Generation gap: Old Bradlees vs. new ‘Woodsteins’

[Jason Robards as older editor Bradlee in All the Presidents Men]

I got my start in journalism 23 years ago this month, when the top editor of a small afternoon newspaper in southeast Arkansas gave me a job as a reporter. Don Williams took a big chance on me: I didn’t have a journalism degree. Indeed, I’d written only a handful of stories for my college daily — hardly a sign I was serious about journalism.

Williams hired me at the Pine Bluff Commercial as an apprentice reporter, a position that hardly exists today. He taught me all the basics, starting with what we called (maybe still call today) the “inverted pyramid” format for news stories: The most important information at the top, with lesser details near the bottom. He was a passionate First Amendment guy, too, giving me my first introduction to public service journalism. This was in the decade, Netflix says, after the 1976 film All the Presidents Men¬†launched a thousand journalism school students.

I was 28 years old, a late college graduate. Williams was perhaps in this mid-50s — a gifted journalist, eager to mentor and train new reporters. That was the way the business worked: Older journalists brought younger ones into the trade, passing along decades of experience.

Today, however, I’m not sure that still happens. I see more and more tension between younger and older journalists, especially on the web side. Here’s an example, from a comment yesterday on a much-discussed video published by The Indianapolis Star. “Oh boo hoo you very tired ‘newspaper’ people of old,” a reader said. “You do all understand that the bulk of ‘newspaper’ readership, not Entertainment pubs, focuses on sports, obits, and, ‘if it bleeds’-type stories, right? Hate to break this to us, but maybe we overvalue our ‘reporting,’ on stories the majority of readers could care less about.”

In newspapers, dramatic power shift
The growing generation gap between younger and older journalists isn’t surprising. Our industry is going through more change now than perhaps ever before. A dramatic power shift is underway as generally younger technologists finally take control of newspapers and other media, inevitably pushing aside older folks like me. There’s bound to be resentment.

Like it or not, we old timers (and, sheesh, I’m only 51!) must learn to get along with the next generation. We may be unhappy with their relative lack of experience in some of the industry’s most important traditions. (Watchdog journalism and protecting the First Amendment are tops on my list.)

But if we really care about keeping those traditions alive, we’ve got to also understand the frustrations of younger, digitally-focused journalists. They were largely disrespected until about three years ago, when Gannett and other publishers finally figured out the Internet is here to stay. We wouldn’t have websites to build out today if the often-younger digital folks had not kept them alive during the years when too many of us doubted their value. Indeed, younger journalists — eager to bring newspapers into the 21st century — are still being treated poorly by older reporters and editors. (I wince whenever I hear someone referring to younger employees as “the dot-com kiddies.”)

To those of you who share my concern about the future of First Amendment journalism: How will we keep that core responsibility alive if we don’t find a way to bridge this growing generation gap?

Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

Earlier: Young journalist’s view on why he quit The Indianapolis Star

[Images: Robards and video, from Netflix, which says: All the President’s Men chronicles how reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) brought down Richard M. Nixon. The duo connected a Washington, D.C., hotel break-in with a Nixon “dirty tricks” team assigned to discredit Democratic rivals; my Pine Bluff Commercial press card, from September 1985; today’s Star front page, Newseum]


19 Responses to “Generation gap: Old Bradlees vs. new ‘Woodsteins’”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    When younger/older friction heats up in our newsroom, I think back to the day I had to argue most of the morning in order to convince our “ancient” managing editor (who was the same age then that I am now) that the death of Elvis was 1A-worthy. And I tell myself: What goes around comes around…

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Jim, its good to hear you post something that warrants a real discussion. I’m a bit tired of the attack posts. Thanks.

  3. Jim Hopkins Says:

    8:35 am: I am, too. Thank you for your comment, and for your encouragement.

  4. Shirley Says:

    Like Jim, I came to journalism without a degree, perhaps at a time when blue collar journalism was being practiced but was dying as better educated reporters and editors were rising in the industry.
    I, too, benefitted from mentoring editors who taught me Journalism 101 while I furnished enough curiosity and enthusiasm that they didn’t give up on me.
    I have seen two generations of newsies, college grads and interns, jump at a chance to cover tornadoes, floods, blood on the highway and fires. And as they have matured, many have been better investigative journalists and producers of enterprise than I ever did. However, I don’t see as much mentoring going on with this digitally gifted batch. Maybe it is harder in large papers. Maybe editors don’t want to be seen as playing favorites. Maybe people have higher expectations for people coming to the industry with a degree.
    But if we want to see the same fire in the eyes of the Web journalists, it is appropriate to suggest that we try to show them how much fun digging and reporting can be.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Never did get why there had to be an age war, especially in journalism. Don’t journalists avoid making assumptions?

    Seems like if everone would pratice the “no assumptions allowed” policy at work with co-workers, it might become a habit.

    My question is this: Journalists—if you’re making assumptions about your co-workers, how do you avoid doing that same thing with sources? In other words, do you think you know more than your sources just after sizing up their chronological age?

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Mentoring is one of the greatest gifts a young person can recieve and one of the most rewarding experiences for an older person. I am 49 years old and I still value the lessons I learned from my mentor. Now that I’m older, I believe I have a responsibilty to mentor others. It’s very rewarding.
    There is enormous talent coming up and they know a lot about the new technologies. We can all learn from them. They never lived in a world without computers. On the reverse, they can learn from our experience. Keep it positive though. They need to learn the bumps on their own…just like we did. No need to drag them into the negativity of corporate BS. This is about sharing skills and learning. All of our futures depend on it.

  7. Mr. Yesterday Says:

    I recently had a conversation about old school/new school with a city editor at the GCI property where I onced work. She lamented that her (older) workhorses were all kind of mailing it in – tired of watching their 401(k) accounts wither; tired of these unfunded and undertrained mandates from corporate; tired of having to play technological catch-up on their own. She’s younger that the grizzled vets and unsure of how to motivate them, acutely aware that their ill will toward the business is valid. The people she expets to be leaders don’t have the time or energy to lead. Meanwhile, the 20 somethings have all been told to get the hell out of journalism, have seen talented people beside them laid-off or bought out and are using their multimedia skills not to expose the crooked mayor , but to build their resume to find a new job.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    I was lucky enough to have editors who relished the opportunity to box my ears and generally hound me into better journalism practices. I looked up to my superiors — my elders — in the newsroom when I started.

    I spent three years in the newsroom before jumping into our paper’s first digital efforts, and I was genuinely surprised to see people who once considered me a peer to suddenly speak ill of me. It wasn’t my age — though that eventually became an issue because we advanced more quickly than our newsroom counterparts — but what we were doing. I thought about creating a mock t-shirt that said, “I killed journalism,” but I knew no one in the newsroom could appreciate the irony. They would have considered it gloating, as if that had been my intention all this time.

    To this day I meet traditional journalists (print, broadcast) who think of digital as something other than what they do. It’s disappointing that they don’t understand the opportunities to enhance the work they’ve already done. They don’t see the benefit of the bottomless newshole or the integration of text and multimedia. They don’t see the advantages of digital delivery — true mobile content with immediacy, never a worry about a lazy delivery boy or a print stoppage.

    I mention these things and some (not all) older journalists roll their eyes. These are the same people who BITCHED and MOANED without shame about the lack of space in their newspaper or the lack of time in broadcast. Online is the one place where we have none of those constraints, and now it is some great burden to produce content for it.

    I know many in my generation are bitter about the way we were treated in those pioneering online days. I doubt there’s any real cure for the rifts created. I can only hope we don’t lose the artisan skills of journalism that should have been passed to my generation.

  9. Wendy Says:

    Enjoying some on-target comments here about nurturing journalists who came up in the digital age.

    I’m in my late 40s and went from print to online four years ago and absolutely fell in love with it. It was a second career for me. Now that I have taken a buyout (from a non-Gannett entity) I’m embarking on a third career with Web journalism as my focus.

    For those of us who didn’t grow up in the digital age but want to be a part of online journalism’s evolution, we can be made to feel a hell of a lot older and more out of touch than we are. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still an awful lot of resistance from my generation in newsrooms.

    But this profession also needs to harness the experience and mentoring qualities of mid-career journalists who want to be involved in digital media. I don’t see that happening enough, layoffs and buyouts aside.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    What is it that defines journalism on the Web? On too many of our newspaper web sites, the emphasis seems to be on entertainment, photo galleries, sports, and micronews that hardly looks like news at all.

    The Web can be a fine resource for journalism — the bottomless newshole can be a godsend, used properly — but too many papers are diverting scarce resources into online “trivia,” not real journalism.

    My question is, when most newspapers are on the Web only, will they be producing much of what we can recognize as journalism? From what I’ve seen so far, I’m not optimistic.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    2:39 I fear that we have too much data and very little knowledge in the “newshole” of the web. It may be endless and there are certainly some GREAT journalists writing and reporting online (many at Gannett and USAT) but there is also a lot of crap….not journalism at all. I suspect America will tire of all the BS and begin to look for the kernels of truth and for balanced stories and maybe just maybe the REAL journalists, the real writers, will emerge as the ones people want to read.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    From a newsroom dinosaur in her 50s:

    Hey I got with the whole web thing a few years ago, don’t write off all old (!) journalists as online ignorant. I might not be as tech savvy as the younger generation, but I can appreciate what online news at it best can be – an instant source of news readers can use (yes local, yes micro to the max sometimes with local accidents etc., but it’s what readers are looking for).

    I had the good fortune to be mentored by a number of wonderful reporters and editors throughout my career, and I have tried to do the same with the younger generation. I have encountered many truly gifted and committed young reporters along the way, but sadly, a lot have left the business as the industry crashes and burns around us.

    If journalism is to survive, this next generation has to be engaged and listened to by the older generation. It has to be a partnership. The online genie is out of the bottle…time to cope.

  13. rmichem Says:

    Ben and Al, has an interesting history?

  14. John Says:

    8:00am brings back memories. I was the 29-year-old managing editor of the Ithaca Journal when Elvis died. It took persuasion from the city editor, assistant city editors and editorial page editor — all of us roughly the same age — to convince me that Elvis’ demise was Page 1 worthy.

    It seems to me newsrooms need to have the sort of atmosphere where everyone can speak up and know they’ll be heard.

    It’s been nine years since I got pushed out of USA TODAY, maybe partly because I asked too many questions at some mass meetings.

    I do sense from this blog that over the years newsrooms — and particularly Gannett newsrooms — have lost the ability to have full, fair, frank exchanges of views in the mutually productive atmosphere of a news meeting.

    That’s more troubling to me than a generation gap, but then it’s true I’ve not been a newsroom in eight years — and the last ones were in Ireland and Jamaica.

    I suspect the gap has been more digital versus print and that’s not necessarily a generational thing.

    Heck, I’ve got a Facebook page and post regularly to Consumer Watchdog’s blog.

    The main thing is you’ve got have an atmosphere where everybody knows that can ask questions and that they’ll be taken seriously and treat with respect.

    John M. Simpson
    Former Deputy Editor
    USA Today

  15. John Says:

    Damn, we all need copy editors. That last sentence should read:

    “The main thing is you’ve got to have an atmosphere where everybody knows they can ask questions and that they’ll be taken seriously and treated with respect.”

    Sorry about that,

    John M. Simpson

  16. Anonymous Says:

    Jim: Hold on. I was among those intimately involved with one of the earliest web sites in Gannett – which they told us we could start but could not make any hires for, and which they pretty much ignored for years as it built readership and became one of the top trafficked sites – and I was 45 at the time!

    It’s not a matter of age but of mindset.

    In our house, my 56 year-old-husband reads all his news online and my 19-year-old daughter reads all hers in print.

    I’m tired of the ageist stereotyping about new media. All the women of a certain age I know, get their news/info/etc. online. And, gasp, have Facebook pages, upload photos on Flickr, Twitter, write blogs and stay connected all day via Blackberries and iPhones.

    Until recently, online people in newsrooms – no matter their age – were about as welcome as someone from sales or marketing.

    sign me,
    a 50something social networker

  17. Anonymous Says:

    I am a twentysomething online employee at a Gannett metro. I’d give anything to be mentored – or at least treated with some small degree of respect by my newsroom coworkers. Instead, I get anonymous notes and snide remarks from older reporters telling me I’m not “a real journalist” and suggesting I work in online only because I couldn’t get a job anywhere else. All they ever do in complain about us in online – when I got into this business to save their jobs.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    The problem at our paper is that our web strategy is decided on and driven by men over 50 – all of them.

    They do not really understand how the Internet functions, do not really know how blogging works, etc. They expect miracles when such things are simply not possible.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    1:36 PM
    These kind of ageist posts bother me.

    Do you suppose you could look beyond your stereotypical thinking, omit age from the comment and repost some real problems?

    Here’s a hint: You’ve come to and posted here on a blog that was developed by a 51-year-old who obviously understands how blogging works!

    So, ya think Jim birthed a miracle or debunked the “old people don’t know beans about technology” myth?


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