Online Journalists See Themselves in Traditional Fields; Could It Be the ‘Gannett Effect’?

In a survey of journalists who work online at newspapers in North Carolina, most described themselves as working in traditional fields of writing and editing rather than “new media” fields such as multimedia production.

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The first thing I want to do today is to thank all of the respondents to my recent survey of people who work online at North Carolina newspapers. We had 70 people at 29 daily newspapers respond to the survey. This 64 percent response rate is very high, and I think the state’s journalists deserve credit. But I also need to give credit to Phil Meyer, who helped design the survey method and to Teresa Edwards in UNC’s Odum Institute for Research in Social Science. It also didn’t hurt that there is such widespread support in this state for the University of North Carolina and for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It’s been an honor to be affiliated with these institutions. And it’s an honor to have the chance to talk a little bit now about some of the hard working journalists in this state.

One of the primary goals of this study is to help the journalism industry develop more standardization in its job descriptions for online journalists. As someone who’s hired a lot of them over the last decade, I can tell you that it’s tough to write a job posting that elicits the right kind of applicants. Because hiring managers in online newsrooms are often trying to both fill an existing gap in their current staff structure as well as acquire new skills to fit changing needs, it’s nearly impossible to find a single person that’s a perfect match.

This hiring challenge is made even more difficult by a lack of common definitions about job titles. A person who is a “producer” at one organization may be a “developer” or “editor” at another site. Two producers at the same newsroom may in fact have very different skills and duties, and may even be paid on wildly different scales.

In this survey we made an effort to normalize job descriptions by asking respondents which of 10 job fields and 84 specific job titles best matched their own duties. We selected these fields and titles from a list of 237 job titles and detailed descriptions that The Croner Company used in its 2007 Online Content and Service Compensation Survey. All 84 job titles and their detailed descriptions can be seen here. (I owe a big thank you as well to both Croner and to Julianne Mulhollan, the human resources director at McClatchy Interactive, for suggesting this idea to me.)

Two questions for you, dear reader: did we include too many job titles? Too few? You can comment here.

Job Fields
Fifty-nine people answered our question about their job field. Here’s how they categorized themselves. (To protect the privacy of respondents, I’ve agreed not to publish any choices picked by fewer than five people. That’s why you’ll see the fields of Multimedia/Video Production, Technical Production, Art & Design and Photography aggregated here as “Another Field.” I can tell you that I listed them in that last sentence in their ranked order of response frequency. Also, no respondents said they were in Product Management.)

Job Fields Pie Chart

Full size chart

What strikes me about the responses to this question is that they are dominated by what I would call the “traditional” newspaper job descriptions. We find writers and editors and managers in print newsrooms. We don’t find people called content producers or multimedia producers. If our respondents do accurately reflect a more traditional self-perception in their job titles, then this would be consistent with other studies I’ve seen that indicate that despite the frequent talk among and about online journalists of their potential for creating a “different type of journalism,” they actually organize and behave in very traditional ways.

One of the reasons my findings may reflect such a traditional orientation is what I’m going to call the “Gannett effect.” The Asheville Citizen-Times is part of the Gannett chain. In 2006, Gannett announced that all of its newspapers would undergo a massive restructuring of their newsrooms in an effort to “reach out and build audiences across all platforms.” As part of this effort, people’s job titles changed to include words that indicated their participation in creation of online content.
Perhaps beause of this chain-wide alteration of job titles two years ago, we sent our survey to more people at the Citizen-Times than any other paper in the state, even though Asheville is not the largest newspaper in the state. It accounted for 23 percent (25 of 109) of our panel. And the C-T didn’t dominate our panel by just a hair, either. The News & Observer in Raleigh had the second largest online staff, by our definition, with 19 people, or 17 percent.

Despite some errors in the way I contacted panelists from Asheville (which I’ll discuss later), more respondents were from that paper than any other. Twenty-six percent of our responses (18 of 70) came from that one paper. That’s a 72 percent response rate for people who worked at the Citizen-Times, compared to an overall response rate of 64 percent.

But to me what was more interesting than this “Gannett effect” was that several panelists from Asheville –- people with words like “blogger” in their titles on the paper’s online masthead –- contacted me to say they really didn’t work online. In their email signatures and in phone conversations, the job titles that they chose for themselves never included the online elements we found next to their names on the paper’s masthead. Among this group who declined to participate in the survey were people who I found had created online-only content for the Citizen-Times during the month the survey was conducted. I’m fascinated that despite what I perceive as obvious participation in the creation of online news, they still declined to self-identify as someone who worked primarily online.

This makes good questions for follow-up research: Does this finding hold true among other populations of online journalists? Do online journalists who work at broadcast outlets see themselves as working in job fields that are traditionally found in broadcast newsrooms? How about people who work at sites with no traditional media ancestry? At other Gannett papers, has the change in job titles made any difference at all in employees’ self-perception about the medium for which they do their primary work?

Tomorrow I’ll look at how the standardized job titles matched up against the actual job fields we found for respondents on the Web sites’ mastheads. After that, I’ll report on the specific job titles people chose for themselves.

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