The wrenching changes — diminution, that is — of newsrooms and editorial pages across the nation were the subject of an interesting discussion on KCUR’s Central Standard show today.
Host Gina Kaufmann’s main guest was Yael Abouhalkah, a Kansas City Star editorial writer for 32 years..until Publisher Tony Berg fired him (with severance) a few weeks ago.
As most of you are painfully aware, The Star currently has no editorial writers and has been filling the editorial page with letters to the editor — a great thing for letter writers but not so good for the community at large, especially in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 general election.
What has happened at The Star is not unique at major metropolitan dailies. You have to look no farther than to St. Louis, where that paper’s editorial page was down to two people a while back. Also, of course, the number of editorial employees at newsrooms nationwide is severely diminished from 10 years ago, when the sledgehammer effect of people turning to the Internet for their news and opinions began registering.
Scott Reinardy, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, said on today’s show that between 2005 and 2015, newsrooms across the country cut about a third of their editorial employees, or about 20,000 people. Some newspapers, he said, sliced editorial-side employment 60 to 70 percent.
A third guest, David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review, said that as newsrooms cut loose experienced employees, what they forsake is “local or regional knowledge of power players” and a font of institutional knowledge.
“Editorial writers,” Uberti said, “tend to be very experienced journalists with deep ties to the communities. There’s no substitute for experience in that regard.”
A new editorial page editor — Colleen McCain Nelson — is due to begin working at The Star perhaps late next month, and she will face big challenges. In addition to having to assemble a staff (I doubt that Berg will allot her more than a couple of writers) she will have to familiarize herself with the community and its political and civic leadership. Although she is a KU graduate, she has never worked in this area. She’s currently a political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and before that she was an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News.
(Coincidentally, a former editorial-page colleague of hers at the Morning News, Tod Robberson, was named editorial page editor at the Post-Dispatch early this year. Robberson and Nelson worked on a series of editorials that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. The series, called “Bridging Dallas’ North-South Gap,” focused on gaps in economic opportunity, race relations, housing and education in different parts of Dallas.)
As for Abouhalkah, who is 61, he has started a blog — http://www.yaelabouhalkah.com — and told Gina Kaufmann he did not go away mad. He managed to get a career in and build a financial nest egg that should afford him and his family a comfortable lifestyle.
I was lucky that way, too, having retired at age 60 in 2006. But a lot of journalists — those whose careers were cut down when they were in their 30s, 40s, 50s and some in their early 60s — not only went away mad, but frustrated and disillusioned. I know a few of them, and I completely understand how they felt and still feel to some degree. So does Reinardy, the KU professor, who has written a book called Journalism’s Lost Generation: The Un-Doing of U.S. Newspaper Newsrooms.
In a recent Columbia Journalism Review interview, Reinardy said that in doing research for the book he spent a lot of time interviewing current and former journalists. He described the mood that has formed in newsrooms around the country as a sort of “organizational depression.”
He explained it this way:
“There has been so much loss in those newsrooms. Journalists don’t necessarily just lose jobs, they lose careers and some real self-identity. I had many journalists who broke down and cried, who were so genuinely upset about what had happened to the profession they loved so dearly. It was really troubling.
“So I don’t have a statistical measurement for morale, but when you start walking into these newsrooms and talking to people who dedicated 20 years or 25 years or 30 years of their life to not only the profession but maybe even this individual newspaper, it was pretty telling to see how upset they were at what had occurred to their beloved industry.”
…One final note: Gina Kaufmann told listeners she invited Tony Berg to appear on the show. Berg accepted an invitation to appear on Central Standard back in March, two months after he had become publisher. But this time, when the subject matter was obviously going to be dicey for him, it was a different story. “We never heard back,” Kaufmann said.