For months, and maybe years, a young reporter named Jayson Blair filled the pages of the august New York Times with news stories he often made up. After investigating why he got away with so much fabrication for so long, a Times committee laid some of the blame on an unexpected source: lack of training.
The group’s just-released report concluded that Blair’s superiors had been promoted to their positions on the basis of their own news-gathering ability, and they had never received proper guidance on how to mentor and manage the hundreds of aggressive journalists in their charge.
In response, the Times announced last month that it would hire its first-ever assistant managing editor in charge of training, career development, recruitment, promotions and evaluations. Times spokesman Tony Usnik says the paper hopes to fill the position by this month and will follow the committee’s recommendation that the post "be invested with unambiguous authority to oversee the implementation of programs" to correct managerial shortcomings.
The new training and career-development editor faces a host of problems that go beyond the recent rash of scandals. An internal Times survey conducted last year "suggested that many employees didn’t have a high level of trust in their managers and did not believe the current system would truly recognize merit and advance their careers." Many veteran Times newspeople have never had a performance review.
James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and a former Times reporter, says the new training editor will have to have the promised "unambiguous" authority in order to succeed. "Newspapers have already cut their staffs to the bone, and editors don’t want to allow their people to spend time on anything that doesn’t help fill the next day’s paper," Naughton says. "The training editor will need the authority to require that mid-level editors be given sufficient time for training."
Naughton believes that the unique, insular culture of the Times would make it difficult for someone brought in from outside to succeed in the position. The training editor, he says, should be a current senior editor who is already respected throughout the organization. To earn the support of skeptical newspeople, Naughton says, the content of the training programs must be practical rather than theoretical. And in the long run, newspeople must see that those who advance through the organization have received training.
The training problems at the Times are hardly unique. In a national survey conducted last year by Princeton Survey Research Associates, American journalists said lack of training was their primary reason for job dissatisfaction, ahead of low pay and benefits. The news industry spends an average of 0.7 percent of payroll on training, compared to 2 percent by all American companies, according to the Knight Foundation, a journalism group in Miami.
"Lack of training is an artifact of the newsroom culture," says Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives for the Knight Foundation. "Newsrooms are filled with people who are paid to find things out. So, historically, there’s been a feeling that reporters don’t need to be trained because they can just find out whatever they need to know."
But experts say newspapers are realizing that journalism managers are no different than their counterparts in other industries—and the skills necessary to motivate and supervise employees don’t come through osmosis.
Workforce Management, September 2003, p. 15 -- Subscribe Now!