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Veteran journalists: an endangered species.

Some expert's consider the dramatic increase of temporary workers replacing more expensive full-time employees as one of the reasons American business is in trouble. Nowhere has this pruning down of older, experienced employees been more devastating than in the media businesses.

For the last decade, newspapers, magazines, and broadcast news organizations have been forcing out seasoned veterans who have spent two or three decades or more creating and refining their company's products. The mathematics makes sense to bosses paid to make the bottom line attractive. Get rid of one employee earning $70,000 a year plus health and retirement benefits. Replace that person with two younger contract or temporary workers and pocket the difference in salary and the savings in benefits.

The argument behind this seems simple enough. A business replaces its rundown, tired employees whose best years are behind them with youthful, fresh faces willing to work longer and harder, eager to make good in their new careers. To sweeten the deal for the company, these replacements are not hired under the old rules. They are paid on an annual or project-by-project contract. This limits the company's commitment to them as well as the workers' benefits and future security. This system eliminates future deadwood before it develops by constantly renewing the supply of youthful, energetic workers. It's also an easy way to get rid of incompetents, replace troublemakers, and continually refine the workforce to fit the projects at hand. Keep a few experienced pros around the plant to guide and teach the inexperienced new contract players. And watch that bottom line glisten.

It sounds good, but the loss involved is enormous and usually can't be seen on a ledger until too late to do anything about it. What is lost involves such intangible qualities as esprit de corps and company loyalty. Also lost are a feeling of pride in the product and a commitment to make that product better and better. But more than all of that, what is lost is the experienced, seasoned worker who knows how to ask the questions that can mean the difference between success and failure, questions that young, inexperienced contract workers either do not know how to ask or are afraid to because simply to raise them might jeopardize their jobs: Should we be doing this? Why are we doing this? Is there a better way to do this? What are the repercussions of what we are doing? Is this the right way to accomplish our goal? What are the ethical and moral considerations involved here?

While some of these questions may not be critical to producing blouses or livestock, they are absolutely essential when it comes to dealing with news and information programming. Young journalists working on newspapers, magazines, radio, and television news seldom realize their mistakes until they are in print or on the air. Green reporters, editors, producers, and technicians don't even realize there is a question to be asked before it is too late and they and their news organizations publicly fall flat on their corporate faces. When that happens, the repercussions are deadly and can linger on for a very long time. It can destroy the credibility of a news organization, and this credibility, the audience's trust in the product, is the most important commodity any news organization has to sell. Without it, there is no bottom line.

The young NBC producer who rigged the General Motors truck crash video should have been told that you must never lie to your audience, but either veteran journalists didn't realize what was being done or they, too, were more worried about higher ratings than sound journalism practices.

Veteran journalists often see the problem before it develops. If the media weren't convinced that cutting expensive old-timers wasn't good cost efficiency, then perhaps these ancients might have helped their younger counterparts avoid committing a variety of media sins simply by questioning the methods involved and offering possible compromise solutions. Who will debate whether a reporter should pretend to be something else to expose wrong-doing, or whether quotes should be tightened or fabricated, or whether it is plagiarism or research to grab information from other sources, or whether it is right to stage a news video?

Gradually the voices of caution and criticism are being silenced in print and broadcasting organizations throughout the country. If a worker is temporary and does not have job security or the complete backing of the organization, it is doubtful that he or she will have the courage to question decisions, especially if they involve powerful advertising and business interests.

Losing veterans through attrition is bad enough. But to lose voices of reason and concern through a calculated and deliberate business policy only charts a disastrous course for the media and consumers. That loss only may be visual when reporters step over the line, break the rules, and suffer the consequences. However, it will be felt in subtle ways daily - the story not covered, the question not asked, the brake not applied.

Like the hundreds of endangered species throughout the world, the seasoned staff journalist is becoming a thing of the past, replaced by journalism gypsies who go from workplace to workplace until they too become too costly or too old to get a job. Media news organizations used to know better. Something was lost when the bottom line became their only concern. Until they change the way they do business, watching a daily newscast or prime-time reality show, reading a newspaper or a magazine, or listening to a radio newscast will be a bit like playing Russian roulette. No one ever can be sure when something in print or on the air will explode in the media's face. And the public will be the loser.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Saltzman, Joe
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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