Navigating The Generation Gap

Add another struggle to the newsroom: how to balance the reporting objectivity and broader range of opinion older journalists strive for against the passionate and often impatient activism of the new generation?

A leak of internal Slack messages from New York Times editorial staff highlighted the issue. Younger staffers unhappy with a poorly-judged Tweet by a conservative-leaning columnist ranged further into the Times’s editorial culture, complaining about daily microaggressions, a hostile work environment and mere “lip service” to diversity.

Your take on the story probably depends on your politics, and maybe your age. For the Huffington Post, which leaked the transcripts, the NYT hiring conservative commentators is an offensive act: “Putting a philosopher’s toga on a troll.” It’s firmly on the side of the disgruntled reporting staff.

For Fox News, their complaints are symptomatic of broader issues around millennial activists: Their entitlement,  their eagerness to find offence, their censoriousness and intolerance of opposing views. Fox lists a number of like-minded Twitter accounts.

The Hollywood Reporter rounds up some voices from both sides.

Much of the issue comes down to newsroom economics. Older reporters come with high salaries and legacy costs which newspapers (often under new ownership) are eager to avoid. Values change too: The Hollywood Reporter looks at millennial publication Vice, with its divide between 20-something content producers and 40+ management class, who “sometimes feel part of a different business.” Older Vice hacks complain that their rock-and-roll reporting style gets “sanitised” by a tier of editors in their 20s who strive to remove prickly and insensitive content from the digital news site.

Traditional reporting is costly and younger writers are deprived of the opportunity to do it.

That said, the digital media experience means they might not need to it it. Younger writers (says an editor quoted in the Hollywood Reporter) “are incentivized to produce relatively cheap commentary. “If you don’t have the investment or the time to do a reported piece, naturally you’re going to identity politics because that’s what’s available to you.”

Issues of identity politics and free speech aren’t in our brief, apart from how they apply to newspapers. Is a newspaper a marketplace for ideas or a platform for a particular viewpoint? Most newspapers lean left or right. Traditionally they’d display their reasonableness by publishing opinion from the other side – as an attempt to troll their readers or broaden their perspective, depending on who was reading. Newsroom reporters have always found the foibles of tenured columnists exasperating, particularly when they’re coming from another political perspective. Whether the continuing employment of those columnists should be viewed as an aggression against staff that should be addressed by implicit bias training for the entire newsroom may be a first.

Back with newsroom economics, there are extreme cases, of course. Graydon Carter is leaving Vanity Fair after 25 years and the industry is in very different shape from when he was hired. His salary was rumoured to be around $3m and his job came with perks like a 24 hour driver, town and country houses and a reported sweetheart loan deal that enabled him to buy a West Village townhouse. His successor, Radhika Jones, is reportedly on a $500K salary and one expects she’ll be relying on Uber rather than a personal driver. Expect similar when Anna Wintour leaves Vogue. The days of newspaper and magazine staff buying Manhattan townhouses is over. Is the same true at the other end of the scale?

Pay for rank and file journalists has never been high. The ongoing digital disruption has squeezed budgets ever further. With the exception of a few difficult-to-replicate examples, nothing newsrooms have been able to do has prevented advertising revenues flooding to Google and Facebook. There’s a danger that reporting becomes a short-term career. University, Journalism School, work, then moved on whether because of economic factors, changing technology or an inability to keep pace with the values of the generation coming up below you. A ten year career doesn’t build experience and authority.

Of course this might not be an issue if you got into journalism as a platform for political activism, which is as honourable a reason as any to enter the profession, but if only activists have an incentive to enter newsrooms and demand the newspaper bends to their will, we’ll need a new discussion on what journalism is.

What we’re currently getting isn’t a business model for newspapers or for journalists.