McGuire on Media

Reynolds Business journalism study displays optimism not found in anecdotal reports

Either the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism found every optimistic journalist haunting newsrooms these days or the anecdotal reports of despair and teeth-gnashing in the nation’s newsrooms have been over-wrought.

It has always been the journalist’s inalienable right to be angry, slighted and constantly in complaint mode. Since I left the newsroom in 2002 I have heard nary a positive word about the state of the brow-beaten, ink-stained wretches. The grapevines I have been privy to around the country portray a wounded lot of human beings full of spite, malice and general bad cheer.

My reading of the findings from the Reynolds study left me equal parts perplexed, surprised and heartened. I found a shocking amount of optimism, grit and determination in those findings. The study, funded by my Arizona State Cronkite School colleagues at the Reynolds Center, are man-bites-dog significant because the decline of corporate media in the the last decade has convinced us all that morale wasn’t even good enough to be in the toilet. That is not the perceived reality I read in these findings.

I am trying to temper my reaction, but I will freely admit that for the very first time I am just a little bit tempted to buy into the complaints of the “bad publicity” crowd who are contending newspapers and journalists are getting a raw deal from the “negative Nellies” in the mainstream media. Prior to reading this study I pretty much scoffed at the argument that the press is overdoing the gloom and doom of the newspaper industry. Now I’m thinking about it.

I don’t want to go overboard here. There are two fairly negative possibilities that could explain these positive reactions. First, the cutbacks in staff have been so dramatic there is a possibility only the most dedicated and the most positive people remain. Secondly, there is an excellent chance reporters and editors have bought into a grand, spell-binding illusion that things aren’t as bad as they seem and they’re bound to get better. Call that the blissful lemmings into the sea theory.

While those unflattering possibilities need to be considered, I am at least more sensitive to the coverage complaints. The Reynolds findings are significant enough to prompt some deeper scrutiny.

You can find the whole study here and a story about the study here.

I am surprised by the positiveness of the respondents in this study. Here are my top-of-mind reactions to some of the findings.

I found the veteran cast of the respondents interesting. The respondents average 20 years experience as journalists and 12.8 years as business journalists. That indicates to me we are not getting these results from a bunch of fresh-faced newbies too naive to know they are being abused.

The fact that 62 percent of the respondents say the volume of business coverage in their outlet has stayed the same, or increased, is one of the best examples of an optimism I did not expect. Anecdotal reports are of news holes being slashed with reckless abandon and the print respondents certainly indicate that is true, but broadcast and wire service respondents are quite optimistic about business news space.

I also sensed a definite optimistic tone when the business journalists answered questions about how their jobs have changed.  Ninety-two percent say they have learned new skills, 75 percent say they now use social media and only 34 percent observe a reduction in the overall quality of their outlet’s business coverage.  I frankly found that astonishing in light of all the bitching and complaining I hear about loss of quality. Now a third who see deteriorating quality is not to be dismissed. Again, I don’t think those numbers match the anecdotal complaints.

It is also clear job demands have increased significantly. Journalists say their workload has increased, they have fewer copy editors and they are doing a wider variety of tasks. I was a bit surprised only 52 percent of the total respondents say they blog. I would have expected that number to be substantially higher.

The fact broadcast and wire reporters are significantly more optimistic than print staffers should not be lost.  While 60 percent of the total sample say they are doing more or about the same level of investigative reporting, only 49 percent of print reporters say that. The 36 percent of the total sample who say there is less investigative reporting is a definite red flag.

The show-stopper finding for me is that 70 percent of the business journalists say their jobs are more satisfying or just as satisfying as they were five years ago. Even the print number on that question is 62 percent. It would seem safe to say that the people who want to commit journalism are dedicated to doing it even in the face of grim job declines and space cuts.  This finding has to make us wonder if the griping and complaining has been overdone, or if staffers simply don’t understand that the light at the end of that tunnel is probably a train!

People who find their job more satisfying attribute it to their own increased experience and independence, to an increased sense of challenges and more opportunities.  I’m spit-balling here, but I think that probably speaks to the tremendous newsiness of stories generated by the economic meltdown of the last few years.

Those less satisfied with their work predictably point to less time to do quality-in-depth reporting and the pressure to do more in smaller newsrooms. Those two reasons dominate the less satisfied responses in a way that tells us both issues are legitimate and serious problems.

I was even surprised by the answers about pay. I would have said less than 10 percent of journalists have gotten a pay increase in the last two years. The 31 percent number genuinely surprised me. But let’s not overdo this optimism. These numbers still tell us that 66 percent of business journalists have had their pay frozen or reduced in the last two years. That has to be a ticking morale bomb. That’s unsustainable. The other thing that’s unsustainable is management believing this scenario is okay and trying to keep a happy face. I keep hearing reports that top managers seem oblivious to the damage these freezes do.

There is a lot of sobering news in this Reynolds center study of business journalists, and I don’t mean to sugar-coat the findings. Journalism is at a defining moment of crisis. This “Schumpeterian moment” of creative destruction is  taking an undeniable toll on practitioners. And yet, fully half of the respondents in this study see themselves practicing business journalism in five years and another 22 percent see themselves staying in journalism, but not in business journalism.

Those answers might indicate a profound case of denial by journalists heading for a giant fall. Those answers might also tell us that as the businessmen muddle through this transition to the digital age, the journalism practitioners believe so much in what they are doing they think positive outcomes are inevitable.

I am convinced the Reynolds study is a seminal piece of work that should make the obituary writers for journalism pause and seriously reflect. However, as I reflect, I am afraid these answers indicate denial.