Here’s to Overhead

Hire Up & Give ’Em Hell

Jaci Clement
Nov 4, 2017 · 6 min read
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The new black? Getting dissed by the new president.

Now that it happens on a regular basis — and in some cases, multiple times daily — an argument may be made it’s no longer news, much in the same way the news doesn’t deliver us stories headlined, ‘Man Sits Down to Breakfast’ or, alternatively, ‘Periodic Table of Elements Remains in Effect.’

Since the election, people, places and things are being called out, chastised, mocked and ridiculed by POTUS with alarming regularity, so much so that floggings via tweeting is clearly this president’s favorite sport.

So to Meryl Streep, ABC, CNN, NBC, Chuck Schumer, Serge Kovaleski of The New York Times, everybody else at The New York Times, many others and, well, all of Mexico, plus oodles traveling from most of the Middle East, good on ya for achieving this peculiar badge of honor. Wear it well.

It’s just that this technique, this communication style, goes against conventional wisdom, from basic axioms of leadership and public relations to every Mom’s adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

To openly and freely attack the press, in particular, takes this to a whole new level. The good news — always look for the good, right? — is the media has no intention of taking this lying down.

That right there is progress: For far too long, the press corps has been bogged down by political correctness and corporate hand wringing, stinging disapproval from shareholders, and advertisers thinking they run the newsroom. Then, toss in a bunch of wimpy editors with a need to be liked, others acutely aware of a mortgage in need to be paid, and a few who got their jobs not due to skill, but thanks to a cousin in human resources. Now, add in a bunch of inexperienced-but-willing-to-work-for-peanuts reporters who believe the advertisers. (“What? But they told me it was true. You mean they lied?”)

And there you have it, a look inside any newsroom, anywhere.

Dan Rather has often talked about how those in the news are in need of a ‘spinal transplant,’ to stand up to the oppressors who made the mere idea of committing an act of journalism impossible to achieve.

Rather also gives one of the best definitions of news out there: “Someone doing something they don’t want anyone to know.”

It’s the kind of definition that gives you pause, and makes you remember why journalism is so important, to man and country alike.

Maybe that’s the lesson here. Journalism is important. Via a bizarre public awareness campaign, the American people are beginning to see what they had taken for granted. Journalism doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t fall out of trees. Investigating is a skill. Fact checking takes time, patience … and skill.Editors bring more to the table than performing the human equivalent of spell check. Citizen journalists may mean well, but often go awry. And fake news purveyors take advantage of the public’s lack of media savvy.

Actual journalism costs money. If Silicon Valley wanted to improve the world instead of merely disrupting it, it would find a new way to support the foundation of our democracy via the free enterprise system.

While journalism is a profession, it’s much more of a craft. Know-how and intelligence that can’t be learned from books nor in class happen at the desk of the experienced editor, imparting a wisdom that had been handed down by an editor who came before him or her. Reporters who have traveled the globe bring back to a newsroom a view of life on the planet that can’t be duplicated, or replicated, by someone who hasn’t traversed the same places, at the same time and spoken with the same people. And that experience certainly can’t be gained through a Skype chat.

The art of the craft was appreciated by newsrooms before the corporate mindset crept in. And before technology blew apart the industry, when Craig’s List so dramatically ended newspapers’ reign as a classic economic indicator: If the paper landed with a thump, the economy was healthy. That thump was the hallmark of a strong classified advertising section, a true barometer for illustrating whether people, real people, are buying, selling and thus, propelling the economy forward.

But bean counters missed the boat when it came to the art of the craft. They looked at overhead numbers and surmised many unfortunate things. Things like why have multiple reporters covering business, when one will do? Or, why devote a reporter to business at all? Let’s make everyone general assignment reporters, so all reporters are on equal footing. As long as the space is filled, how hard can it be?

Ah, so much wrong with the logic, it makes sense only to the bean counters.

It also explains why the keepers of the flame, the protectors of our democracy, have failed so richly in their field that we have been catapulted into an era unlike any in American history.

Suffice it to say, when all reporters are equal, all of the stories are equally dumb.

By default and for far too long, the bean counters have been in charge of protecting our democracy.

It’s the hardened, experienced, doesn’t-play-well-with-others journalists we need most right now. The ones who earned their stripes by writing obituaries only to be promoted to sitting through numbing town hall meetings, then on to covering hurricanes by holding tight to a tree, lest they be lost at sea.

The ones who question politicians’ actions, motives and mental health, and will dumpster dive for the evidence. Who have come to understand and appreciate that the most extraordinary stories do not emanate from power or celebrity, but from those who are widely considered straight-up ordinary people.

The journalists who have done these things and worked their way up the ladder, these are the ones who have earned the bylines, or the seats at the anchor desk, or the titles that go with the corner offices to determine what makes it into tomorrow’s news. These journalists are the very same we need to teach the incoming crop of journalists, to show them the tricks of the trade and the art of the craft.

But these journalists are, to bean counters, ‘overhead.’ Too expensive to keep. Today, the question must be: How can you afford not to?

What the bean counters never quite got was the fact that the ‘overhead’ was never overhead at all but rather, the actual product. News is a living, breathing document that continuously changes, and the people putting the news together are what makes the document come alive. The document itself, whether in print or online? Merely the byproduct.

So there. Now you know.

The last thing we need, when our democracy is in crisis and the Doomsday clock moves closer to midnight, are news readers and journalists who can’t find their way around a FOIL request.

But the light at the end of the tunnel and boy, did it get dark in there!, is seen in acts such as CNN hiring up an investigative team and The New York Times, fresh off a circulation bump, rerouting some of its 1,000-plus reporting staff to where they can do the most important work.

It’s these types of decisions that filter through and down the industry, and embolden everyone.

Maybe, just maybe, the news media’s crisis of declining revenues and dwindling circulation is coming to an end because maybe, just maybe what it needed all along was not to chase eyeballs by posting to Facebook, but rather, simply standing up and doing its job.

This story was originally published Jan. 31, 2017

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