Getting on with journalism, beyond the newsroom

There has been some rousing discussion this week on the Knight Digital Media Center site about an editor’s resignation over newsroom layoffs and who’s best suited to help newspapers move into the digital age.

Both issues nicely dovetail into the two topics I write a lot about here — the fate of mid-career journalists, both inside and outside the newsroom, and the online landscape that we’re trying to grasp during a time of massive upheaval.

Michelle McLellan issued a sprited defense of Steve Smith’s leaving the Spokesman-Review in Spokane after the publisher of an Idaho paper accused him of taking the “easy way out” instead of “fighting the good fight” inside the newsroom.

Smith couldn’t stomach making further cuts to a newsroom that has lost, by one staffer’s estimate, nearly 35 percent of its personnel in the last year.

McLellan, who left her job at The Oregonian five years ago, charges that the “the good fight” is often waged in unproductive ways, and she points to John Carroll and Dean Baquet’s newsroom leadership at the (pre Sam Zell) Los Angeles Times:

“They fought for staff numbers they wanted to produce prize-winning national journalism. But they arguably failed to pay enough attention to fundamentals (local news) and innovations (the Web) that might have prolonged the tenures of the journalists who lost their jobs this summer. Whose ‘good fight’ was that?”

But hey, she’s just getting warmed up:

“Walking away from the newsroom does not mean walking away from the ‘good fight’ for journalism. The ‘good fight’ is to deliver important and relevant news and information to citizens and their communities. That is happening all over the world and all over the Web. The idea that news will come only from traditional newsrooms is an arrogance we cannot afford. That is not to say print newsroom have not and are not still important sources. But the model is evolving. Many experiments are in play. Many people are taking risks. Journalists and news organizations should be part of this, and many journalists who have left their newsrooms are. News organizations that favor draconian cuts for short-term profitability risk taking themselves out of the future news game.” (Original emphasis)

McLellan says she doesn’t want people to leave newsroom en masse, but those who do “can find better places to ‘fight the good fight’ for journalism.”

On the Online Journalism Review blog (now part of the KDMC family), David Westphal asks if older editors can lead the online transformation of newspapers. Smith responds with vigor:

“I am 58 years old. I am not retiring. I am not abandoning journalism or journalists. I know I have expertise to share. I know I have been a voice for innovation and experimentation. And I know I have championed, successfully, revolutionary newsroom change for nearly two decades. I hope to find another place in journalism, another platform.

“Besides, I need a job. I have two kids in college and an ex-wife. . . .

“But I disagree that us old farts can’t be leaders into the new era. My colleagues at the recent Knight Digital Media Center conference are innovators and leaders. They know what must be done and their years of experience and craft knowledge actually enhance their ability to drive change.

Of course, there’s still plenty of glee in kicking the profession as the newspaper industry continues to go down, down, down:

“Journalists are screwed. You’ve got nothing to offer any more.”

Ad hominem attacks are easy to make, though they do nothing to address where to go from here. I’d love for any of those hotheads to offer something helpful to the young web producer in Spokane who’s one of the latest layoff victims and who penned a gut-wrenching farewell:

“I don’t want this industry to die. But I also wish I knew how to save it, immediately, instead of doing my thing and hoping it will help, wondering if I’ll ‘recognize’ journalism in twenty years. Probably.

Did this young woman sit back and, as Jeff Jarvis accuses an entire profession of doing, expect “to be supported in the manner to which we had become accustomed by some unknown princely patron?” Hardly. She was involved in some cutting edge work in a newsroom regarded in the profession as one of the more innovative ones around. She was exactly the kind of digital-savvy professional the field desperately needs to keep. And it was her fate, as well as those of 20 of her fellow co-workers, that led Steve Smith to follow them out the door.

It’s all fine and well to argue over how we got to this point. That debate will rage on long after most of us are rocking chairs in nursing homes. But what about those of us journalists who passionately want to rethink our craft, probably outside of newsrooms? Geneva Overholser offers, also on OJR, some starting thoughts. In response fellow OJR blogger Robert Niles can’t curb his enthusiasm for practicing journalism with an entrepreneurial spirit:

“I don’t feel that I have sacrificed any ‘purity’ of my journalism. At most, I miss not having additional time to report, but frankly, I enjoy the tech, business and administrative sides of this work as well.

“Ultimately, though, I don’t care. I’m having the most fun of my career right now. I work from home, with my wife, on a couple of profitable websites that reach more than 250,000 absolute unique readers a month. I don’t have to wear a security card around my neck; I can pick up my kids from school every afternoon.

“Keep your Wall. Give me these wide open spaces online.

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