Crosscut’s News Staff and the Changing Composition of Local Newsrooms

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To its credit, Crosscut.com, the online media site that is part of KCTS-9, has made public demographic information about its 31-person editorial staff (support staff and reporters and editors). According to their count, 40 percent of staffers are people of color (Asian and Hispanic, but no Blacks or Native Americans), 60 percent are female, 44 percent are relative newcomers (living here five years or less), and 63 percent are under 40 years of age (youth-sourcing holds down salary costs).

Apparently the goal is to come as close as the newsroom can to reflecting demographics of the region or city. That’s a complicated, tail-chasing task, raising questions about political balance, geographic spread, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. One suspects that few religious conservatives are in the public broadcast newsroom, and that matching those numbers with society-at-large is an irrelevant goal.

I’m reminded of some methods of hiring newsies from the benighted past. When Stim Bullitt was running KING Broadcasting in the 1960s, he honored his Yale education by conducting interviews in the Yale Club of Manhattan. He preferred Ivy Leaguers and also people who had not taken journalism courses. One former colleague of mine was thus interviewed and hired at the Yale Club. He was then sent to the KING station in Portland, where he promptly froze up for his screen test and so was shunted off to Seattle Magazine, where he was a brilliant editor.

The Seattle Times, where I also once worked, had a system of hiring folks who had proved their worth by working on nearby regional papers like the dailies in Yakima and Bellevue. This system produced and favored local journeyman reporters, and it shunned the star system. KUOW-FM, the local NPR outlet, also resisted disproportionate pay to star talent, favoring an egalitarian, “flat” structure. As for my days as editor of Seattle Weekly, 1976-97, I disfavored journalism majors and preferred history or lit majors, looked for writers who could be taught to be reporters (I would ask about novels in their desk drawers), and probed for areas of passionate interest.

Very different, for what it’s worth, are the hiring practices at tech firms like Microsoft. According to legend, applicants at Microsoft were asked a baffling question such as, “How many ping-pong balls are there in the world?” Throwing up your hands got you shown the door; intrigued enough to start solving the problem by logic and data sources got you the job. Steve Ballmer was famous for asking you to name a personal accomplishment (such as building an authentic kayak). He was only interested in how passionately and unstoppably you described this feat. Wild enthusiasm got you the job.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hiring journalists has always been a crapshoot. It’s virtually impossible to predict which 21-year-old kids will become good reporters or editors. When I was hired by the Seattle Times, there was little reason to believe I would be good at it; I got hired because the managing editor thought i was a nice guy. I like to think it worked out ok, but others like me never figured it out. That was the case with all or most newspapers. And ultimately it didn’t make much difference because good journalism was not profitable. If there was any relationship between the journalistic quality of a paper and its profits, it was probably inverted, because good journalism is liable to antagonize readers or advertisers. People bought newspapers primarily for the baseball box scores, the real estate ads or the movie listings — not the journalism.
    Online journalism is fundamentally different. While far people subscribe, those who do are far more likely to be motivated by the quality of the journalism, and a diverse staff can add significantly to the breadth and depth of the reporting.
    But I doubt that editors or publishers are much better at projecting which young reporters will turn into smart, productive, seasoned journalists. It’s still a crapshoot.

  2. I agree, mostly, but I would point out that good media companies pay attention to training good reporters. It is surprising how many respected media, including The New York Times, just create a sink-or-swim environment. Others play it safe with a trade-school mentality. Nearly all television newsrooms now hire right out of broadcast school. The balance is the key: newbies, good training, some oddballs, and a newsroom that supports writers by having good peers who set a high bar.

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