How editors are adapting to the new generation of journalists: ‘We need to be open and learn as much as we teach.’
Young journalists are a different breed. The new generation of reporters approach their work in a way that causes suspicion among their older colleagues. And sometimes the leadership struggles to deal with the different values and approaches that exist within the newsroom.
This was the key message that David Boardman, Dean at Temple University School of Media and Communications, had gathered from his recent conversations with both journalism students and working editors.
Speaking during a panel at WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress 2022 in Zaragoza, Boardman listed some specific examples that can lead to tension:
- Young reporters question the journalistic principle of “objectivity,” saying it has led to a false balance of voices with topics such as climate change.
- Young journalists prioritise a healthy work-life balance (instead of working overtime to “pay their dues”), and often prefer the home office over the newsroom.
- The young are frustrated by the lack of progress in diversity and representation, as newsrooms and particularly editorial offices remain “overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male.”
These are real and frequent conversations also at Süddeutsche Zeitung, said Wolfgang Krach, the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief. And recent changes in the newsroom have only intensified these debates: in a newsroom of 500 people, about 100 were hired during the past few years.
“So we have a lot of young people, and we’re having exactly these discussions,” Krach said. “I feel this tension in our newsroom every day.“
Different generations working together successfully
On the other hand, Krach said that different generations can also work together and collaborate effectively. For instance, the investigative team of Süddeutsche Zeitung – which has worked on big projects such as the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers – consists of journalists of different generations.
“We have investigative journalists who are very experienced, traditional reporters. And then we took some young people with new skills into the team, for example data experts, open-source intelligence, geotagging … And in this team, it’s working very well to have the young and the old together.”
This setup creates opportunities for knowledge exchange: younger journalists gain experience in investigative journalistic methods, while the older ones learn new technical skills.
Another factor that causes tensions is that young journalists are more prone to take a stand on certain societal issues, which some say comes into conflict with the traditional journalism value of impartiality. The panellists were careful to draw the line between fact-based reporting and outright activism.
“It’s an issue that I face myself,” said Diana Moukalled, Co-Founder of Daraj.com, an independent news media covering the Arab Region. “Many claim I mix activism and journalism.”
She referred to her publication’s series of stories that exposed the wealth of the Governor of the Lebanese Central Bank and led to further investigations in several European countries. “We were accused of having a campaign against him … When it was all based on facts.”
Similarly, during its Panama Papers project into money laundering, Süddeutsche Zeitung was accused of campaigning against the banks and the people it covered as part of this investigation. Krach was clear to deny this: “We did journalistic work. We were covering injustice in the world where rich people have the opportunity to launder their money and avoid taxes.”
“We did it in a journalistic way, with the sources, with the facts, and we also gave the voice to the banks who were doing the money laundering, and the people who did it. We were accused of activism, but this has nothing to do with activism,” he said.
Newsroom leadership is ‘a team task’
A related question is the issue of how people are promoted into a leadership position in the newsroom in the first place. Boardman pointed out that the way one traditionally rose in the ranks doesn’t prepare you for today’s requirements.
“Historically, the top editor generally was, if not the best journalist in the room, then one of the best. That’s how you rose. You were a great reporter and then you got promoted.”
“But often the top editors were not great managers, they didn’t have the soft skills. Now, you’re looking for both the hard journalistic skills and soft skills. I’m not sure you can get that from one person very well. A lot of it comes down to the team you build around you.”
Krach echoed this point by saying that as an editor-in-chief, he works on many things he never received any training for, ranging from audience development to talent scouting – or simply managing a newsroom of 500 people.
“You have to recognise that leading a newsroom is a team task. I’m not able to fill the requirements expected. We are a team … To manage the transition of the newsroom and to manage bringing together the younger talent with older ones, I can’t do this on my own.”
This requires adopting an open mindset and the ability to distribute responsibilities while also learning from the younger generations, Boardman said. “We as the editors of today cannot be defensive, we need to be open and to learn as much as we teach.”
Unlocking the audience engagement mindset with data
Finally, the panel discussed how younger journalists tend to be more open to engaging their audiences and to tailoring their journalism to those audiences. How could older journalists, who might not be as used to considering their readers’ needs and interests, be convinced to adopt a more audience-focused mindset?
“I think it’s based on data,” said Moukalled. “For example, knowing that in the Top 10 stories of the year there are at least three investigative stories, I think that would force the editors-in-chief in any newsroom to understand the importance of having investigative stories.”
“So, it’s about the ability of editors to listen to what the numbers say, what data says, and to build policies and strategies based on that information. Otherwise, the newsroom won’t flourish,” she said.
Krach added that without data, one is operating on little more than gut instinct: “When we started to introduce data in the newsroom some years ago, we saw that many of our assumptions about what our readers were interested in were not true.
“This is a learning process, and it only works when we look at facts, we look at the data, and we see that our assumptions were not right, and we have to change something. I think this is the only way: data and facts,” he said.