August 04, 2004

Big Study, Little Findings

Why do organizations spend money to determine something that is already known?

Case in point: The Poynter Institute, which offers some of the best professional development opportunities for journalists, surveyed more than 2,500 journalists and found - surprise! - that "82 percent of them would personally benefit 'very much' from additional training."

Don't get me wrong. More training is needed. The newspaper industry spends less training its professionals - newsroom and otherwise - than most other major U.S. industries, devoting only about 0.7 percent of payroll to employee development vs. the national average of 2 percent. ( See Lessons from industry: Training for change, a piece I did for Tomorrow's Workforce.)

The lack of training and the desire by journalists for more of it is well documented. The Knight Foundation two years ago underwrote a survey of nearly 2,000 journalists that found their "No. 1 source of job dissatisfaction, ahead of pay and benefits," was "lack of training."

The study was a well-deserved indictment of an industry that has failed to invest in its most important resource - the people who produce the journalism. It also found:

 "More than two-thirds of them receive no regular skills training."
 "News companies overall have not increased their training budgets in the past decade."

Although the Poynter study provided some detail on specific types of training journalists want - leadership, management, ethics and skills - it did not advance the core findings of the Knight study. Moreover, an industrywide survey what type of training journalists want is only mildly useful in any given newsroom, where specific needs must be determined on site.

I wish Poynter had connected the needs of individual journalists and the larger strategic needs of the news industry and delved deeper into findings (see Page 6 of the PDF version of the report) that showed 92 percent of journalists wanting training to "improve performance in your current job," but only about half that number (54 percent) citing "applicability of the training to your organization's needs" as a goal.

In other words, the disconnect between individual and institutional need remains. All good trainers know that training without a strategic goal does not advance the news organization. Shouldn't we be doing studies that explore that gap and how to close it?

I don't want this sound like a Poynter bash. It's not. But, to me, this survey doesn't measure up to its usual excellent level of work. Besides, Bob Andelman, who wrote the story about the survey on the Poynter web site, buried the lede.

The last graf was a comment from Deborah Potter, executive director of the Radio & Television News Directors Foundation, that if newsroom managers want to pry more training money loose from tight-fisted publishers they need to make a convincing case that better journalists mean better business.

"We have to make the bottom-line case that there's value beyond the intrinsic," Potter says. "I don't think there is a radical difference between print and broadcast groups. The argument has to be made to managers and owners that there is a business case for additional training." (See the Aspen Institute's report on "Journalism and Commercial Success: Expanding the Business Case for Quality News and Information.")

A note of disclosure: The Poynter survey also examines the appeal of training delivered by e-learning techniques, which Poynter offers through NewsU. The Knight Foundation funds NewsU as well as Tomorrow's Workforce, which pays part of my bills.

Posted by Tim Porter at August 4, 2004 06:13 PM

Why is it then that journalism's descent into mediocrity coincides exactly with the rise of institutions like Poynter and API? When journalism was great, no one went to seminars. The same could be said for public education. The more "teacher work days" and "in-service training days" there are, the worse the teaching is.

Posted by: rivlax on August 5, 2004 08:44 AM
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