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The Rise of the Timid Print Journalist

May 3rd, 2009 · 1 Comment · LANG, Newspapers, Sports Journalism, The Sun

The meltdown in print journalism has produced an unfortunate side-effect:

Diminished newsrooms largely populated by timid journalists.

They might not be timid with sources. (Though I have to wonder.)

What I am fairly certain of is that the print survivors are scared stiff of their managers, and what I believe was the healthy skepticism and byplay of a previous era is largely gone.

Newsrooms that once were predictably full of journalists who questioned anything and everything that management did, eternal skeptics of the wit and wisdom of people with titles … those newsrooms now are populated almost entirely by get-along-by-going-along “team” players.

If you talk to the print survivors, or read their postings on blogs … they are unhappy. Oh, my, yes. They blame management for taking the industry down the drain. They often are embarrassed by the state of the  publications they work for. They are profoundly pessimistic, most of them, about their paper’s future and their own.

But it also seems, from the other side of the “full-time employment” divide, that they also have become surprisingly passive.

At a time when the authority-questioning journos of bygone days would be standing up in newsroom meetings and expressing their doubts — but also suggesting their own correctives in the bluntest terms — my strong sense is that the survivors are keeping their heads down and muttering their criticisms in private. If at all.

Think about how often you see real names of still-employed journalists attached to complaints. Aside from the occasional guild rep, almost never. Lots of “anonymous” posts out there. Lots of pseudonyms.

I’ve had dozens of conversations, in person or via e-mail, with journalists who made quite sure, up front, that I did nothing to reveal their identities. For fear of retribution. “I don’t want to give them a reason to fire me …”

It isn’t hard to puzzle out what’s going on.

1. Most of the newsroom smart-alecks, cheeky second-guessers and clear-thinking skeptics — that is, the people who once formed a majority in any newsroom — already are gone. Those guys always annoyed managers. Often because they were right and management was wrong, and managers everywhere hate it when someone points out their mistakes or mocks their complicity in clearly stupid or destructive schemes.

So when the industry began circling the drain, and managers were told to start dumping people in the newsroom, many of the first casualties were the journos who managers had seen as troublemakers. Those who never drank the Kool-Aid and, thus, were likely to embarrass the manager. Often in public settings.  “Never liked you, dude, you embarrassed me in meetings, and now I get to fire you.”

2.  Those who still have jobs are scared to death of being fired.

Can’t really blame them. They have mortgages and tuitions to pay. They are in something like a state of shock at the implosion of the industry and all those empty desks around them. And they have decided they will do whatever they can to make their print careers last as long as possible. High on the list of priorities is this: Never, ever be seen as “negative” toward management. Because they already have seen what happened to the people who were.

In general, it is preferable to be at least occasionally agreeable — or at least being able to see the purpose in a plan. Even in a newsroom. Some of those long-gone crabby journos were, in fact, over the top, and instinctively against literally anything that came down from above. Not every change is bad. Not every manager is an idiot. We all were in meetings dragged out by the professional cynic’s bitching and moaning.

But in a span of about two years, we’ve seen an overcorrection. My strong sense is that whatever complaining still goes on in newsrooms is in private and never on the record. That the level of dissent is at some record low.

The skeptics who believed they had the best intentions toward the newspaper and the profession and weren’t shy about speaking up … well, they’re pretty much gone. And most of the survivors, stunned and disheartened by events of the past few years, are hunkered down and hoping they can survive another day, another week, another month. They are afraid.

They may yet be fired. As the free-fall continues, it seems as if everyone will be laid off. But, at least, the hunkered-down survivors figure they will be the last out the door, and it won’t be because they “unnecessarily” ticked off some assistant managing editor.Anyway, yes, I am a little embarrassed for many of the folks still inside newsrooms. Their fear of unemployment has turned them into compliant and docile employees.  Model employees. Who sometimes even parrot the latest management line of crap and will tell you why the last 10 people who were fired had it coming.

It’s rather sad. And it’s too bad that the dopes who are overseeing the destruction of newsrooms and newspapers so rarely (anymore) have to face one of their own who stands up and say, “Sir, this is a load of hooey.”

The jittery survivors have learned it pays to be timid. At least for another month or two.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Mike Rappaport // May 4, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Absolutely spot on, Paul. I was one of those in the first category, and when our man got a chance to can me, he did.

    The irony of it all is that management seems to want to intimidate its reporters and make them passive, even though their job is something that depends on aggressiveness.

    Of course that was when journalists were running journalism.

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