Editor column: Why journalists do what we do

By Nancy Conway

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: May 26, 2012 05:47PM
Updated: August 28, 2012 11:36PM
image
Nancy Conway, Tribune editor

It has never been easy to be a journalist. And now in this rapidly changing digital age it is harder than ever.

Newspapers have lost readers and advertisers and consequently revenue. While we have been very successful in attracting readers online, revenue does not always follow, and the entire industry is struggling to find viable business models.

We have seen newsrooms across the nation cut staffs, decrease the size of daily newspapers and even drop the number of days they print. To cut costs, we ourselves had to lay off 12 people in the past couple of weeks. It has made for a sad, difficult time. Our newsroom like others has had to be redefined and restructured. The pressure is on journalists to develop new skill sets — and deal with the stress and uncertainties the changes bring.

But as I said, it has always been tough. Being a successful newsperson takes long irregular hours that eat into your personal time. And you sure don’t do it for the pay — which is not particularly good.

Because your work is so public, so are your mistakes. And, of course, you’ll make some — and everyone you know will know you made them.

When you blow it, it’s all out there in the open for all to witness.

There is no place to hide. But there shouldn’t be — not when you do this kind of work.

And then in terms of popularity you’ll find yourself on the lowest rung of the ladder — below lawyers and politicians even — down in the weeds, on a par with, say, snakes.

Folks don’t always like what you report, and you find yourself in the middle of controversy just by doing your job. The kill-the-messenger phenomenon is alive and well and living in our community, just as it does throughout the world.

Sometimes, though, journalists deserve the criticism we get. We don’t always get the whole story or do needed follow-ups. At times we are imprecise or a bit careless. Other times we just make mistakes because we are too pressed for time and take shortcuts or miss errors.

But imperfect and disliked as we sometimes are — we still perform a service that is essential. People need accurate information to make decisions about their lives and about the people who represent them in their government. Democracy needs independent, accurate information to survive and thrive.

With the glut of information available to us today, particularly on the Web, how do we know what is accurate and what is independent?

We want a trusted source. That’s why, according to Pew Center research, more people who get their news online go to traditional news organization, sometimes called “legacy” sites, like The Salt Lake Tribune.

Readers still want the full-service news publications that we provide both online and in print. Our journalists, like those of other good legacy news organizations, still strive for accuracy and objectivity.

Can reporters and editors really be objective? That’s an open question — but the pursuit is important because we get closest to objectivity by striving for it — along with fairness and balance.

So if being a journalist is so hard, why do we do it? Because it is equally gratifying. And a newsroom may be such a stimulating place to work precisely because it is hard.

Journalism tends to attract strong, smart, independent, well-educated people who know about the community and care about it. And humor often runs as high as the pressure. It can be intoxicating — in a positive way — and fun.

Many reporters will tell you they got into the business to make a contribution, do something that matters. Idealistic? Yup. Altruistic? Yup. Unapologetically.

And for a reporter, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as knowing you have nailed a good story. Got it right. And seen the consequence of that work make a difference.

Nancy Conway is the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach her at nconway@sltrib.com.