Newsrooms are losing experienced journalists due to economic pressures, as media companies battle to contain costs. This is leading to more junior journalists being employed, who often do not have the knowledge of history, topics or experience. While this may assist with cost-containment it is having a negative effect on the quality of journalism in South Africa, says Mike Siluma, head of stakeholder relations at eNCA, and former chair of Sanef and the NAB. He believes experienced journalists are key for newsrooms.
Potential impact of discarding experience
Siluma says that in many news organisations, the cost base is increasing but revenue is dropping as “new media platforms start eating away at the media advertising pie and compete for audiences’ attention”. To counter this, many newsrooms are cutting costs.
But Siluma believes they are cutting in the wrong place and not investing enough in senior personnel. “Newsrooms are cutting the more experienced, competent people as they cost the most. In the short term it may help the bottom line. But in the long term it hurts the product. While it looks at face value that you are saving money by letting go of senior people, this eventually affects quality. It is self-defeating in the long run,” he says.
Siluma says the strategy has led to newsrooms employing more junior journalists, as they can get two or even three juniors for the salary of a single senior journalist. But this puts added pressure on management who has to invest more time in coming up with story ideas for the juniors to pursue. Junior reporters often cannot do it themselves due to inexperience, and so more sub-editors need to be hired to do quality control on the work of the juniors.
This also leads to the juniors simply regurgitating the information that the newsmakers give them with no analysis of what the information truly means, thus adding limited value. Often, the juniors simply do not have the historical knowledge or the experience to challenge or analyse the information that the newsmakers are giving. Compounding the challenge for newsrooms is the departure of experienced journalists for better-paying jobs in government, the private sector and international news organisations.
Raymond Joseph, a Knight International Journalism Fellow with the International Centre for Journalists, agrees that this trend is happening in newsrooms and has been going on for a while. But he disagrees with the practice. “Saving money by cutting quality doesn’t make sense,” he says. Joseph says by cutting experienced journalists, content produced has become lightweight with more reactive rather than original journalism. “By taking out the experienced people we have lost the very people who should be mentoring the next generation of journos,” he says.
Sub-editors vs experienced journalists
Siluma believes the solution to the problem is to “rebalance the experience mix in the newsrooms by employing more experienced journalists and find a balance between youth and experience in the newsroom.”
The experienced journalists will be there to coach and mentor the youngsters while at the same time bringing credibility and oftentimes a strong following to the products of the newsroom. “The strongest newsroom will be an age diverse one, not a young, inexperienced one,” Siluma says.
When asked where newsrooms can cut costs, since they have to due to economic pressures, he suggested that newsrooms will inevitably be forced to rely on multi-skilled, more experienced and necessarily better-paid journalists, and less on armies of sub-editors and editors to develop and quality-control stories. “Newsrooms would not need as many sub-editors and editors if you employ more experienced and multi-skilled journalists who can do much of the quality control themselves. Their work would be nearer perfect when it is generated.”
However Daniels and Joseph disagree that the number of sub-editors should be cut in favour of keeping experienced journalists.
“If a story is full of errors people don’t trust the content. Subbing is one of the key areas where we have been cutting back. Subbing is an integral part of the process. It is foolish to cut back on subs at a time when credibility is so important,” Joseph explains.
He says that instead of cutting costs through staff cuts, newsrooms should be exploring alternative sources of income as the old model, which is still being used today, of advertising and circulation bringing in the money is broken. “South African newsrooms are not spending money on experimenting and innovating. Money is going to shareholders, not being reinvested into journalism and the ways of doing journalism.”
Joseph also cited training that brings back institutional knowledge and experience as a vital part of the future of newsrooms. “Journalists coming out of varsity are well trained, but quality control is lacking. There are quality control and news editing problems, young journalists are being thrown at stories that are far beyond them,” he says.
Joseph used the example that it took him two years to get a by-line, when he first started out writing at a newspaper. Now junior journalists have their first by-line mere weeks after they begin.
Juniors are not necessarily bad
Mpumelelo Mkhabela, editor of the Sowetan, has a very different view from Siluma, Joseph and Daniels. While he agrees that newsrooms are running on tight budgets and that they need senior, experienced journalists, he does not view having junior journalists as necessarily a bad thing. “Experience (as in longevity) doesn’t always equal expertise. The advantage of younger, junior journalists is that some of them bring fresh approaches to journalism. The trick is to get the balance right,” he says.
Which newsrooms are doing it right?
Siluma believes eNCA has had success in including senior journalists among its anchors, such as Jeremy Maggs, Dan Moyane and Iman Rappetti. The Daily Maverick is another example of a media platform that is doing a good job of employing more senior people.
He also touched on foreign media as an example of how to do it right. “Globally on the best media platforms, such as CNN and the BBC, the average age of, for example anchors, is not 24 or 28, it’s around 40 or 50, even older in some instances. In South Africa, our personalities tend to be younger.”
Having spoken to many experts, it is clear that they while some of their views may differ, they have one common thought: there should be a perfect balance between junior and senior journalists in any newsroom and getting rid of senior, experienced journalists for cost cutting, or simply to hire more juniors, is detrimental to any newsroom.
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