Senior Reporters And The Battle To Avoid Burnout p.16

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By: mark fitzgerald Motivating top older reporters to achieve, not descend into professional malaise

AS AMERICA'S NEWSROOMS grow ever older, editors increasingly face a pressing question: How do you keep older reporters from burning out?
Certainly the potential is there: Nearly half ? 44% ? of all newspaper journalists are now over 40 years old, compared with just 26% at the beginning of the 1990s, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
"It's hard, but not impossible, to be an older reporter on a newspaper," says Jim Walser, senior editor for recruiting and staff development at the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer.
"It takes a psychic toll: the low pay, working nights and weekends, and charging after the truth and not getting it or getting it and then everyone is mad at you," Walser says.
"I think after years and years of that, it can get grinding."
And for a lot of reasons ? ranging from the paucity of management slots to accommodate the baby boomer demographic bulge to just plain sloth ? many of those older journalists now remain as reporters.
"Newspapers are getting away from that old idea that if you are going to make money, you have to get into management," says Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Des Moines Register.
"People feel they can make a good living doing work they enjoy. They enjoy telling stories and that's why they got into the business in the first place."

STARS AND SLUGS
Not all older reporters out on the beat, however, are enjoying themselves.
"From my personal observation," says Fred Brown, a Denver Post business reporter and current president of the Society of Professional Journalists, "I know there are people who, while they don't want to move into some kind of management position, also struggle to occupy themselves. We have a police reporter who has been here 40 years and she is a dynamo . . . and then we have other people who in many cases have kind of rotated into jobs where they think they don't have to perform as hard."
What, then, differentiates the reporter who is still a star after 40 from fellow baby boomers who are newsroom couch potatoes?
To find out, newspaper management consultant Sharon L. Peters conducted in-depth interviews with 20 reporters aged 40 and older who were considered top performers by their editors at 18 big and small newspapers across the country. Her report, "In Their Prime: Motivating Senior Reporters," was published by the Newspaper Management Center at Northwestern University.
One characteristic that was immediately apparent was their insecurity, Peters says.
"I would ask, 'Do you recognize yourself as a top performer?' and they would say, 'Well, no, I work pretty hard, but I don't think I'm a star.' Some were surprised their papers suggested them for the study. They had no idea their editors thought of them that way," Peters says.
Overwhelmingly, these veterans say they want to keep reporting because it is "fun" ? and then by the same big margins they describe newsrooms that sound as rollicking as Dante's Purgatorio: Editors are kowtow to upper management with no journalistic conviction, little reporting experience and few people skills. And too many other reporters, young and old, are allowed to operate on unproductive cruise control.

MANAGE? NO, THANKS
Almost all of the top performers had some management experience, but got out fast, Peters found. Sometimes that is held against them.
"I was discussing this at a session at Northwestern with a group of top newspaper executives and a person in sales said, 'Well, basically these people are losers,
right? Because they went into management and now they are not there,' " Peters says.
Perhaps surprisingly, two issues that might be expected to rankle older reporters ? pay levels and age discrimination ? are not seen as big problems.
"They generally say, 'I'm making more money than I ever expected to,' " Peters says.
And most older reporters say any age bias is subtle and unconscious, she adds. One industrywide example: The way training money more frequently goes to younger journalists than veterans.
Good senior reporters, Peters found, have high standards for themselves ? and their colleagues of any age.
"They are saying, when the paper hires someone and it's clear that they are not working out ? get rid of them," Peters says.
"They are saying, don't let it get to the point where a person is 45 years old and then you fire them," she continued.
That's advice the industry should take to heart, says Will Sutton, assistant managing editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.
"We do our business and the reporters no favor by not making it clear that here is the quality you have to achieve to make it at our level of newspaper," Sutton said.

BURNISHED ? NOT TARNISHED
Newspapers are blowing a great opportunity by not paying more attention to older reporters, Peters suggests. Salary alone is one reason: "If older reporters are 50% of the newsrooms, more or less, they clearly represent at least 75% of the salary pool.
"I really do think . . . this is a resource with enormous potential," she says. "With some work, all newspapers can benefit from these people."
That takes different forms at different papers, but a random sampling of editors seems to agree on where to start.
"The most important thing to do is do good journalism and keep (older reporters) as a part of that," says Sutton, who heads the News & Observer's editorial recruitment efforts. "If you are in this business, whether you are 22, 52 or 62, what gets you excited is good journalism."
Several newspapers try to work in career breaks for older reporters as well. At the News & Observer, for instance, journalists can leave their routine to take a computer-assisted reporting training program for as much as four months.
The Charlotte Observer offers sabbaticals for reporters with more than five years on the paper.
"I took six months off to live in Italy . . . when I was a reporter," says Walser. "Others write books, learn to play the piano or ride a bike. . . . There's no question the time off recharges the batteries."
Many papers also encourage their older reporters to become mentors, formally or informally, to younger journalists. It's an ironic development for many baby boomer reporters.
When the boomers were young, their generation was famous for insisting on independence ? which often included snubbing advice from their elders.
"I think they are flattered" to mentor now, says the Des Moines Register's Ryerson. "My experience has been that they like to do it and get a
great sense of personal satisfaction."
In many ways, the Newspaper Management Center study of top-performing senior reporters suggests both journalists and their employers need to adopt a new mind-set about newspapering.
"Much of what has been done over the years has been done to reward young people. I can't think of anyone doing anything to reward older people," says Peters, author of "In Their Prime."
"I honestly don't think, as they say, that this is a young person's line of work. Readers are asking us to give them more depth of understanding, and who better to do that than the senior reporter." n
?(Being a reporter "takes a psychic toll," says Jim Walser, News & Observer recruitment editor) [Photo]
?("I can't think of anyone doing anything to reward older people," said study author Sharol L. Peters) [Photo]
?( Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com) [Caption]
?(copyrigh: Editor & Publisher July 18, 1998) [Caption]

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