the problem?
To the complaint above about “young Luddites,” perhaps college journalism programs are partly to blame.

Here’s Martinez’ take: “Complaints from college journalists seem to come from the fact that they’re being taught about the past, not the future of the news business, by professors who haven’t realized the full effect of the Internet’s dynamic effect on news consumption. Also, there’s an enormous sense of selling young journalists on a sense of idealism, but with very little acknowledgment of how things actually work as the industry declines.”

Now, I know of plenty of journalism programs that are innovative and teaching the journalism of the future, not the past. But AngryJournalist.com commenters would seem to indicate that there remain in journalism academia too many teachers still clinging to the past. Just as within the industry itself there’s a mix of opinions about how aggressively to change and adapt to the Internet as the center of news publishing, so too is there a split within journalism schools. Again, it’s something that slows down the pace of change within the industry when some students graduate with attitudes more suited for journalism of the 1980s and ’90s than the 2000s.

Too Much Work
The angry anonymous journalists on Martinez’ site complain of too much work. That’s hardly a modern complaint, but things really are different now. Journalists are asked to take on more responsibility as corporate cutbacks send co-workers packing. Adapting to the Internet has meant that journalists who once may have acted as nothing more than notebook-toting reporters now must carry cameras and audio recorders; file for the web as well as the daily print edition; record audio interviews; participate in video production; etc.

Martinez describes the tenor of the complaints this way: “Unfair workload. It’s not that journalists are opposed to learning new technologies and being involved in new media, but it’s a problem when staff is too few and the work is too much — often without overtime. Add to this beat consolidation when colleagues leave and no one new is hired and you end up burning out those who would like to do more, but can’t because they’re treading water to stay on top of everything for the print edition.”

Wrote one academic commenter: “I?m pissed that my students are expected to shoot video, write for the paper and web, edit video, sing the blues, dance a jig and do a cart-wheel just to get a low paying job.”

Another expressed cynicism about the whole notion of journalists-must-do-more: “I?m angry because people who are three times my age and don?t know how to do much more than check their e-mail are pushing for video, which is most likely subpar. Since when are we in the broadcasting business? Readers want quality journalism, and it?s hard to dig up good stories when we?re trying to fiddle with Final Cut to boost page hits by .2 percent.”

I’d rank that comment along with others by journalists longing for the “good old days,” when the reality is that they need to adapt to what’s required in a completely different media environment.

There’s plenty of concern expressed about the future of the news business:

“What plagues our industry is the failure of the business model and the inability to adapt it to something current to this century.

The journalism isn?t the problem. Dammit.” … You’ll see a lot of that sentiment on AngryJournalist.com. As managers try new things in trying to adapt to the short attention spans of online users, they sometimes veer away from what we traditionally think of as “journalism.” There’s anger among serious journalists that serious journalism doesn’t seem to be as valued in the current environment.

Some journalists feel particularly affronted by the trend of “citizen journalism.” Typical comments: “Joe Citizen is not a goddamn journalist.” … “I hate citizen journalism.”

It’s easy enough to understand those sentiments. I know reporters who still object to the idea of having to interact with their readers via e-mail. But that train has left the station. They’ll just have to get used to more direct contact with “the audience,” for implicit in digital media is that everyone has the power to publish and express their opinions — not just professional journalists.

A Problem With Anonymity?
Is AngryJournalist.com a good thing? I think so. Things get said on this website that otherwise would not get said — other than perhaps at the neighborhood bar to co-workers or at home with a spouse. I can’t help but think that this is a good thing for the news industry.

Of course, there are objections, like this from one commenter: “I?m angry because of this site. Journalists are mostly against anonymous sources unless there is an extremely good reason why it should be unnamed. Yet here is a site where you can be anonymous, write whatever you want and smear anybody you want, including a company you may not work for. There are already six comments slamming Gannett. What if the comments came from Gannett?s competition? Just because a couple of cynical, pissed off journalists want to vent to the world, it doesn?t mean it should be through anonymous postings. Journalists are sacrificing their professional ethics for a silly vent.”

Hey, the news industry is in crisis — especially newspapers. The more opinions that get expressed, the more complaints that are aired, the more incompetence that is revealed, the more solutions that are suggested (including from far down the corporate ladder), the better.

Vent on, I say. And we’ll have to put some trust in Mr. Martinez to be a good moderator.

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