Nieman News

The Reed Sarratt Lecture

School of Journalism, University of North Carolina
November 11, 2002

It is always a rewarding experience for me to be in Chapel Hill in the company of this excellent School of Journalism that Dean Richard Cole and his associates have created and nurtured.

I am especially pleased to have your invitation to participate this evening in a lectureship that honors a man who so deeply believed in the education and the professional development of journalists.

Reed Sarratt was very much on my mind as I thought about this opportunity to discuss a puzzling lack of commitment by newspaper and broadcast companies to the education and professional development of their working journalists.

I remember meeting Reed at Harvard in the fall of 1965, where he had come to talk to the Nieman Fellows about his work in developing seminars and workshops in journalism for the Southern Region Education Board.

There weren’t many opportunities in those days for mid-career learning in the world of journalism. The field was pretty much limited to the American Press Institute, then located in the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism building; the Nieman Fellowships and the programs Reed Sarratt was creating for journalists in the South.

The Poynter Institute would not come into existence until 1975. Other mid-career fellowship programs based on the Nieman idea wouldn’t take root until the 1970s and 1980s. The newspaper foundations that have pumped valuable millions of dollars into journalism training and education weren’t very active until the 1970s and beyond.

A True Pioneer

Reed Sarratt was a true pioneer in recognizing and nurturing the relationship between education and good journalism.

His early interest was formed through the Southern Region Education Board, which had received a Ford Foundation grant to begin a program of seminars that focused on the substance of journalism, rather than the techniques of our craft. Ford’s idea was that society would benefit if the scholarly innovations and ideas being generated at our great universities could be transmitted to the pubic by an enlightened press.

Reed developed and ran the program for five years and, when the Ford Foundation suggested that the Southern Region Education Board find a partner to help share the cost of the seminars, he made a connection with the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.

SNPA agreed to establish a foundation to fund and administer the seminars. Reed became executive director of the foundation and later was chosen to run SNPA. Under his leadership, the organization developed a wide range of programs designed to lift the sights, sharpen the vision, raise the level of ambition and expand the professionalism of newspaper journalists.

Reed was known as a big-picture man but also a first-rate nitpicker of the details, a tendency he said he developed during his years at the University of North Carolina. He was fearless and never intimidated by the southern publishers on his board, although he was willing to make a strategic compromise from time to time.

Passion for Progressive Thinking

As a southerner with a passion for progressive thinking about civil rights, he wrote a book, “The Ordeal of School Desegregation,” and was determined to hold an SNPA seminar at an historically black college. He found it expedient, however, to defer that idea until the day a certain Deep South publisher completed his time on the SNPA board of directors.

When Reed was nearing his 65th birthday, one of the SNPA officers said to him, “Well, I guess we ought to create a search committee to find your successor.” Reed quietly assented and the search committee went to work, finally assembling a group of finalists.

After the last candidate had been interviewed, the committee turned to the chore of picking a successor. The room was quiet for a while. Finally, the publisher who initiated the search process looked at Reed and asked, “Why do you want to retire?” “I don’t,” said Reed. “Well, what are we doing here?” “I don’t know,” said Reed.

The meeting was adjourned and Reed continued as executive director for three more years, until he died at age 68, as he was packing his bags at the conclusion of a SNPA board meeting.

Educational Ideals

Today, Reed Sarratt might look with satisfaction on the growth of the educational ideas he fostered. A recent study by the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations identified 191 organizations that now provide training and education for journalists.

To a considerable extent, this broad landscape is misleading. The training and education programs many of these organizations offer are modest, and collectively, they fall far short of meeting the need. Most of the money for their programs comes from foundations or from their own fundraising efforts, rather than from the news organizations their educational programs ultimately serve.

Can you imagine another industry that so depends on charity to pay for the education of its work force? Companies like General Motors and General Electric believe it is in the best interests of their companies, and their shareholders, to invest in the knowledge base of their employees. They understand that brainpower is an imperative in creating new products and sustaining market share in their industries. These companies are fully committed to investing in training and education across the breadth of the work force. Lifelong learning is part of the culture.

“No Train, No Gain”

In 1993, at the start of an extraordinary period of economic prosperity, the Freedom Forum published a seminal study called “No Train, No Gain.” It documented the universal need for training among journalists that existed 10 years ago. “No Train, No Gain” reported then that one journalist in 10 got regular training. Today the number is three in 10. Such a comparison enables news-industry leaders to claim that their journalists are the best educated and trained in history.

But the facts are somewhat different. “No Train, No Gain” documented three problems that can be linked to a shortage of professional training: newspaper quality, morale and employee retention. Nearly half of the 650 journalists in the survey acknowledged they are sometimes ill-equipped to develop stories fully. Many said they felt that limited training opportunities were unfairly awarded. And some, who valued training and weren’t getting it, were so frustrated they said they may leave the business.

To establish a fresh benchmark on training and to see what had been achieved since the publication of “No Train, No Gain,” the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations initiated a study, just completed, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The study, entitled “Newsroom Training: Where’s the Investment?,” drew these conclusions:

  • The nation’s journalists say a lack of training is their major source of job dissatisfaction.
  • More than two-thirds of working journalists say they receive no regular skills training.
  • News companies have not increased their training budgets in the past decade; and during the recent economic slump, money for training was among the first items to be slashed from newsroom budgets.
  • News executives acknowledge they should provide more training for their journalists but say time and insufficient budgets are the main reasons they don’t.

I encountered this budgetary obstacle just recently, in a way that gave me a snapshot of what the Knight Foundation study is telling us.

Last year, the Nieman Foundation established a program in Narrative Journalism, putting the Nieman brand behind the belief that narrative is an under-used and not well-understood asset in the hard job of keeping the news engaging and down-to-earth.

In addition to providing instruction in narrative for the Nieman Fellows, we hold an annual conference on narrative in Cambridge that sells out to an audience of 900-plus. The conference offers journalists an intensive and high-quality weekend of learning from and talking with the best narrative journalists we can assemble.

Paying Their Own Way

The conference was held this past weekend. During one of the sessions, I did a little hip-pocket survey, asking how many had been sent by the editors and how many had come on their own nickel. In a show of hands, about 70 indicated they paid their own way to Cambridge.

Many of the editors who attend the conference tell us they are working on narrative stories but are flying by instinct over ground they wished were more familiar. In an effort to expand the circle of editors who are conversant with narrative theory and techniques and who can become useful teachers at their own papers, the Nieman Narrative Program is organizing for next spring a small seminar on editing narrative.

I wanted to test the market for such a seminar. I phoned a several editors around the country, inquiring whether they would support the attendance of an editor from their staff. I explained the purpose of the workshop, the selective nature of the group in which their paper would participate and that the Nieman Foundation would pay most of the cost.

The response was cautious interest that quickly dissipated when I said their newspaper would be expected to share in the cost: travel and two nights in a hotel. “Sounds like a good program. But budgets are going be lean in 2003 and there is little money for travel and training.” That was the response to each phone inquiry.

Tight Newsroom Spending

These conversations echoed the experience during the past two years at the Poynter Institute and the American Press Institute, two leading journalism training centers. Each has felt the impact of tight newsroom spending. Poynter has attempted to counter declining attendance by cutting tuition and offering free hotel rooms. API was forced to cancel classes last year.

The evidence reinforces a troubling paradox about the news business:

  • Newspapers and local television-news organizations are rich and profitable. They are wel able to afford substantial investments in training and education.
  • Corporate executives surely must understand that a well-trained, well-educated newsroom work force is essential in sustaining their economic viability.
  • Most would agree with the late Katherine Graham’s observation that “journalistic excellence and profitability go hand in hand.”

A culture that values training and education does more than improve the quality of news coverage. It contributes to higher levels of satisfaction on the job and to lower turnover — not to mention the prospect of increased trust among readers and viewers. So here’s the paradox: a rich industry that has not made the sustained, long-term investment in developing its best and brightest and keeping them on the payroll, in the interest of good journalism and good profits.

This industry is not likely to do so, unless, perhaps, it can be persuaded that there is a direct link between training and education and higher profits. Many of the editors whose training budgets are being squeezed work for publicly traded newspaper companies with annual returns that range from 17 to 25 percent. And many local television broadcast outlets enjoy earnings in the 30 to 40 percent range.

Robust Business

Even during the current downturn in the U.S. economy, which has caused a slippage in classified and retail advertising, newspapers have remained a robust business. The operating margin of daily newspapers during 2001 was about 17 percent. That was down from 22.5 percent for the year 2000, but a healthy return by any standard. This year, media companies are reporting strong gains, year-over-year.

By almost any measures of profitability, these numbers are impressive, clearly at the high end. Compared to other industry sectors, however, the share of operating budgets news organizations commit to training, education and professional development is at the low end of the scale.

Investment in formal training, as opposed to informal on-the-job training or noon-hour brown-bag discussions, can be tracked as a percentage of payroll. According to the Readership Institute at the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, the average newspaper industry expenditure on formal training is 0.7 percent of payroll. The national average for companies that have been tracked on this scale is 2 percent, or nearly three times what newspapers spend on training.

The National Association of Manufacturers recommends that companies spend 3 percent of payroll on training. Workforce magazine has a general guideline of 3 to 6 percent for “true learning organizations,” in whose company news organizations would be included.

The American Society for Training and Development, in a study of 367 nonjournalism firms, found that, on average, these companies managed to increase training by 10 percent between 2000 and 2001, in spite of the economic recession.

Training and the Bottom Line

The society also provides evidence to support the idea that training helps the bottom line.

In a second study, it identified 575 publicly traded companies in the United States that ranked high in training and had significantly higher shareholder return than companies ranking lower on the training scale. Firms in the top half of the listing had a shareholder return that was 86 percent higher than those in the bottom half and 45 percent higher than the market average. Fortune magazine’s list of 10 best companies to work for average 67 hours of training per employee per year.

The report by the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations was based on telephone interviews with 1,964 news executives and news staffers in March 2002. Eight of 10 news executives interviewed said that training in their newsrooms was limited by a lack of money. Many of these executives said that $500 was the most they could afford to spend per year on training per journalist on their staff.

These numbers and these comparisons deepen the contradiction of a $100-billion business — which ranks high in profits and which enjoys a Constitutional protection as a public trust, but does not make training, education, professional development part of its journalistic culture in a more meaningful way.

Much has been said and much has been written in the past 18 months about the nature of newspaper-company profits and the need to strike a better balance between the bottom line and good journalism. The point about newspaper profits is not that margins of 20 percent and higher are exorbitant — although some would argue that they are — but that the long-term health of newspaper companies requires them to invest greater amounts in such news-gathering resources as news hole, staff and training.

Investments in training should be part of a strategy that will help determine whether the local newspaper franchise will remain the dominant provider of news in the community and whether the profits newspaper companies have enjoyed will continue into the coming decades.

Shrinking Resources

During the present downturn, many — perhaps most — newspaper companies reacted by shrinking their news-gathering resources: cutting news hole; reducing the number of working journalists through layoffs, buyouts, hiring freezes; and reducing their investment in training, professional development and education.

Dean Singleton, publisher of the Denver Post and CEO of MediaNews Group, told an appreciative audience of editors at the Associated Press Managing Editors conference recently that “newsroom cutbacks have gone far enough, maybe too far.”

This critical connection between investment and success may be further confirmed in a series of research projects now underway. Phil Meyer of your faculty is engaged in one such study — funded by the Knight Foundation — seeking to demonstrate that good journalism is good business and that investment in the newsroom has a meaningful benefit on the bottom line.

Another study, by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Poynter Institute, is attempting to identify and define measurements of newsroom abilities that are useful in building a culture that drives successful newspaper companies.

Training comes in many forms, of course. Journalists identify four distinct areas of training they want and need: training in journalistic skills; education in ethics, values and legal issues; education about the content of the news; and professional development.

The type of training most often available in news rooms is in journalistic skills — reporting, writing, editing, photography, graphics, computer-assisted reporting — as well as discussions about ethics, values and legal issues. Such training sessions typically occur in-house, even though the journalists responding to the Council of Presidents’ survey voiced a strong preference for training opportunities that would take them away from the newsroom for extended periods.

Consequences for Credibility

The other two forms of training — education in news content and professional development — are less often available, with clear consequences for the credibility of news organizations and for management and leadership in the newsroom. Dr. Gary Becker, a 1992 Nobel laureate in economics from the University of Chicago, observes that “any modern economy is marked by the amount of money it spends on human capital, rather than physical capital. Today, it’s brainpower that counts.”

Carroll D. Stevens, director of the Knight Foundation Fellowships for Journalist in Law at the Yale Law School, says that “almost more than any other profession, journalism depends on intellectually versatile practitioners — people skilled in the immediate tasks of the craft, to be sure, but also fluent in the purposes and function of civil society. “Such nimbleness of mind and technique can only be achieved — with quality journalism as its result — through a process of continuous learning.”

Dr. Becker and Carroll Stevens remind us that we live in complicated times. As journalists, we face daily demands to explain, clarify and interpret for our readers and viewers issues that are complex and, more often than not, contain elements of science, technology, medicine, economics and engineering, as well as human emotion and political or ideological conflict.

As early as 1919, Walter Lippmann, the most influential newspaper columnist of the first half of the last century, recognized that as stories become more and more complex and more specialized, there was a greater and greater need for reporters and editors to develop special areas of expertise in which they could do their work in a highly informed and authoritative way.

Scientific Spirit

The solution Lippmann suggested was for journalists to acquire more of a “scientific spirit . . . ” and aspire to a “common intellectual method and common area of valid fact. The field should make as its cornerstone the study of evidence and verification.” Years later, Lippmann impressed these ideas on the president of Harvard University, and they took root in the Nieman idea of mid-career education for journalists when the fellowships were established in 1938.

More than two generations of journalists have come to Harvard to study as Nieman Fellows. A few thousand others have enjoyed similar privileged experiences in mid-career programs at Stanford, Michigan, Columbia, Maryland and MIT.

It is interesting to note that none of these programs draw much support from the news organizations that so benefit from the knowledge their journalists acquire during a year away from the newsroom. Rather they exist because visionaries at the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and other institutions of charitable giving have created and sustained these educational opportunities of lasting value to the news industry.

In my own proposal to the Nieman selection committee in 1965, I envisioned a year of study focusing on urban problems. When I began my year at Harvard, I was an editorial writer at the Akron Beacon Journal. When I returned the following spring, I was thrust unprepared into the role of city editor. It was a struggle for me to come to terms with the responsibility for organizing local coverage and directing the work of others. But my Harvard experience had enriched my ability to think about the stories I was assigning.

The Question is Always Open

From my Harvard professors, I had made the important discovery that the question is always open, that there is always the possibility of new information tomorrow or a fresh idea next week or next year. As a way of thinking about the news, I found this to be an unfailing caution against the structure of daily journalism, where the tendency is to sum up today’s news with a neat conclusion for tonight’s viewers and tomorrow morning’s readers.

The limitation of the Nieman Fellowships and other elite programs, of course, is that they are available to a relatively few journalists each year. For continuing education to have a broader reach, a more substantial impact on journalism, news organizations themselves must take the lead. Few news organizations are making this investment, even though private companies in the United States are a major source of investment in knowledge. Each year, $45 billion is invested in professional education in the United States.

Jack Fuller, president of the Chicago Tribune Co., in his widely acclaimed book, “News Values,” argues that even the generalists among reporters “must be capable for dealing with experts from a position of strength.” This, he suggests, “requires journalists to become more comfortable with technology, to have a rigorous education in a specialized discipline and to understand that they are expected to produce work in complex fields that holds up against the examination of practitioners in these fields.

“We cannot accept the kind of ignorance of basic statistical methods that so often leads to preposterous reporting of scientific claims,” he wrote.

Learning by Trial and Error

William Damon of Stanford University conducted lengthy interviews with journalists for a book called “Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet,” which examines the culture of journalism. Damon found that the typical strategies journalists used for verifying information were learned by trial and error rather than in more formal ways from teachers or editors. These journalistic behaviors, as often as not, lead to what Neil Rudenstine, former president of Harvard, once characterized as “uninformed” reporting.

Recently, Michael Getler, in his ombudsman column for The Washington Post, recalled a story published on the morning of September 11, 2001, on the front page of the Los Angeles Times — a story that was being read by early risers on the West Coast as the highjacked jetliners were being crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Under a headline, “Key Foe of Taliban Is Dead, U.S. Says,” the Times reported the killing of Ahmed Shah Massoud, a warrior intellectual who had become a legendary figure in the region for his battle against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and then against the Taliban regime that followed.

The L.A. Times story stayed in Getler’s head for two reasons, he said. “First, it struck me as an immediate, though circumstantial, clue to the likelihood that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks that were taking place in New York and at the Pentagon. If the United States was to come after him, as bin Laden and the Taliban must have reasoned, best to have Massoud out of the way.

“Second, I was impressed by whatever it was that caused the L.A. Times to put the story on the front page when it did. It reminded me of the service that newspapers can provide by a dedication to being alert at all times.

“Maybe it was just luck,” Getler mused, “or a slow news day that propelled the Massoud story onto the L.A. Times’ front page that fateful day. But I doubt that. Not many readers knew or cared about Massoud. It would have been easy to keep him off the front page.”

Getler asked Leo Wolinsky, the Times’ front-page editor, about that news decision. Wolinsky explained that the paper had devoted a lot of coverage to Afghanistan and the Taliban. “We had been sensitized by the earlier reporting,” he told Getler. “And this was a fascinating tale with quite of bit of background and detail. The foreign staff was very alert, and my judgment was swayed by their arguments. We never would have done it without the commitment to foreign reporting.”

The Meaning of News

Getler’s point was that being alert is critical to understanding the meaning of news and deciding the placement of stories, thus signaling their importance to readers. Such alertness is surely a consequence of experience, journalistic instinct and education.

My final thought about the value of growing brainpower in the newsroom is the significance of professional development. This is an important dimension in any journalist’s life, for it conveys to the journalist the interest of the news organization in his or her professional growth and advancement.

Failure to provide opportunities for professional development often is a consequence of the way journalists become editors. They do well as reporters and are thrust into positions of authority and command without adequate training and education. On-the-job training for newsroom supervisors does not always lead to managerial competence. Lack of effective supervisory skills can contribute to difficulties of the kind newspapers have experienced in building multicultural news staffs.

Since 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and its member newspapers have been struggling with the challenge of diversifying their newsrooms. The original ASNE goal, as you may remember, was to bring the percentage of journalists of color in U.S. newspaper newsrooms to parity with the population of racial and ethnic groups in the country by the year 2000.

Newspapers made progress against the goal. The population of journalists of color rose from 3 percent in 1978 to more than 11 percent in 2000, but well below the national figure of 26 percent.

As editors and their news organizations initiated creative, aggressive recruitment efforts to hire more journalists of color, they didn’t recognize, until just recently, the sobering reality that for every five journalist of color they hired, four were leaving the business.

Last year, in a study for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, retention was identified as a greater challenge than hiring in improving the percentage of journalists of color in newspaper newsrooms. Lack of professional challenge and opportunity for advancement were the reasons journalists of color gave most often for decisions to leave newspaper jobs.

We know that a factor is how journalists of color are supervised. The newsroom is, after all, still a place that is dominated by white males who, by and large, have defined the ethos and traditions of the journalistic workplace. The message to newspapers from the research was that professional-development training for mid-level editors is a key to addressing the retention problem.

Model Programs

ASNE is pursuing model programs the begin with a handbook on retention that would provide a curriculum outlining the necessary managerial skills for effective mentoring, nurturing and supervising journalists in a diverse newsroom. Educational programs in multicultural management can help white editors, particularly, develop an awareness of differences represented by journalists of color. They can learn how to work smartly with these differences in carrying forward their responsibilities for coaching and directing newsgathering activities.

Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which over the past 30 years has become the leading organization for training journalists of color, notes that nearly all of the graduates of the Maynard Institute are still in the newspaper business because “there is a direct and undeniable link between training and retention.”

The lessons of retention are reaffirmed in a recent study conducted for the American Press Institute by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism that examined female leadership in U.S. newsrooms. The study concluded that there is a great divide between two distinct subsets of women who register notably different aspirations, concerns and career paths.

Fifty-five percent of the women in the survey identified themselves as confident about their career paths. They said they have the benefit of mentors and access to their bosses, a situation that appears to have helped them set and achieve career goals. Forty-five percent of the women said they were conflicted about their careers. They may want to move up, but they have concerns about advancement, including sexism and the lack of opportunity.

In the concluding interpretations to the study, the concerns about career-conflicted women signaled a need for training and coaching.

Trust and Credibility

News organizations are struggling to improve their standing with the public. Trust and credibility are important concerns being discussed at every level of our newsrooms and our news companies. Press performance and public attitudes toward it have been exhaustively studied. From these examinations, the public has made clear that it needs and wants a credible, knowledgeable, accurate press.

Yet journalistic performance too often merits only public distrust, as witnessed by public reaction to coverage of such stories as Princess Diana’s death to the OJ trial to the Clinton scandals to Gary Condit.

During my years at the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Center, I directed a three-year study of fairness in the news media. One of the important findings in our work was that the public respects the professional and technical skills journalists bring to their craft, but fears that journalists don’t know enough. Specifically, the public thinks journalists don’t have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they try to explain to the public.

  • If the robust nature of the U.S. economy is powered by the idea that people and organizations have an almost unlimited power to improve themselves through education,
  • If journalistic excellence and profitability go hand in hand, as the late Katherine Graham has said,
  • If investment in human capital is the soundest strategy in a modern economy, as Nobel laureate Gary Becker argues,
  • If both excellence and profitability are enhanced by an intelligent, highly educated, alert, resourceful news staff, as the evidence indicates,

— It remains a mystery, then, why news organizations don’t put a higher premium on training and education.

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