Behind The Scene With Newspaper Journalists

According to a new report: "Life beyond print: Newspaper journalists' digital appetite" by the Media Management Center, Northwestern University, almost half of today's newspaper journalists think their newsroom's transition from print to digital is moving too slowly, as they have no trouble envisioning a career where news is delivered primarily online and to mobile devices instead of in print.

MMC executive director Michael P. Smith, says "For several years we have heard that it is the journalists' resistance to change that was holding newspapers back... this study shows that they are ready, and some are even impatient, for change."

Now it appears that America's journalists want a quicker transformation from print to digital delivery of the news, a study of almost 3,800 people in a cross-section of newspaper newsrooms shows. Many of these journalists are heavily engaged in digital activities in their personal lives and would like to devote more effort to digital products at work. But most of their time in the newsroom is still spent on print responsibilities. Only 20% of the workforce like things the way they are or yearn for the good old days.

Life Beyond Print, a study by Vickey Williams, Stacy Lynch and Bob LeBailly, assembles profiles of six types of journalists inhabiting the typical newspaper newsroom in 2009. They range from the "Digitals" (12% of the workforce) who spend a majority of their efforts online today, to the "Turn Back the Clock" contingent (6%), who long for the day when print was king.

Fully half of newsroom workers wish to do "Moderately More" online, arriving at something closer to an equal split with their print efforts, requiring a doubling of the effort they spend today. Those in the "Major Shift" profile (11%) would devote five times their current effort to online if given their druthers.

Newspaper journalists still love their jobs: Despite industry turmoil:

  • 77% of journalists are somewhat or very satisfied with their current jobs
  • 67% think it somewhat or very likely they will be in the news business two years from now
  • 59% think they'll likely be with their same newspaper

Online desire in the newsroom is not determined by age, years of journalism experience, or proximity to retirement. And youth is not a factor in predicting who in the newsroom wants to move into digital. Rather, the top two predictors of digital appetite are heavy Internet use outside work and having knowledge of online audiences and their preferences.

Previous Readership Institute research has proven the importance of customer knowledge as a first step in building media use, says the report. Real customer focus also includes acting on the results and letting customer needs drive internal decision-making. This study offers a new reason why knowing the audience is important... it helps stimulate a desire to transition to online work. Other predictors of digital appetite include:

  • Openness to change at work and adaptability
  • Proactive pursuit of the training necessary to learn online skills
  • Keeping up with companywide initiatives and industry developments

The study creates these profiles of journalists:

Digitals, about 12% of the workforce, spend most of their time working online. They're the youngest group, with an average age of 38, and 59% believe the digital transformation is taking too long in their newsroom. They follow big-picture trends, want to quicken the pace These journalists are most likely to be online editors or producers, but about 17% are reporters or writers. Overall, they're newer to journalism than any other group.

Digitals score highly on factors that relate to adaptability - such as openness to change and work and career proactivity. They're similar to leaders in this and many other respects. They're most apt to describe themselves as the first to try something new at work and as having career options.

In a key finding, digital employees label themselves markedly more knowledgeable about consumers of digital, and at the same level of print reader knowledge as their print counterparts. Overall they are much more aware of customer behaviors and needs.

Other findings:

  • More than half of the Digitals have undergraduate or graduate degrees in journalism
  • 23% have no post-secondary journalism training
  • 42% have been in the news business less than 10 years
  • 11% have been journalists for more than 30 years
  • The average age is the youngest for any segment

Major Shift, at 11%, are the most dissatisfied with their current state, more pessimistic about staying in the business long-term and want the most pronounced change. This group - roughly an equal mix of reporters, mid-level editors, copy editors, designers and videographers, most of whom have been in the business at least 15 years - would like to devote five times their current effort to online. They're deeply engaged online in their personal lives, but see a disconnect at work. They could help the newsroom adapt faster, but need a sign they should stay in newspapers.

Moderately More, the largest segment at 50% and encompassing many reporters and mid-level editors, want a roughly equal split between online and print work. Half the newsroom believes their newsroom transition has been too slow and would be comfortable seeing their job duties shift moderately more online. But by nearly a 2-1 margin, they believe the newsroom is headed in the right direction.

Some of the Moderately More defining characteristics include:

  • Their ideal job would be divided about 50-50 between print and online effort, requiring a doubling of their digital effort today.
  • They tend to have been in the business more than 20 years
  • 43% are reporters and another 22% are mid-level editors
  • They would hire more reporters and editors, improve print content and improve the Web site design, in that order.

The Status Quo segment, at 14%, believe the 30% of effort they currently devote to online is sufficient and expect little disruption to the way they work now. In newsrooms where improving digital performance is a top strategic priority, this group will need a wake-up call. These journalists believe the evolution of newspapers has gone far enough. Just less than a third of their current effort centers online and they would prefer to see no change.

Most of the Status Quos believe the pace of change to date has been "about right," whether in respect to their own job or newsroom-wide change. They forecast more moderate or minimal changes to come than the rest of the newsroom. This group is slightly older than the overall population. Nearly half are age 50 or older and 1-in-10 is 60 or older.

If put in command, they would:

  • First hire more reporters and editors
  • Invest in improving print content
  • Support online investment, but third after print improvements and increasing manpower

Turn Back the Clock segment represents 6% of journalists who wish it would all go away. This part of the staff would go more heavily into print if they could. They report about 30% of their current effort is spent online, nearly triple the amount they would prefer. This is a group that has tested the online environment and they don't like it.

This group weighs toward reporters and photographers and they closely mirror the newsroom average for age and years until retirement. What particularly sets them apart from others is their low levels of adaptability. Asked to rate themselves on openness to change, how they approach change at work, and career resilience, they rated significantly lower than other print employees and dramatically lower than digital employees or senior managers.

Individuals in this group report being less satisfied than their Status Quo colleagues. They also have the lowest opinion of leaders of all the groups and are least likely, in particular, to believe executives really understand what it takes to put out the newspaper.

Leaders, at 5%, are publishers, editors and managing editors, most of whom have been in the news business more than 20 years. Most report their roles are primarily print-focused but want to shift to online. Like Digitals, they describe themselves as open to change and optimistic about their career options.

  • Publishers, editors and managing editors indicate they are spending about a quarter of their work effort on online matters, but believe the emphasis should shift to favor digital (53%) over print responsibilities
  • 28% of leaders think their job is changing too fast overall, which could reflect the lack of clarity around a business model to sustain digitally delivered journalism.
  • Leaders tend to be more than a decade older (49), and 77% have been in the news business more than 20 years, including 42% for more than 30 years.
  • Leaders are more confident in the overall direction of the newsroom, with nearly 70% saying the newsroom is on the right track, as compared to about 45% of Digitals.
  • This group reports somewhat greater Internet use outside work than other journalists. On the job, they use the Internet as a reporting or editing tool, but likely not for much else. Given their druthers, they would post more, plan more and link more online.

The study concludes with challenge the leaders face:

  • Journalists' passion for the mission is there, but they need basic tools for reinvention and more engaged leadership. More than half of the journalists working primarily in print had no training in the previous year to equip them for a digital transition. One in four journalists reports having had no training at all
  • There are major gaps between how leaders think they are doing and how staff view them, in such areas as fostering collaboration, seeking out input from employees at all levels, and communicating strategy in a way that relates to employees' jobs

In addition, there are differing expectations for leaders among the segments:

  • Digitals want leaders to be even more immersed in online trends and to sharpen the digital vision
  • Major Shifts want more risk-taking
  • Status Quos generally like what leaders are doing and advocate staying the course.

Please visit the Median Management Center here to read the more complete PDF version of the report.







2 comments about "Behind The Scene With Newspaper Journalists".
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  1. Donald Frazier from OneVideo Technology, October 22, 2009 at 11:39 a.m.

    Working mainly as a journalist for magazines around the world for the last few years, I am perfectly able and willing to jump into online. Yet I insist on working exclusively for print. Why? The money. We have not yet seen the emergence of a viable business model for online journalism. A print magazine will pay between $2500 and $4000 for a feature story, and will support it with editing, fact-checking, design, photography and so on. By contrast, the few online outlets that pay at all pay quite poorly, and most pay on a page-view basis which they do nothing to support.

    It's even worse with the online editorial services. The Internet has made possible a wholesale commodification of journalism through such services, where McDonald's-style pay is quite good, much less is common, and $3 to $5 for a researched, sourced article is not unheard of.

    I'd be eager to hear fellow readers' advice on how to do decent work and get paid for it by writing for online. Until that happens, I will stick with the technology of Gutenberg. I do encourage you to reply; this is a dialogue that can raise consciousness of these issues and in the end do a lot of good.

  2. Bruce Wood, October 22, 2009 at 4:30 p.m.

    Donald Frazier is correct. The digital business model will not support traditional journalism at this time. If the main stream media don't stop giving away their original content for free on the web, they will undermine their print editions and go out of business.

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