Thursday, May 25, 2006

Attracting the best and brightest

Former investigative reporter and now journalism teacher Willy Stern flings a broadside at Gannett in the latest edition of Nashville Scene. In "Thin News, Fat Profits," Stern makes some excellent points -- but he would have done better to stick to those and not be suckered into the shopworn criticism of Gannett and the profit margins it wrings from its generally unremarkable newspapers.

The real point that Stern begins to explore, but which then gets smothered by an overabundance of prose and vitriol, is the true crisis of attracting the best talent that journalism needs. From his position inside the ivy halls and his experience as a journalist, Stern has a distinguished perspective that would allow him to not only explore the problem but perhaps propose some solutions. His solution, however, appears to boil down to the old doggerel of make less money, spend it instead on better editors/journalists, do better journalism.

Make less money? But then he has this:
Bear with me while I share a story. In 2004, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates found himself seated next to a journalist on an airplane, and allowed that he had finally determined who his software firm’s major competition was. IBM, perhaps? Nope. Not Apple either. “It’s Goldman Sachs,” Gates explained, noting that he was referring to the competition for brainpower. “I mean the competition for talent. It’s all about I.Q.,” Gates continued. “You win with I.Q. Our only competition for I.Q. is the top investment banks.”
Why do you think the investment banks -- or for that matter Microsoft -- attract that talent? Because they make lots of money. The difference is, they share it with their top performers in a merit system that would produce howls in many newsrooms. (And, perhaps, rightly so. Journalism is a reactive business -- in fact, it can be argued that's what's hurt journalism, too much preplanned news. Investment banking is not under the constraints of being dependent on what others do; an investment banker has much more opportunity to drum up his or her own business. Of course, the comparison is not perfect; one can argue a good journalist stays ahead of the curve. But the reality is it's still someone else's curve.)

But while Stern's piece suffers as it goes on from some of the same tiresome arguments and a big dollop of calling most current journalists middling morons, the top is worth reading and pondering because it begins to tackle that core issue -- attracting top talent. After all, if people don't want to invest in you with their future, why would they want to invest part of their lives to read you every day?

Some choice parts:

In recent years, I have been privileged to teach journalism to a fairly diverse cross-section of talented students at Vanderbilt University, Colorado College, Fisk University and Williams College. With few exceptions, my high-I.Q. students say in no uncertain terms that they would no more seek a job at their local chain-owned newspaper after college than they would, in the words of one of my more colorful Vandy students, “work as the public ass wiper down at the Davidson County courthouse.”

At Vanderbilt, I repeat my favorite line about Nashville’s Gannett-owned daily: “The best thing about The Tennessean is that you can pick it up at the end of your driveway and have it read by the time you get to your trash can at the back.” My students respond with blank faces. It’s not just that they don’t read your daily—they think you’d have to be a moron to do so. And working for it? Give me a break, Professor Stern! ...

[I]n the traditional media world, we tell ourselves, Lindsey Volckmann would represent the future of journalism. A very recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, Lindsey was a stellar student in a media ethics course I taught last fall. The writing assignments Lindsey churned out in class were nothing short of extraordinary. It takes little imagination to project her into a role as dashing foreign correspondent or award-winning investigative reporter.

I ran into her early one morning at Starbucks on West End, and we chatted about her budding writing career. Perhaps, I wondered, she might like to become a journalist, or even start out as a cub reporter at The Tennessean? “Why?” she responded, acting in every way as if I had just suggested a career humping it over the French-fry machine at Burger King. Lindsey was on her way later that week to interview for consulting jobs in New York City. “Journalism used to have this aura around it, that you could bust someone’s balls and get stories out in the open,” the engaging 22-year-old from Woodside, Calif., said. “For my generation, that’s gone.”

Lindsey explained gently that she wasn’t sure that the culture at 1100 Broadway would be a good fit for her. The subtext of Lindsey’s remarks: a dumbed-down organization like The Tennessean wasn’t a place for ambitious go-getters. ...

Today’s smart kids view local newspapers and the local TV news, which they lump into the same amorphous blob, as a politically correct world in which dumb people present dumb stories in a dumb way to other dumb people.

I have added the emphasis. Stern, through Volckmann, has starkly framed the scene: the emperor has no clothes. Unfortunately, Stern goes on for many more words to lament, repeatedly, that Gannett has apparently found a fool-proof formula to mint money: Put out dumb papers by dumb journalists for dumb people (but didn't he just say that?).

Instead, let's stop and let Volckmann's words resonate a minute and then ask some key questions: Is there a way to attract the Lindsey Volckmanns back to journalism? Not necessarily to newspapers, but to journalism (it's the myopic focus on newspapers -- and glancingly to Gannett's TV operations -- that shortchanges this piece). And the answer needs more substance than the sophistic make less money and do better journalism. That might have worked when newspapers and journalism organizations were monopolies or oligopolies. But now, when it is almost certain newspapers will continue to see lower revenues (see Warren Buffett's take on things), how do we do better journalism in that environment? (What does it say, for instance, that Buffett's remarks appear on Buffalo Rising, where interactivity with the audience produces a rather smart and deep thread of thoughtful comments?)

Yes, Gannett may have found a formula, lousy as it is. Attacking the formula does little good, an empty exercise in emptying one's spleen. Thinking of ways to make journalism attractive again, while not taking a swipe at most of its current practitioners as morons, would be more constructive.


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