Memory Loss

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Posted November 8, 2006 by DAN MCGRAW in News

When young people start in the journalism business, the importance of five W’s is tattooed on their brains. The who, what, where, and when are the easy part. It is the “why” part of the job that’s tough.

That’s why young reporters often cover cop beats and lower-level government meetings. If you’re covering an arrest for murder, you report who the suspect is, what happened, where it took place, and the date. On those straightforward stories, a young reporter can feel more like a court stenographer, and on crime stories, the “why” is usually pure speculation.

But as journos get older, the good ones start connecting the dots to try to find out and explain to readers why things happen. Are drug arrests happening repeatedly at a particular apartment complex? Maybe the landlord is giving a pass to the dealers. Are domestic violence victims dying because cops failed to arrest the abusers after the first, second, or third 911 call?

I’m not making this point because I’m a 47-year old writer (though I admit bias on this issue). What is happening in the media world – especially at daily newspapers – is that downsizing is affecting veterans of the business much more so than the young ones. And because mainstream media aren’t very good at writing about themselves, there’s little explanation as to the “why” of this trend and how it affects the content of the news you read.

Last month, 18 former Dallas Morning News employees who were terminated in 2004 filed a federal age-discrimination lawsuit against the paper’s parent company, Belo Corp. There are many accusations here: that the paper stereotyped older workers as unable to adapt to new technology, that they were considered lazy or unable to handle the new mantra of a multitude of job responsibilities.

But a key allegation in this lawsuit is that jobs are being cut allegedly because the position itself is being deleted. But then a few months later, younger journalists are hired to do essentially the same jobs with slightly different titles. We all know what’s really happening: The older writers and editors draw bigger salaries and costlier benefits. And that’s making media bosses believe that veteran newspeople’s experience is now worthless.

In September, the DMN gave buyouts to 111 mostly middle-aged writers and editors (not to be replaced, bosses said), another trend that’s nationwide and local. At the Star-Telegram, positions are being left unfilled when older workers retire or are canned, and the official word is that no jobs are currently available. But several reporters with only intern experience have been brought in this year to take slots that once cost the Star-T a lot more dough.

Buyouts and firings of workers who no longer fit in is not always bad company policy. But in the news business, there has always been a blend of younger and more experienced folks who make sure the important job of delivering the news is well-balanced, both in content choice and fairness. Newspapers need young and aggressive reporters who aspire to the New York Times some day. They can be hard-working and fearless and not cynical.

But papers also need the middle-aged workers who know the Times is a long-lost dream and now concentrate on using their experience to answer the “whys.” The older journalists can point out to the younger reporters why something that seems meaningless can be significant.

At a recent Fort Worth city council meeting, a bi-racial couple said that city cops had used racial profiling to run them out of business. The mayor ordered the police department to conduct an investigation. We covered it, but the Star-T ignored it (even though it took us two weeks to get it into print). Why? Because the daily paper’s less-experienced city hall reporters did not think it much of a story since council didn’t vote on the matter. Those were their marching orders.

Where experience comes into play is in the reporters who figure out after years on the job that council and other governmental votes often happen after the fact, when all has been decided. But daily newspapers are all about filling space these days, becoming C-SPAN in print. Working as a glorified court stenographer is simpler – and much cheaper – than trying to explain all the angles to your readers.

Some of these issues are even more basic. I was working for NBC-5 writing news for their morning show, when Pantera lead singer “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was shot. The producers, all in their 20s, at first didn’t think it was a big deal, because they had never heard of Pantera. Then they asked what the term “dimebag” meant.

Having a few gray hairs in the newsroom who know the history of the city, know how some issues affect readers who are older than 25, and can deliver quickly on breaking news can be a big plus. And maybe reporters who know what a dimebag is shouldn’t be looked down upon in this cost-cutting corporate media world.

 


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