Making newsrooms prematurely young

June 26, 2006

I’m not mourning the dismissal of Dan Rather by CBS News, and in the vast chronicle of human injustice I doubt that there will be room, even as a teeny footnote, for mention of the fact that after 44 years of service he is being tossed, unceremoniously, from his $12 million a year job.

Dan will be just fine, unlike the thousands of other news professionals who have lost their jobs in the cutbacks, downsizings, layoffs, early retirements and buyouts that have swept the country’s newsrooms in the new millennium. Nobody knows how many positions have disappeared. The website counts 72,000 since June 2000., another website, estimates 30,000 jobs lost since February 2003.

True, a great many media jobs have been created during this same period, as web sites spring up, blogs find financial backing, new publications open and successful operations expand. Many of those jobs probably involve journalism of some kind. So the net change, if any, in the number of people engaged in assembling and reporting news or offering topical commentary is hard to estimate, and the scary job loss numbers may well signal turbulence, not shrinkage.

But I’m interested in a related phenomenon, which has less to do with overall numbers than with a generational shift.

When you consider who is being discarded in the various waves of right-sizing that the news business has indulged in to keep its owners, if not its customers, satisfied, you stumble on the unsettling truth that the advance guard of an entire newsroom generation is being shown the door, 10 or 15 years before they would, in the normal course of things, have finished their working lives.

Dan Rather is an exception, since he was kept aboard til he was 74, just like Daniel Schorr, still offering comment on National Public Radio in his 80s, and the “CBS 60 Minutes” gerontocracy. Similarly, senior media brass are generally unaffected, Baby Boomers now in their 50s who have risen to the safety of the executive suites and who have been made rich by the showering of financial incentives for top talent even in such beleaguered media sectors as newspapers.

My concern is the seasoned police reporter in his mid-50s, the streetwise city page columnist, or the business writer who has covered the town’s fat cats since before the savings and loan bust of the 1980s. Pruning news staffs has become a managerial routine, and shedding higher-earning— meaning, longer-serving — employees a mark of fiscal prudence. They’re getting six months’, maybe a year’s pay, and they’re gone. So are their Rolodexes, their intuition, the stories they did or meant to do, their deep familiarity with their communities.

With the growth in journalism positions concentrated in the burgeoning Internet sector — where the focus on attracting the youth demographic is at its most intense — the new jobs that are opening up are likely to be filled by people a generation or more younger than those being shown the door at old media operations.

So the overall picture is one of a profession that, for reasons of financial calculation and market repositioning, is deliberately being made prematurely young,

Does any of that matter? Does it matter that CBS’ new chief diplomatic correspondent, Lara Logan, was four years old when Saigon fell? Isn’t such a generational changeover an inevitability? Might it not be a good thing?

I had a conversation a year or two ago with an ex-reporter who had long experience covering national security about why his newspaper, one of the country’s best, had fallen into lockstep in reporting credulously on the run-up to the Iraq War and had underplayed fierce dissent within our government. He said, essentially, that the coverage decisions were being made by people who weren’t acquainted with the Gulf of Tonkin incident or the Iran-Contra affair, or the other landmark late 20th Century instances of official U.S. deceit or ineptitude. So they got snookered.

That was a disturbing answer. It made me realize that managing generational change is a delicate matter of achieving a balance of memory and energy, the seasoned and the fresh, certainty and skepticism. It’s a matter not of lowering costs, but of carefully calibrating a newsroom culture. And it’s a challenge that, I’m afraid, is being blown.

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