Newsrooms and the National Bad Mood
Why it's not still 2020, and what to do about it.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
It’s been eight months now since I retired from managing a news organization, and one thread runs consistently through my conversations with friends and industry colleagues: those who’ve recently stopped managing people don’t miss that part of the work at all, and those who still do bemoan it. This week I want to talk about what’s going on inside our newsrooms, and what might be done about it.
Part of what’s afoot is still the generation gap I wrote about in one of the first of these columns, but that’s not what’s on my mind this week. Instead, I want to talk about how what seems to be a national bad mood is considerably complicating getting done the work of journalism, with energy devoted to management challenges and staff morale that might instead be focused on serving readers. (Similar trends are probably complicating other work as well, but journalism is the business I’m in, and the one I know.)
Two years ago it was hard to argue that any mood but a bad one was in order: the pandemic upended everyone’s life and separated loved ones, the president first went into denial and then mused about drinking bleach or taking horse medicine as the death toll mounted, the murder of George Floyd rubbed salt in our greatest enduring national wound. After becoming the first president to be repudiated at the polls in 28 years, Trump became the first of the eleven presidents who have lost re-election to refuse to accept the people’s verdict. In my lifetime, 2020 took its place alongside 1968 as the darkest years for the nation. People turned to us for news, but the news seemed almost all to be bad.
It’s not 2020 anymore
I would not begin to suggest that all of these problems are behind us, but our situation today is much more mixed. Democracy in America is under serious threat, but the moment of maximum danger is either passed or still years ahead. Inflation is up, but employment and wages are as well, both remarkably so. The death rate from the pandemic continues to drop as vaccination progresses (even if slowly), therapeutics proliferate and recent variants (so far) prove less lethal than feared. Race remains the central problem of American history and lies at the heart of many of our most pressing concerns, but genuine efforts at diversity, inclusion and a fuller understanding of that history gain steam.
The global alliance for freedom and self-determination has been revived more than almost anyone thought possible just 90 days ago. The greatest weakness of autocracies—the unwillingness of people to tell the autocrat the truth—is costing the world’s two leading dictatorships dearly, as Putin fails in Ukraine and Xi with COVID.
Sure, Twitter has agreed to be bought by a troll, but if he really makes it even more a valley of the trolls, we can just leave, as some already are in anticipation. There was life after MySpace, and there surely could be after Twitter.
And yet, in our newsrooms—and widely elsewhere—the national bad mood seems to persist, perhaps even deepen. I had hoped that people just needed some well-earned time off, a sensitive approach to returning to offices, a less frantic pace of disasters, and reunions with family, but most have had those now, and yet the sourness lingers. What to do?
Learning from the micro, applying to the macro
Part of the answer, it seems to me, may lie in observing the gap between what we might call our micro and macro experiences. In micro terms, I have seen this Spring the joy people feel in renewing human connections as they again attend travel to family gatherings, industry conferences, even staff retreats. Perhaps we need also a greater willingness at the macro level to open ourselves to the fact that there is good news to report as well as bad, progress to note as well as threats.
Most of us, most of the time, know better than to doomscroll online, or at least to pull back when we do.
We need to apply that same instinct to our workplaces, to acknowledge that most of our colleagues are in this business for the same reasons we are, that we share a mission more than we differ on tactics, to recognize that nearly everyone—from the bosses to those at entry-level-- has had a very tough couple of years and that we should cut others the same occasional slack we would like for ourselves.
When he came to presidency 13 years ago largely on the strength of his rhetoric, Barack Obama was expected to deliver an inaugural address to rival FDR and JFK. Quite self-consciously, in the depths of the recession brought on by the global financial crisis, he did not do that. Instead, he prosaically but memorably said that, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
I think the time has come in newsrooms to do pretty much the same.
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Thanks for the article, I always enjoy this column. That said, maybe it's speaking to a very specific (big) US newsroom problem, but is it essentially saying that the a) national bad mood in the US (pandemic, inflation, your wobbly democracy, foreign policy) is connected to b) the mood inside media companies, which because of this morale issue can't do their work? How exactly is the national bad mood making the job harder to do?