Newspaper readers often lament the declining quality of journalism and wonder, what happened? Two words. Human resources.
Thanks in part to human resources personnel -those well-meaning, misguided individuals who view writers and editors as cogs in a well-oiled machine -newsrooms have lost their souls.
Reporters -good ones -are wild, untamable spirits who, in the core of their crusty little hearts, really do love and want to pursue Truth, Liberty and Justice for all. Or something like that, and so it was once upon a time. Those who try to tame them are as Anne Rice's body thieves or the body snatchers of movie fame. They evict the irascible artist and install a complaisant tenant unrecognizable just a couple of decades ago.
I was reminded of these changes recently while browsing Jim Romenesko's media gossip Web site (
www.poynter.org/medianews). Like most in the media, I visit this site once or twice a month, mostly hoping not to find my name there.
The current online debate among industry folks concerns a column by Jill Geisler, a "leadership and management group leader," whatever that is, for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school for journalists. Geisler has a long list of journalism credentials and has won a bunch of awards in both print and broadcast.
Her column in part addressed the use of profanity in newsrooms. Geisler, whose bio says she teaches managers "the keys to building strong newsroom cultures and systems," said more or less that profanity in newsrooms is inappropriate, unnecessary and can contribute to a hostile environment.
She wrote: "As managers, we must understand the issues of language and civility more clearly and care about them more deeply, because we set the tone of our workplace."
On the surface, there's not much to argue with. It's hard to make a case for profanity. There's too much of it in our culture; it's coarse and demeaning; it suggests intellectual laziness and blahblahblah.
Thus, it wasn't so much Geisler's comments that caused my carotid artery to swell as it was the spirit behind her column, or should I say, the lack thereof. That lack of spirit, sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, is what's wrong with newsrooms, journalism and, in my humble opinion, the whole country.
As monopolies have gobbled up daily papers, eliminating competition and streamlining "product," they've installed bean counters and human resource managers where hungover city editors used to do just fine. We've traded passion for "good feelings," and individuality for multicultural groupthink.
Where we used to kick a** and take names, we have become … precious.
I hate to sound like an old-timer, but after 25 years pecking at keyboards, I'm beginning to feel like one. My first newsroom was a smoky cocoon of noisy typewriter clatter, puddles of spilled coffee, desks piled with yellowing newspapers, books and over-filled ashtrays, flirting run amok, gruff old men who kept liquor bottles in the bottom desk drawer and curmudgeonly characters right out of central casting, including one bonhomme who took a nap every day on a cracked leather couch under -are you sitting down? -a window.
And yes, we cussed like, well, like what? You can't say "sailors." Last time I wrote that cliché I got a letter from a human resources officer of the U.S. Navy. You can't say "Sopranos." I've got an inch-thick file from the Italian American Anti-Defamation League.
How about this: We cussed like blondes on the third frisk through airport security.
In those days, journalism was irresistible. You fell in love the moment you stepped into the newsroom even if it
was 7:30 in the morning and you were facing six obits before you wrote the first of three stories due by noon. It was exhilarating, not just because you got paid for writing, but because it was FUN.
There's little fun about today's newsrooms. My next newsroom just five years later was an electronic morgue for obsessive compulsives. Editors looked cookie-cut from a Wharton MBA mold, sporting carefully clipped beards and bow ties. No one smoked. Coffee cups had been displaced by Evian bottles. Flirting, now official illegal, was via instant messages, surreptitious and far more dangerous.
Gone were the liquor bottles, the ashtrays and organized mess. Desks were tidy in accordance with management's Tidiness Memo. Gone too were the napping curmudgeon, the hungover city editor, the leather couch, the spirit, the passion, the fun.
Not all things old are better, but newsrooms were. And journalism practiced in a less constrained environment may have been, too. Some things can't be micromanaged, and the human spirit, that intangible force that keeps underpaid, overworked writers from going AWOL, is one. Dammit.