Journalism’s Perilous Generation Gap
Legacy institutions are products of a vanishing world. But that’s no excuse for the persistence of regressive newsroom cultures.
By Alexa Peters
Late one night in early May, a millennial writer named Talia Jane was conversing with Seattle Times reporter Mike Rosenberg through direct message on Twitter. After discussing the cost of living in Seattle, the exchange devolved into Rosenberg making unwanted and crude sexual advances.
Rosenberg told Jane — and later, Crosscut — that the apparent advances were not intended for her, but part of a parallel conversation with another person. Jane rejected his defense and sent a complaint to the Seattle Times. Rosenberg was suspended shortly thereafter.
During my year as a news assistant and digital homepage producer at the Seattle Times, I knew Mike Rosenberg only peripherally. But his attitude toward a young female journalist captures much about the culture that drove me, at 27, to leave a coveted job at a legacy institution to freelance full-time.
I am not alone. Millennials, and millennial women especially, are forgoing and quitting journalism jobs and careers at an alarming rate. In 2017, the Daily Beast reported that six of 11 top journalism students in the country that year chose not to continue or pursue careers in journalism. While pay was cited as a major factor, it was not the only one. Also driving them away is a generational divide and the related persistence of regressive newsroom cultures, especially at legacy newspapers.
Any conversation about this crisis must start with that other, better-known crisis: In the digital age, profit margins at print papers have slimmed, requiring buy-outs and lay-offs, and forcing newspapers to embrace the internet and redefine their business practices to survive. As for The Seattle Times, the company saw substantial lay-offs and buy-outs in 2008, 2012, and 2016–17 as they contended with the impact of digital media. Between 2016 and April 2019, the number of newsroom employees fell from 178 to 145.
This reality has drastically impacted morale, causing fear and burn-out for journalists of all ages. Old-school journalists cling to what they know, while new journalists try their best to learn while navigating a rapidly changing and contracting industry.
“The younger generation is still trying to figure out the direction [and] the culture of the newspaper,” said Scott Reinhardy,author of Journalism’s Lost Generation: The Un-Doing of U.S. Newspaper Newsrooms. “I’m not sure that generation [is] getting a lot of guidance from the older generation, because the older generation is just too darned busy to instill some of the qualities and the mission that had previously been established.”
Newsroom rifts between digital and print, and young and old, are not exactly new. In 2010, when Alexandra Hazlett began working at the New York Daily News at age 23, they were fully established and causing tensions that could no longer be ignored. “The internet was remaking the newsroom,” she said. “Being a young person in a newsroom was a challenge because there were things that to younger [internet] journalists seem[ed natural], but to older more veteran journalists, very foreign.”
The generational divide continues to deepen with the accelerating pace of technological change, as neither group is sure the other has the skills to do good journalism. Joyce Chen, who worked with Hazlett at the Daily News until 2012, says this distrust defined the newsroom culture at the famous daily.
“Legacy newsmen didn’t think these young kids [knew] the nuts and bolts of good reporting. How do you write a lead? Are you asking the right questions? Did you source it to five different people?” said Chen. “Meanwhile, you had this younger guard coming in [that has] had to learn how to adapt to writing and reporting for the web.”
I saw this attitude first-hand at the Seattle Times. During a largely successful push from the top to gain more digital subscribers, many old guard employees, especially those in their 50s and 60s, struggled with new tactics. They didn’t understand social media. They questioned the advice and purpose of the younger digital production team. Often, they hadn’t updated their technology to report more efficiently. A few of them were still using turn-of-the-century cell phones.
Meanwhile, many younger folks like myself spent the bulk of our time staring at screens and “managing” content, detached from the reporting, writing, and editing that we had entered the field to do.
This divide keeps the generations from intermingling and trading the skills that the other group needs. It also creates feelings of isolation, resentment and stagnation in the workplace. And the discord seeps into coverage.
Legacy newspapers often struggle to report stories that might build young digital readership, drive new digital subscriptions, and retain millennial journalists. This is especially true with regard to culture coverage. Reportage and criticism of live music, to pick just one example, is growing scarcer throughout print journalism, even as the percentage of millennials that attend live music events continues to rise. (It hit 66 percent in November 2018.) When papers do write about culture and music that appeals to millennials, the generation gap can cause much bigger problems.
At the SeattleTimes, arts and culture coverage often felt like it was being reported from another planet.
For instance, the paper’s use of coded language was a blatant turn-off to younger readers and employees. In 2015, the headline of a music piece called the lead singer of Flavr Blue, an Asian woman, “Macklemore’s sidekick” in a Seattle Times music piece, sparking a fire storm of bad press and the rise of a #JournalismSoWhite hashtag. The paper issued a public apology, but its writers didn’t learn the lesson. The following year, a sports reporter said the retirement announcement by famously taciturn Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch was not “classy.” A 2018 review of a Kendrick Lamar concert described the rapper as “python-gulping lean” and included the line, “peeling off like a Lambo down Crenshaw Boulevard.”
White male reporters signaling black culture and experience in this way is off-putting, at best, and racist, at worst. And millennials won’t ignore it.
During an all-staff meeting convened about the Seattle Times’ struggle with newsroom diversity (and in response to this Columbia Journalism Review special report), one of the newsroom’s few reporters of color — who was also a millennial — said she’d read some pieces that she found to be “racist.” She was visibly shaking.
In response, an older white male editor spoke up that she needed to speak up more when she saw this language — as opposed to everyone educating themselves and developing a sense for this sort of language in the first place, which is the sort of “culture of inclusion” young people are looking for in their workplaces.
According to a Brookings report, “The millennial generation, now 44 percent minority, is the most diverse adult generation in American history.” Millennials will go as far as to take a pay-cut to encourage equity for their diverse coworkers, Forbes reports. Hence, getting this coverage wrong feels personal to the demographic, and affects their desire to affiliate with newspapers.
“If the news industry wants to attract a new audience — those of us who will be reading news for many years to come — its current leaders need to make some pretty significant changes in newsrooms, and it starts with who you hire and value,” wrote journalist JT Arowosaye on Medium.“It only makes sense to start pushing newsrooms to not just hire, but respect millennial journalists because we are your key to capturing a loyal millennial audience.”
These complaints have not fallen entirely on deaf ears. During my time at the paper, I saw some employees work overtime to help others learn digital practices and to encourage diversity. The Diversity Task Force gained steam, as did the mentorship program. A book club to educate staff on social issues was formed. Some diverse hires were made.
That said, these efforts were overwhelmingly made by millennials and reporters of color, who would often burn-out on having to police the paper’s social awareness. Nor is meeting diversity quotas enough for millennials. Ultimately, we look at management’s intent.
“After the [Macklemore’s] ‘sidekick’ debacle, and the ensuing cry inside the newsroom, management made determined, vigorous, and anxious efforts to hire more POC,” said one source inside the Seattle Times newsroom who asked to remain anonymous. “A number of good and highly-anticipated hires have since been made, but of those, many of them have left unhappy and disappointed.”
Additionally, the newsrooms’ organizational style deters millennial talent because it encourages the continuation of outdated power structures that devalue millennials.
The hyper-masculine “prove yourself” ethos, for example, is more about preserving the status quo than training young hires — especially when men are so obviously benefitting from the culture. Men have 62 percent of bylines and other credits in print, online, TV and wire news, according to the Women’s Media Center report “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2017.”
It’s no wonder, then, that millennials, especially women, aren’t wont to stay in these newsrooms. As Nieman Lab reported in late 2018, “We’re at risk of permanently losing a generation of journalists to other fields due to instability — but also because of poor management, lack of support, and opportunities for growth.”
Last November, a 27-year-old journalist named Stephanie Butzer was considering applying for a job at the Denver Post. When she saw they had recently laid off 30 people, she changed her mind. “I’m not going to go apply to stand on a sinking ship,” she said. Similar thinking led 28-year-old Kassondra Cloos to abandon her dream of working in newspapers. She started her career working for the Daily News Record in Harrisonburg, VA, but the poor pay and her large student loans, coupled with inflexible hours, made freelancing more appealing.
Something else contributed to her decision: A male reporter told her that a manager had told him that a woman would never hold the position of crime reporter, because it was a man’s job. “It’s hard to hear that coming in as a 22 or 23-year-old woman,” she said. “That’s not an encouraging thing to hear at all.”
A similar drumbeat of discouraging messages and behaviors coming from the top caused me to resign from my job at the Seattle Times. After months of showing my ambition, improving my skills, asking questions, and still being denied the three full-time jobs I applied for, I eventually gave up on trying to make the environment work for me.
When I asked my managers if I could apply for an open reporting fellowship, they said I was “not qualified.” They said I would have to go back to journalism school if I wanted to move up from my permanent part-time position. As I considered this, I asked a full-time male reporter if he’d attended journalism school. He said no.
Then and there, I put in my two weeks and began carving my way more diligently as a freelance writer. Since then, my income has more than doubled, and my happiness and sense of safety have drastically improved. This bodes well for my future, but not necessarily for the future of newspapers.
Alexa Peters is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle. She’s written about music and culture for the Seattle Times, Leafly,Thrillist, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and the Washington Post.
Last edited: June 5, 2019
Author: Alexa Peters
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash