The (un)changing face of journalism

When I started running media operations for Bay State and national campaigns a decade ago, reporters usually didn’t stick around for long. Sure, there were the stalwarts—Frank Phillips will always rule the roost at the State House—but, in general, tenures were short and talented reporters would hopscotch up the career ladder, moving from one outlet to another.

From a media consultant’s perspective, the turnover almost always had a silver lining—you can get your calls returned a lot more quickly by the hotshot national talking head if you knew him when he was an intern at the Cambridge Chronicle. But the rapid staff turnover did mean you had to constantly forge new relationships, build up trust, and help teach reporters the lay of the land—because, frightening though it may be for democracy, consultants and other “interested parties” know a lot more about the history and inner workings of Massachusetts politics than a kid green from J-School. 

But recently, something strange happened to me. I signed on to consult for a political campaign—a race that I’d also worked on three years ago. And yet, as I was checking over our media list, the reporters and editors were almost all the same, three years later. What could this possibly mean?

Local weeklies have always been a stepping stone—lower pay and hard working conditions (10 stories a week, anyone?), in exchange for experience, contacts, and ten bazillion clips you could parlay into an entry-level gig at the Globe or Herald. Back in 2000, the Globe boasted over 550 news staffers. Fast-forward to early 2009, and staffing was down nearly 40%. With fewer jobs to go around and older reporters and editors—their 401Ks decimated—clinging on for dear life, today there’s no longer anywhere for millennial journalists to go.

The lack of a career ladder poses a significant challenge for the profession, of course. But  for consultants like me who deal with journalists, there’s one clear benefit.  The reporters who have stayed in their jobs a long time know their turf. They may ask harder questions and be less susceptible to spin—but they’re also less likely to make bizarre and ignorant errors. When it comes down to it, I’d venture that most consultants have enough of a soft spot for democracy that we’d prefer well-informed, worthy opponents in the press corps anytime.

 

(Dorie Clark–a strategy consultant for clients such as Google, Yale University, the National Park Service, and political and issue campaigns–is President of Clark Strategic Communications. A former New England Press Association award-winning journalist, she can be reached at www.dorieclark.com.)

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