A Reporter's Life
Morale/Are You Happy Now?
October 2009

by Eileen Douglas

We've heard so much of late about journalists losing their jobs, wiped out by layoffs, firings, newspapers folding, television newsrooms cutting back.

We can pretty much imagine that those folks who've lost their jobs aren't happy.

But what about the journalists who are left? The ones who've kept their jobs in an otherwise decimated newsroom. With what enthusiasm – or lack thereof – do they now do their work?

After all, being enterprising. Going for the kill. Walking that extra mile. Knocking yourself out. That's all part of what a good journalist has to do. Wants to do. Lives to do. And in a happy shop that's easy. You wake up in the morning, raring to go. Wondering what the day will bring. Knowing that when you put your head down again on the pillow at day's end you will have, more than likely, encountered some story, some human twist of life, that you could never have imagined when the day began. All that keeps your juices flowing.

But in an unhappy shop, where people around you have disappeared. Where you may not really trust you are safe. Where you feel you aren't getting the time or the support to do your job. Where others around you are unhappy. What does that do to morale? And if you aren’t jazzed when the police radio crackles, or the mayor summons you to city hall, or the phone rings at 3 in the morning to send you out to a plane crash in a muddy field in the middle of the night, then what does that do to your "doing of the job"? What does it mean, to the journalist, for the job experience? And what does it mean, for the broadcast or newspaper, for the job product? The quality of the work?

Recently I ran into a woman waiting in line at a shoe repair shop halfway between my current office and an old newsroom where I had worked for years. From her chitchat when the shop owner asked her – oh, are you going to work now? – I deduced she must be working in news. Clearly, it was an odd hour and, yes, she acknowledged, she was about to head in to start her day. When I struck up a conversation, saying to her, "You must be in news," we began to talk, and, as it turned out, she indeed had arrived in my old newsroom shortly after I had left. "I must have missed you," she said as if I were someone she had heard about by reputation, "by a minute." And then she added, "You wouldn't like it there if you were there now." And, standing there in the shoe repair store, she went on at length to detail all the complaints.

In other words, not a happy news shop.

As I remember, for many of my colleagues back when I was in the thick of that job, it was not a happy shop to begin with. Already there was resentment that what you needed to do your job the way you truly wanted, you weren't getting. Now, she was telling me, it was even worse. They were all doing more with less. I know even before the current troubles hit how many of my co-workers felt defeated, beaten down to a "why bother" attitude. When a major breaking story struck, of course, we would all rise to the occasion. But in the day-to-day grind of 24/7, when they felt unappreciated, undervalued, being willing to kill for the boss was not what people felt like offering up. Grumbling was.

In a recent piece by David Carr in The New York Times, he details a nerve-wracking, agonizing management move, where everyone at a newspaper in New York's Westchester County was made to reapply for their jobs. Some got rehired. Some didn't. That is, they were fired in an around-the-bend manner. Obviously, for those let go, that stings. But what caught my eye were the comments from those who survived, who made the cut. Even for those who'd kept their jobs, the mood was grim. Some were disgusted. Bitter. Afraid, in days ahead, to make waves. Not a great way to work. Not a great way to put out a paper. As one staff writer put it, "I don't feel like a winner even though I still have my job." As another admitted, "Everyone in our business has to live with this uncertainty going forward."

Even for those left, trust between employee and employer, in shop after unhappy shop, has been shaken.

Not all shops, of course, are unhappy. In many, journalists still awaken as the day begins revved up to go in there and give their all.

But, sadly, for many more in the business than there used to be, among those who still have a job, I can only imagine "why knock myself out" has replaced killing yourself when the next one who could be killed might just be you.

© Eileen Douglas

Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist-turned-independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for "ABC-TV's Lifetime Magazine," she is the author of "Rachel and the Upside Down Heart," and co-producer of the films "My Grandfather's House" and "Luboml: My Heart Remembers." She can be reached at http://www.douglas-steinman.com.

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