What’s With All Those Retirements in Journalism?

You shouldn’t be so surprised, but part of it may be about a new generation gap.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a new newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

You may have noticed a lot of impending retirements in the journalism business in recent weeks. As mine has been among them I thought I might offer a few thoughts on what’s going on, what it might signify, and what it doesn’t.

Among those leaving their posts are Norman Pearlstine, executive editor of the Los Angeles Times since 2018, who stepped back from that role in December; Christa Scharfenberg, CEO since 2017 of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which produces Reveal, who is leaving before year-end; Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post since 2013, whose retirement is effective at the end of this week; Stephen Adler, editor-in-chief of Reuters since 2011, whose retirement is effective at the end of April; Rich Boehne, Board chairman of E. W. Scripps since 2013 (and CEO of the company from 2008-2017), who will retire in early May; Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times since 2014, who has not announced a departure date, but who faces mandatory retirement sometime in the next 19 months; and me, president of ProPublica since 2013 and its business head since 2007. I will retire from that role once a search, now underway, identifies my successor and they are in place.

Less, in part, than meets the eye

The first and perhaps most important thing to say is that there may be less here than meets the eye. Pearlstine is 78, Baron and Adler are 66, Baquet, Boehne and I are 64 and Scharfenberg is 51. I know all of these folks except Boehne pretty well (Adler is one of my dearest friends). Let’s put Norm and Christa aside for a moment—Christa because she is much younger and yet actually has had the second-longest continuous run at her current employer (18 years) and Norm because, well, he’s just a marvel, and has genuinely retired at least twice before, from being editor-in-chief at Time Inc. in 2005 and from being chief content officer of the same company in 2013.

The remaining five of us were born over a period of just 28 months, at the height of the baby boom. Marty was born in late 1954, the first year in which births in this country exceeded four million; I was born in early 1957, the first time they exceeded 4.25 million. (“Baby Boom,” by the way, is not an exaggeration: the peak in births, recorded in 1961, was not reached again until 2007, by which time the population overall had grown by 64%.)

All of this is to say that there are quite a few of us Boomers, and it’s getting to be that time.

But there is more to it than that, or I wouldn’t be writing this.

Without in any way wanting to speak for any of my fellow retirees, I think that one thing going on is what, when our grandparents were the age we are now, they started to call a “Generation Gap.” I would submit that the generational divide, at least in our workplaces, is wider now than it was at least from the Nineteen Eighties through the first decade of this century.

The Generation Gap that widened in the Sixties is easier to explain. It was the result of the differing perspectives of people reared in the widespread deprivation of the Great Depression from those who grew up in the greater affluence of the postwar years, of people who took de jure racial segregation for granted from those who found it increasingly intolerable, of those who had known only what they considered just American wars from the Vietnam generation, of those who largely accepted limited roles for women outside the home (and often inside it) from those who would not.

Today’s divide covers some of the same ground, but there are also critical differences. Demographics, for instance, have been profoundly transformed. The year 2011 was the first in modern times in which more people of color than whites were born in this country, but this trend had long been building. In 2018, 77% of those over 65 were white, while half of those under 15 were people of color. Starting from the great immigration reform of 1965, the number of immigrants grew significantly, enormously enriching—and transforming-- the country. Before the law was reformed, the immigrant population had shrunk to 5% of Americans; in 2019 it was 28%.

But by no means all of the changes have been positive.  Quite a few disturbing trends in our society trace their beginnings to roughly the time people my age got out of school and began working. In 1980 U.S. life expectancy was one and half years longer than other developed countries; it is now about one and a half years shorter. Life expectancy actually fell from 2014-18 (well before the pandemic), the first time since the Second World War. Lifetime incomes for those now in their eighties rose compared to previous cohorts; in my cohort they were flat, and for those younger than us, they are almost certainly declining. For my generation, the U.S ranked first in the world for high school completion and third for college; for those roughly in their forties, the country ranks tenth for completing high school and 13th for finishing college. I could go on.[1]

Implications in the office

What are the implications, especially in the workplace? I think the couple of generations coming behind my cohort might reasonably conclude that we clambered up top and started to pull the rope up behind us. That the racial composition of our group is so different from theirs must significantly increase the sting.

One consequence is that, when news leaders of my age gather these days, the conversation often quickly turns to how strained relations can be between us and the people we seek to manage at work. Failures to effectively and empathetically communicate—from both sides across the gap-- are rampant; impatience for generational transition builds. So that, too, is part of what is going on, or at least how what is going on is received. None of us, I think, expect our retirements to be widely mourned. And that may be for the best, because organizations focused on the future, on new challenges, are likely to be more successful than those mired in litigating the past.

Among these new challenges are not only the obvious implications of demographics and technological change, but also if possible confronting and reversing some of the damage done in recent decades, particularly with respect to widening inequality in an era of increasing diversity. This may be the highest calling of contemporary journalism.

Of course, the news business is hardly the only one to go through generational turnover from time to time. Look at the American presidency to see how this plays out in politics:

  • From 1961 until 1993, a period of 32 years, our seven presidents were born during a span of just 16 years, with LBJ the oldest and Carter the youngest—by and large, these were the junior officers of the Second World War;

  • From 1993 until now, 28 years and counting, our five presidents were born over a span of 19 years, with Biden the oldest (but 18 years younger than the youngest in the previous cohort) and Obama the youngest—these have been the children of the previous presidential generation (literally, in the case of the Bushes).

I mention this not to in any way equate editors and publishers with presidents, but to note, in closing, that the generational transition away from Baby Boomers now well underway is likely to have increasing impact not only on journalism, but on every institution in our national life.

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[1] And I have, writing about this more extensively here, noting awful trends over the same period also in the minimum wage, top tax rates, and government debt.