Journalism Lost - and Found

Eighth in a series of essays humbly titled “Fixing Journalism”. First posted on June 5, 2006.

Lately the folks at my employer, The Washington Post, are counting the number of newsroom employees who have chosen to take the company’s early retirement offer, otherwise known as the buyout. Given journalism’s other challenges and the depth of talent at the Post, few other journalists should feel very sorry for us. But we are losing something when people with decades of experience and knowledge head towards retirement or another job.

The worst part? We’re losing much more than we have to lose, if only newspapers acted upon the principle that its information is as valuable as its people. Oral history programs are good and necessary, but they serve few current journalistic purposes. What newspapers need, not just at buyout time but all the time, is a plan to capture as much information and expertise as they can during the tenure of its employees.

Such a plan needn’t take on the aspects of a commune – we’re not all willing to share every bit of our treasured contact list or our important documents. But every time newspapers are able to salvage notes, research and transcripts in a manner that is accessible to other reporters, the paper benefits.

People often ask me how this is working out at a place as competitive as the Post. Yes, we make good use of our wikis, but many of the internal wiki sites are password-protected, and thus restricted from general newsroom access. This is still a good thing. Let me explain why.

First, at least this information is captured somewhere that eventually will make it easier to get into the hands of the people who need it. Maybe some notes, interviews and research are similar to classified documents – they need a cooling-off period before they become broadly available – but without the restricted wiki, they might never see aid another reporter. I’ll fight to open up restricted stores of information when I have to; at least we have them available.

The same could be done for departing reporters and editors. Have them write handover documents describing their beats, their success and their mistakes. Encourage them to be as generous as they are willing to be. If necessary, reach an agreement on how long such information would be restricted from the general newsroom. Just save the data. If this can’t be done, try the next best thing – use an archive of a reporter’s stories to create some valuable information. Who or what did he or she write about most often? Who were the most commonly-cited sources? What angles did he or she pursue, or neglect? Libraries may be silent, but newspaper archives should sing the songs of their creators.

The technical means to capture a reporter’s bookmarks, web-surfing habits and email are already here. But let’s not force this upon our newsrooms as if we’re replacing our desktops with HAL. Let’s make the pitch that the gifts and talents of journalism can live on for years if we allow them to, if we make room for them even as we see our colleagues head out the door.

Chris Peck of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has it right: “News will rely on the wisdom of the many, not the insight of the few, with journalists being knowledge leaders.” Who better to lead than researchers, who were the pioneers in using online resources, the ones who have brought the riches of the Internet to the newsroom? If we don’t preserve the information generated within our newsrooms, who will?