Miami Herald reporter Neil Reisner is coaxing us through the language of spreadsheets--medians, percentages and, of course, errors. "It's mechanical, there's no math involved," he says reassuringly to the half-dozen journalists hunched over computers in the basement of Boston's Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel.
As Reisner demonstrates how to find percentage change, my fingers haltingly inch toward the keyboard. I tap one key, then another, and another. With the third stroke, the carefully summed numbers vanish from my screen. I frantically pound more keys, hoping in vain to find the magical "undo" function. A young man sitting in front of me is doing the same thing. Instead, an error message flashes across our monitors.
"You have proved my theory about journalists," Reisner exclaims, fixing us with an exasperated look. "We have the attention span of fleas."
But an hour later, he still has our attention. We click and drag and type in long strings of formulas. I am learning, but I can't help feeling in a hurry. With little time and few resources to learn computer-assisted reporting in most newsrooms, journalists cram in what they can at training conferences like this one organized by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting and Investigative Reporters & Editors. Even then, these skills may well have to be learned again.
"I remember it right now," says one of my fellow students, Jay Reeves, an Associated Press reporter who runs a one-person bureau in Birmingham, Alabama. "If I went back next week and tried to use it, I could probably do it. In a month, I would get stumped."
This year's NICAR national conference in Boston drew 560 of us--the number swells most every year--and its weeklong "boot camps," held mainly at the University of Missouri, have taken 752 journalists through statistics and databases since 1994. This in a business that a decade ago had barely heard the term "computer-assisted reporting."
The NICAR sessions ride a veritable wave of new training opportunities available to newspaper journalists these days, just as their popularity reflects a changing attitude in the industry about professional development in general. Indeed, as newspapers confront their complicated future, there have never been more training outlets or more journalists taking advantage of them.
On the other hand, there has never been more frustration. In an increasingly specialized and computerized world, training remains a low or nonexistent priority at too many papers--especially the smaller ones, which account for the vast majority of the nation's dailies. There are papers that do send their staffers to programs like the NICAR conference in Boston but then offer little in the way of follow-up training when they return. Some papers keep their training mostly in-house, with varying results. Others don't even do that. Every year, thousands of reporters and editors are still forced to burn vacation time or pay their own way if they want to learn new skills.
Even allowing for the undeniable progress, many journalists remain troubled by the catch-as-catch-can training situation.
"If we think that we are doing enough training, we are completely out of touch," says Bill Ostendorf, managing editor of visuals at the Providence Journal, who uses his vacation time to teach management, photo content and design in other newsrooms. "Everywhere I go, people tell me over and over again: 'I feel incompetent.' Everybody."
Newsroom training: Gone are the days when it was considered a frill, like a company gym, or little more than a plum for a paper's stars. In the past decade, newspaper companies have begun to invest more heavily in training that better equips their journalists to cover a transforming world. Since 1988, for instance, the Washington Post has sent 84 staff members to intensive writing and editing seminars at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. That works out to some seven journalists every year, and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees and travel expenses (not to mention the cost of their salaries while they attend). Over the same period, the Philadelphia Inquirer has freed up 34 staff members to immerse themselves for a week in such topics as nuclear energy and public health at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Many more companies are taking advantage of one- and two-day training conferences that are within a few hours' drive of their papers. In April, Community Newspaper Co., the Fidelity subsidiary that owns four small dailies and 87 weeklies in Massachusetts, sent 88 journalists to the National Writers Workshop in Hartford, Connecticut. The registration fees and hotel expenses came to more than $10,000. "In the community, we are a small newspaper, but in certain areas, like training and recruitment, it pays to be a bigger operation," says Vicki Ogden, Community's staff development editor.
That recognition of training's importance has led to a surge in professional programs around the country. NICAR, for instance, is an initiative of IRE and Missouri's School of Journalism. Poynter and the American Press Institute are aggressively expanding their offerings and moving into online instruction. The Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education does management training and promotes more accurate coverage of minorities. The National Press Foundation is playing a bigger role. Specialized fellowships expose journalists to the rigors of law at Yale University, science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and business at Columbia University. The Foundation for American Communications, known as FACS, offers short-term immersion in telecommunications, utility deregulation and land-use issues. In June, 25 people enrolled in FACS' first "science institute" at the California Institute of Technology.
Still, the real training revolution is occurring in the newsroom itself. Where once "training" may have consisted of a frazzled editor barking out advice, now there are brown-bag lunches and elaborate "universities" that offer pointers on everything from databases to libel issues. Staff members are often required to learn. For instance, employees at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina must plan for 40 hours of training every year, says Jean Lamkin, who directed corporate training for Landmark Communications before moving to its human resources division. "The company today will only survive if the employees are well trained and capable," she says. "We've got to do that to be competitive and achieve our strategic goals."
While the larger chains--Knight Ridder, Gannett, Newhouse--have promoted in-house training for years, many others are just getting started. And the sharpest turnaround can be seen at some companies not exactly known for throwing money around. Thomson's newspaper division has recently established formal training programs--even its own 12-week school for fledgling reporters--in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. "Ten years ago, Thomson probably would not have had this kind of outreach," says Ray Carlsen, executive director of the Chicago-based Inland Press Association, which holds workshops around the country. "I think they just found out it's good business to train people. Unless you do, newspapers may find short-term profits and long-term erosion."
But many journalists agree with Providence's Bill Ostendorf that there is still not enough training. I heard that over and over again while taking part in his popular workshop on page design in March at a National Press Photographers Association conference in Baltimore. Many of the photojournalists had driven three or four hours to get there, on their own time.
Ostendorf's demeanor can be intimidating--more than once he snapped, "What were you thinking?" as he sized up rows of our page dummies taped to the wall--but his passion had an appreciative audience. At one point he made us raise our right hands and swear to take risks and keep learning new skills. "The thing I liked the best was the criticism," says Grant Currie, a photographer from the Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York. "Really constructive criticism is often negative, and people are unwilling to give a lot of it."
Journalists also tell me that what training there is remains too limited, effectively beyond the reach of whole groups of professionals, even entire newsrooms. Reporter Robin Lloyd says her paper, the Pasadena Star-News in California, seemed less interested in staff development than in getting seven to 10 stories a week from everyone. "It would come out of our hide if we went to a conference," she recalls. "No one was going to pay the entry fee, the transportation, or comp the time. It was like pleading our case before the gods to even get vacation time to go to training. It was a sense of futility that we felt."
Lloyd, 37, had been at the MediaNews paper just two years when she quit to take a nine-month science fellowship at MIT. She is now a technology writer at CNN Interactive. Star-News Editor Larry Wilson explains that he could not afford to leave her position open when he has only nine news reporters to start with. "We realize the importance of [training]," he says. "Ideally we would have more."
One of the first barometers of the training shortage was a 1993 Freedom Forum report, "No Train, No Gain: Continuing Education for Newspaper Journalists in the 1990s." The survey of 650 journalists at 123 daily and weekly papers found that nearly everyone said they wanted training, but few were actually getting it. Among the report's findings: "From the day a journalist enters the newspaper business, the training glass is mostly empty. Only 14 percent of the survey respondents say regular weekly or monthly seminars are available at their newspapers. Only 4 percent of the newspapers offer training in each of the seven basic skills surveyed." The report linked the scarcity of training opportunities to low newspaper
quality and staff morale, and high employee turnover.
More recently, a needs-analysis done for the Poynter Institute in 1998 showed that 53 percent of the 1,000 journalists surveyed still receive fewer than 20 hours of training annually, says Poynter President James Naughton.
The training dearth is put into higher relief when newspaper practices are compared to other industries. According to a 1997 survey by the Inland Press Association and the International Newspaper Financial Executives, training expenditures for all divisions (not just editorial) accounted for between 0.84 and 1.05 percent of the payroll at the newspapers studied. That same year, companies in various other industries--ranging from health care to manufacturing to information technology--spent an average of 1.8 percent of their payroll on training. And at companies where training is a major priority, they dedicated 4.4 percent of their payroll to it, according to data from the American Society for Training and Development.
A participation survey of journalism development programs suggests that among newspaper companies, Knight Ridder is far and away the chief proponent of training, while other regular supporters include Times Mirror, Gannett, Newhouse and the Associated Press. But such big chains as Community Newspaper Holdings, Thomson, Hollinger, Liberty, MediaNews, Ogden and Paxton--these seven alone hold a fourth of the nation's dailies, mostly smaller papers--are nowhere to be seen.
No matter the level of corporate support, this much is certain: Of the approximately 50,000 daily newspaper journalists around the country, just a fraction will get to take part in established training programs this year. Only 50 or so American journalists will get into the marquee, yearlong fellowships at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and the University of Michigan. API in Reston, Virginia, trains 1,000 to 1,500 journalists and business-side executives each year through its weeklong seminars. Poynter has increased its enrollment from newspapers and news services, but that number was only 530 in 1998 (still well up from 195 in 1988). Several thousand journalists will participate in programs like those of the Knight Center at the University of Maryland, FACS, NICAR and IRE. And 3,000 to 5,000 more will attend two-day National Writers Workshops that Poynter co-sponsors every spring with eight newspapers around the country.
So what happens to everyone else?
Frankly, the answer depends on where they work. If it's a newspaper owned by, say, MediaNews or Donrey, there is probably little formal training available. At Knight Ridder and Times Mirror papers, besides their support of the external programs there are abundant opportunities to learn new skills right in the newsroom. But in-house training has its own limitations. Sure, in theory every reporter and editor can attend a paper's brown-bag lunch or two-hour session on copy editing for what it costs to send a handful of people to an outside seminar. But that rarely happens. Training editors acknowledge that on a regular basis their programs draw half the newsroom, and sometimes far less. Daily deadlines are unrelenting, and many reporters would rather skip a few hours of training than explain to editors why their copy isn't ready. It's a constant battle of priorities. "The people who need it the most are the ones you never see," says Adell Crowe, who runs training programs for USA Today.
The reality is that a great many journalists still do not receive any regular training--and they never will without the commitment of serious money by publishers and, increasingly, the newspaper chains. "We're not even in the adolescent phase of training," says Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of Portland's Oregonian and a longtime training advocate. "We're toddlers in this."
The need for training and professional development seems to have less to do with the qualifications of individual journalists--far more have graduate degrees today than ever before--than with the complicated issues they must cover and the changing newsroom technology. "It's my clear impression that journalism school graduates and young people coming into newsrooms are smarter and better educated and have a clear sense of the world in which they live," says Bob Giles, director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York City. "That doesn't mean they're ready to be good journalists or that they know everything they need to know."
Journalists too easily make errors of fact or judgment, Giles says, when they don't know enough about the subjects they cover. And readers, also better educated than ever, often spot the goofs. "I think that newspaper editors have discovered that this is part of the credibility problem in which readers and key news sources lack trust in what they read in their daily newspapers," Giles maintains. In the past decade the Freedom Forum has published a series of reports that showed growing public distrust and dissatisfaction with the media's coverage of the military, physicians, science, religion, business and the criminal justice system.
Paul Davies learned the value of specialized training early in his career. While covering business for the New Haven Register in 1993, he found himself one day across the table from the CEO of Southern New England Telephone, one of New Haven's largest employers. In retrospect, he says, he should have challenged some of the CEO's accounting of company finances. "I knew enough that it didn't sound right, but I didn't know enough to be able to really pinpoint it, and I think that's when it really hit me," he says. "If I'm going to be a business reporter, I've got to know what I'm talking about." Davies later quit to take a one-year Knight-Bagehot fellowship in economics and business reporting at Columbia. Although his editor wrote a letter supporting his application, Davies says the newspaper told him it couldn't guarantee a job for him afterward. He is now a business reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Davies' case points up one of the inherent frustrations of newspaper training--that at most places there is no clear policy to ensure that reporters and editors get the development they need. "It's more hit or miss," says Del Brinkman, director of journalism programs for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, one of the leading funders of fellowships and other types of training. "They apply on their own--not necessarily with the encouragement of their employer... Too often it's the individual who feels the need for education." Adds Ted Pease, a communications professor at Utah State University who designed the "No Train, No Gain" survey questionnaire, "It's like turning a supertanker. It takes an awful lot to turn around a newsroom."
But, in interviews, many training advocates attest that the benefits are well worth the effort. Besides shoring up a newspaper's credibility, training can boost staff morale. Merv Aubespin, associate editor for development at Louisville's Courier-Journal, saw that happen with copy editors--a group once identified by the American Society of Newspaper Editors as the "Mount Everest of newsroom discontent." Four years ago, Aubespin and others organized a conference for 30 copy editors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that has since evolved into the American Copy Editors Society, a 1,200-member professional group that organizes its own training conference every year. "It became obvious what copy editors really needed was their own group to preach their own sermons," he says.
As Bill Ostendorf's workshops demonstrate, training also provides feedback in an industry notorious for not giving enough. Bradley Wilson, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association, says the group's Flying Short Course--which every year makes five stops around the country--attracts more than 1,500 photographers who are hungry to talk about their work and trade ideas. About 85 percent of them pay their own way, Wilson points out. "Photographers have to put up with a lot of stuff and they don't have a good support network," he says. "Our profession is very bad at telling people, 'Hey, that's a good picture.' We just accept it."
The most compelling arguments for training are made by those who seek it out. Mike Hernandez, a photographer for the Harrisburg Patriot News in Pennsylvania, stopped going to NPPA conferences in 1991 because he felt he wasn't learning anything. But after eight years of shooting mostly routine assignments, he drove to the March conference in Baltimore. "I'm personally looking for something to make me better," he says. "I think I've reached a plateau, and I've been there for a long time. I'm looking--desperately looking--to get better somehow, so I thought I'd give this another chance." When Hernandez left the conference, he took away 10 pages of notes on photo editing and layout.
Click here for the continuation of the article.