Llewellyn King: The talent shortage that threatens journalism

“Journalists can be so good at reporting others, but are seldom good at reporting themselves.”

That is what my friend Kevin d’Arcy, a distinguished British journalist, wrote in an article titled “Living in Interesting Times,” published recently on the website of the United Kingdom Chapter of the Association of European Journalists.

D’Arcy, who has worked for major publications in the U.K. and Canada, including The Economist and the Financial Times, argues, “The biggest change is that the job of journalism no longer belongs to journalists alone. To some extent, this has always been true but largely because of social media, the scale is touching the sky.

“This matters for the simple reason that the public lacks the traditional protection of legal and social rules. There is nobody in control. … The common realm is sinking fast.”

So true. But his argument raises the question: Is journalism itself doing its job these days?

I usually eschew any discussion about journalism — its present state, imagined biases and its future. Dan Raviv, a former correspondent for CBS News on radio and television, told me in a television interview, “My job is simple: I try to find out what is going on, then I tell people.”

I have never heard the job of a journalist better explained.

Of course, the journalist knows other things: the tricks of the trade, like news judgment; how to get the reader reading, the viewer watching and the listener listening and, it is hoped, keep their attention.

Professionals know how to guesstimate how much readers, viewers and listeners might want to know about a particular issue. They know how to avoid libel and keep clear of dubious, manipulative sources. But journalism’s skills are fading, along with the newspapers and the broadcast outlets that fostered and treasured them.

Publications are dying or surviving on an uncertain drip from a life-support system. Newspapers that once boasted global coverage are now little more than pamphlets. The Baltimore Sun, for example, in its day a great newspaper, once had 12 overseas bureaus. No more.

Three newspapers dominate: The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times. They got out in front and owed their position to successfully pushing their brands on the internet early. Now they have advertising revenue and even more revenue from the introduction of paywalls.

Local news coverage may come back as it once was, but this time through local digital sites. I prefer traditional newspapers, but the future of local news appears to be online.

A major and critical threat to journalism comes from within: It is a dearth of talent. You get what you pay for; publishers aren’t paying for talent, and that is corrosive. Newspaper and regional TV and radio salaries have always been abysmally low, and now they are the worst they have been in 50 years. This is discouraging needed talent.

For more than 30 years, I owned a newsletter publishing company in Washington, and I hired summer interns — and paid them. Some of the early recruits went on to success in journalism, and some to remarkable success.

Later, I got the same bright journalism students — young men and women so able that you could send them to a hearing on Capitol Hill or assign them a complex story with confidence.

The most gifted, alas, weren’t headed for newsrooms but for law school. They told me as much as they were interested in reporting, they weren’t interested in low-wage lives.

Most reporters across America earn less than $40,000. Even at the mighty Washington Post, a unionized newspaper, beat reporters make just $62,000 yearly.

To tell the story of a turbulent world, you need gifted, creative, well-read people committed to the job. The bold and the bright will not commit to a life of penury.

To my friend Kevin, I must say, if we can’t offer a viable alternative to the social media cacophony, if we have a second-rate workforce, if the news product is inadequate and untouched by knowledgeable human editors, then the slide will continue. Editing by computer is not editing. I appreciate editing, and I know how much better my work is for it.

The journalism that Kevin and I have reveled in over these many decades will perish without new talent. Talent will win out and, I hope, provide the answers that our trade needs.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. He wrote this for InsideSources.com. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.