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Home > Publications > Quill > Alice in Journalism


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Friday, December 1, 2006
Alice in Journalism

What will the human landscape in newsrooms look like for J-school graduates?

By Bruce L. Plopper

Imagine what kind of a world that bright, newly minted

journalism graduates step into after accepting their first real-world, post-graduation jobs.

Is it populated by determined, idealistic individuals who are

curious and endowed with great people skills and above-average writing abilities? Do the characteristics of today’s working journalists reflect what many reporting textbooks describe as those emanating from the ideal news reporter?

Recent data collected from SPJ members nationwide during the summer provide insight, from a variety of perspectives, about the characteristics of today’s working journalists. Recent J-school graduates might be surprised at the findings — and at how their new colleagues rate themselves in critical areas of journalistic attitudes, values and beliefs.

When new journalists enter the newsroom, they’ll see two broad divisions of labor: the feature writers and the hard news reporters. While some employees write both types of stories, those who consider themselves to be primarily feature writers rate themselves as significantly less idealistic than those who consider themselves to be primarily writers of hard news.

For example, feature writers, as a group, aren’t all that excited about serving as the people’s “watchdog” over government, leaving that job for the hard news personnel who, incidentally, say they accept that role to a much greater extent. Also, feature writers, to a much lesser extent than news writers, do not want jobs that investigate corruption in the business community or jobs that expose school districts that are failing, and they don’t believe it’s as important as news writers do that the news media tell people about existing social problems.

New employees might consider these distinctions before they decide to become close friends with specific newsroom colleagues. After all, idealistic nags need to find colleagues who will commiserate with them when the nefarious elements of society seem to be winning.

Gender provides another labor-related dimension in the newsroom. Will new employees find differences between men and women? The answer is yes, and some stereotypical ones at that. Female journalists rate themselves significantly higher in people skills than do male journalists, at least in the areas of empathizing with others, adapting their behaviors to various social situations, and getting people to tell them information that they generally would not share with others.

Women also like to read more than do their male counterparts in the newsroom. They think they’re more prone to asking a lot of questions than do men, and they want more variety in their work than do men. Oddly, women rate themselves as being more prone to headaches than do men.

Recent J-school graduates may take these gender-based differences to heart when seeking newsroom role models, for one never can have too many people skills in the reportorial arsenal. Reading and asking a lot of questions aren’t bad hobbies, either, but if new reporters become too much like their female colleagues, they may want to keep the aspirin handy.

Although most new journalism employees are fairly young, they need to consider how aging could affect their beliefs, attitudes and values, as well as what to expect from colleagues of differing ages. Do journalists lose that “fire in the belly” by the time they enter their mid-life crises? Do they become more skilled with age, as fine wine becomes tastier with the passage of time?

One thing for sure is that journalists age 46 or older rate their people skills, writing skills, curiosity and desire to be watchdogs over government higher than do younger journalists. Additionally, older journalists give higher ratings to their ability to use correct grammar. Taken as a group, these observations can only mean that if entering journalists stick with the profession, changes in their ages and abilities most likely will be synchronized, and that’s good.

A few other worthy characteristics that come with age include more determination, an increased ability to accept rejection, better judgment about when people are lying and much less susceptibility to headaches. Knowing these findings, who wouldn’t want to look forward to aging in the newsroom?

As a factor in newsroom life, years on the job is akin to age. You don’t have to be elderly to have racked up a decade or two in the newsroom, but will new journalists be surprised by anything as they gain experience or deal with experienced news people on the job? Within this category, two attitude shifts should be noted.

One striking aspect of the way journalists view their job requirements as they gain experience concerns their willingness to work overtime to complete a task. It appears that when they start their careers, journalists are willing to work overtime to get the job done. Then they seem to reach a period of mid-range experience (6-10 years), when they’re less willing to work overtime; finally, after this period, they regain their willingness to spend extra time on the job.

Working while their friends play is something else that the most experienced (more than 10 years) journalists are more willing to do, as compared with the least experienced (1-5 years). Thus new journalists should not find it unusual that their attitudes toward overtime and cavorting with friends might evolve over time. It’s probably a function of natural maturation, as much as anything.

To some extent, textbook descriptions of the ideal journalist seem to hold true in the real world. The exceptions are not fatal to any career in particular, but clearly, it is to a new journalist’s advantage to be armed with knowledge about potential colleagues in the newsroom around the career corner.

Observations are based upon data collected from 235 SPJ members who completed a 45-item online career inventory.



Bruce L. Plopper teaches journalism at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he also serves as journalism graduate program coordinator. His research focuses on various aspects of journalism education, media law and issues relating media to society. He earned his Ph.D. in journalism from Southern Illinois University in 1979. Along with many scholarly articles, he authored a handbook for high school journalism advisers and Mass Communication Law in Arkansas.

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