What I liked best about Austin Beutner’s talk at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was his praise for experienced journalists and his appreciation of the skill their trade requires to cover complex institutions such as Los Angeles city hall.
LA Observed chief Kevin Roderick posted a detailed account October 26 of Beutner’s appearance this week. It provides a good look at the thinking of the Eli Broad crew of rich people as they try to wrest the Los Angeles Times from its Tribune owners, possibly returning Beutner to the publisher’s office. Beutner was fired after a year for refusing to do everything the Chicago way.
As an old timer, and a veteran of government coverage, I zeroed in on Beutner’s comments on the value of experience. Columbia dean Steve Coll, who questioned Beutner, noted the many cutbacks that have halved the size of the Times staff. He wondered what Beutner thought “about the value of veteran talent versus the energy of fresh talent?”
“That’s your core asset, the journalism,” Beutner replied. “Experience, the connectivity, the relationships, that’s what is of value in journalism. Think of a cub reporter in city hall versus someone who has been there for 20 years. The person who has been there for 20 years understands the place, the history, and the context not only of individuals but what is being discussed versus the cub that shows up, gets the press release and says ‘Would you answer a few questions for me.’ You need that experience. That’s value. Yes, in the short term you are replacing a $200,000 a year reporter with someone who makes $100,000 a year. Long term you are losing your most valuable asset. It’s not a winning strategy. It doesn’t make sense.” He may have considerably overstated the salaries, but his point is well taken.
Beutner told of a lesson he has learned from his connection with the California Institute of the Arts. He said the board and administration leaders talk to alumni working at Disney or Pixar about what they learned at the school. The grads say, “’what I learned at CalArts is how to tell a story.’ The same would be true of journalism today. So taking out your most experienced, your best-trained work force and replacing them with less trained people, that’s not what you want to do in journalism. You may have to retrain people. So maybe that typing class is not so important any more and maybe it is a class in html5 or something else
He said the platform—print, digital or other forms—isn’t as important as the ability to tell the story. “The day to day conduct of journalism, how to source, how to separate fact from fiction, has nothing to do with the platform on which it is presented,” he said.
His words are relevant now, with dozens of Times journalists considering whether or not to take buyouts designed to again reduce the size of the staff.
Many experienced editors and reporters will soon be gone. Those in charge of the enterprise will claim the Times has been strengthened for the digital era. Don’t believe them. The Times will have been weakened. Readers of the web site and the paper will find much less to draw them there. And the Times will be even more diminished as a civic and community watchdog.