May 2, 2009

Broken ladders

As in most professions, achieving success in journalism meant climbing a ladder. Start out small, learn the basics, do good work, climb up to something bigger; once there, learn from more experienced people, do better work, climb up to something bigger yet; and so on.

Some journalists strove for the highest echelons - the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. Others found contentment - or a ceiling - on lower rungs.

And so it went for decades - the system established a common work ethic and continuity of purpose (some would argue it also weakened journalism by encouraging conformity and self-promotion).

Recently, the well-worn rungs of the ladder have begun to break, stranding hundreds of talented journalists in a kind of limbo.

From "The Media's Lost Generation" in Slate:

Like many industries, the mainstream media—newspaper and magazine companies in particular—have been ravaged by the recession and the infringing Internet over the last six months. Professional viability in this brave new world has become akin to winning a high-stakes game of musical chairs. The media business has always been a deeply competitive bastion of ambition; yet today's journalists—including both those sidelined by layoffs and those still clinging desperately their workplace desks—have been left to wonder whether the very idea of ambition makes sense anymore.

"How do you progress in an industry that has no clear path to anywhere?" asked Glynnis MacNicol, a media analyst and editor of FishbowlNY. "Right now, the definition of success in the media is not to be unemployed."

As the chance to move up diminishes, the industry freezes and starts to fragment. Small newspapers suffer as ambition heads elsewhere and larger papers suffer because their talent pool isn't refreshed. And not only do talented people stop moving through the system, but so do the ideals and ideas they used to carry with them - the work ethic, the standards, the institutional memory and the sense of common purpose.

Already, the traditions of the profession are beginning to show strain as people who never attempted to climb the old ladder try to build new ones. Once again, from Slate:
"When I went to school, it was about, 'Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,' " says Michael Caruso, a former editor at the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Details, and many other magazines. "You wanted to keep the government honest. Today the goals are different. It's mostly about self-expression."
That's an oversimplification, but the cynicism illustrates a real fear that the best, tested ideals of journalism might not survive if the system that created them falls apart.


Anonymous said...

Wrong. All problems stem from LANG management and one or two senior LANG editors. Get with the program.

Anonymous said...


it was a dark and stormy night.

Newshound said...

There used to be a way to go about a career in print journalism. You started out at a small daily or even a weekly and got good, jack-of-all-trades experience that would serve you well later.

You then went to a medium-sized daily and a slightly larger one, where you learned to specialize more.

If you were good, you got noticed and made it to the big time. But even if you never made it to the L.A. Times or a paper like that, you could have a really good career someplace like Long Beach or Torrance.

All that has changed now. The glamor of "The Front Page" is a thing of the past.

You know what they call kids who still want to go into print journalism?