The raging culture war inside America’s newsrooms

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It’s been called a “civil war” in some of the nation’s leading newsrooms, a battle between generations of reporters and writers over the directions and goals of journalism, especially in how it covers challenging topics like race, gender and a certain figure in the White House.

One New York Times editor resigns. An opinion writer quits, citing a hostile environment. At New York magazine, celebrity journalist Andrew Sullivan says his goodbyes to colleagues for similar reasons. The battle pits conservatives against liberals, traditionalists against rebels. It all sounds like another high-profile front in the culture wars.

In many ways, yes, it is. But, like most civil wars throughout history, a central cause of this conflict is essentially economic: who gets fired, who gets furloughed, who maintains a piece of pie in an era of sharp decline.

Battles over news goals, direction and the ideal of objectivity were the hallmark of the 1960s and ’70s, too. Then as now, a young generation of journalists pushed to jettison objectivity as outdated and focus on the “deeper truth.” They argued that this was the best way to deal with what was called “the credibility gap,” sparked by less-than-reliable information about the Vietnam War coming out of the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

Rebellious reporters back then had choices: They could escape the confines of “establishment” media and move over to the burgeoning alternative press. Weeklies like The Village Voice, the Chicago Reader and LA Weekly were increasingly prosperous; they offered writers more freedom and a decent salary. Other journalists with different ambitions could jump into the fast-growing and well-paid world of TV news.

But the news world now finds itself in severe economic distress. Newsrooms have lost half their employees since 2008. The alternative media of this generation — former investment capital digital darlings such as Buzzfeed, Vice and Vox — find themselves struggling just like more traditional news organizations are. More and more journalists have been forced into the hated gig economy.

This puts pressure on various groups inside journalism to find a way to stay safe amid the tumult. That’s especially crucial for women, younger and more diverse reporters; in a trend that’s been frustratingly hard to shake, they’re typically the last hired and the first fired. COVID-related layoffs have been particularly hard on these groups, in industry after industry.

Were that all-too-typical hiring/firing practice left unchallenged, the very real concern is that diversity gains made in newsrooms would be washed away in the continuing flood of journalism layoffs.

The revolt is also another smack against the promises of “meritocracy.” Young reporters — like young professionals everywhere — were sold a story: Study hard, get into a good college, go to journalism school, and you’ll find your seat inside the gates of your chosen workplace. But now they struggle to stay afloat under the twin threats of student debt and job loss.

Even outlets like the New York Times, Conde Nast magazines, and the network news divisions — once the gold standards of job stability, offering something close to tenure for top journalists — now face continual pressure to keep costs low and workforces lean.

That stress and economic anger contributes to the battles now confronting so many media organizations: Every staff has its guard up, every reporter wonders who gets to keep working if I get told to leave. Everyone is aware of the pain that is here and the pain that is coming. But this part of the newsroom civil war won’t change unless that economic pain can be spread equally, and not just fall on the young and diverse.

Spreading economic anguish evenly is not something the country in general has been able to do well in recent decades or in recent years. Young reporters — many of whom came of age in the Great Recession and the slow climb out of it — know all too well how that game is played.

That’s the essence of their battle: They need the rules to finally change.

But how that change comes about will be crucial. Change won’t stop employment contraction in journalism, it will just set up different categories of winners and losers. And if COVID-related financial losses continue to mount, those categories may get ever narrower. As the jobs get fewer, will the number of people who “should” keep their jobs get fewer also?

Right now, a lot of news management has dealt with this clash on an ad-hoc, case-by-case basis, seeming to duck the big issues at play. It needs to focus on those — and begin to establish new methods for dealing with a journalism financial crisis that hasn’t yet seen its final paragraph written.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Culture war Diversity Journalism journalist Meritocracy News media newsroom
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