News & Politics » Michael Miner on Media

The coy deceits of struggling journalists

Unlike Anderson Cooper, fellow "grayhairs" have some secrets to keep

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I'm not settling in at the keyboard to write about Anderson Cooper, but let's start with him. On my lap is an op-ed from the New York Times that's about Cooper allowing he's gay. "All this talk about privacy reveals deep and troubling assumptions," argues the writer, Daniel Mendelsohn. "Mr. Cooper compared disclosure of one's homosexuality to revealing 'who a reporter votes for' or 'what religion they are,' but in a post-Freudian age in which sexuality is seen as a core aspect of identity, this comes across as disingenuous. If you're really 'happy, comfortable . . . and proud to be gay, as Mr. Cooper says he is, the simple fact of being gay should be no more a 'privacy' issue than being straight is for straight people. It's just who you are."

Even in this post-Freudian age, I respect people who keep it a little buttoned up. In my 30-some years at the Reader, I have never told a single colleague I am straight. If asked if I am "proud" to be straight, I wouldn't know what to say. If asked if sexuality "is seen" as a core aspect of my identity, I would reply that it's for others to say but I'm not aware of evidence pointing in this direction. If asked if Mendelsohn is indulging himself in post-Freudian hooey, I would reluctantly say yes.

But the larger question, about reporters coming clean, is greatly with us. The Tribune's new BFF, Journatic, got itself into a spot of trouble this month when This American Life revealed that Journatic had been providing TribLocal websites with stories whose bylines were not simply made up, but made up to conceal from readers the fact the stories were cranked out in the Philippines by minions paid pennies an item. It's one thing for journalism to use secret sources; it's another to use secret journalists. Brian Timpone, the head of Journatic, argues that when his people do the grunt work of filing on monthly sewer district meetings, the seasoned reporters he admires are freed up to engage in the Serious Journalism that informs the citizenry and bulwarks liberty. I'm not sure it's working out quite that way—at last count Journatic was accountable for several more layoffs than Pulitzers—but if Timpone truly thinks so he should stop hiding what he's doing and launch an ad campaign that boasts about it:

"Hi! I'm Angelica in Olongapo, and Journatic lets me keep America strong every 12 minutes at 35 cents a pop."

A 1995 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism (my alma mater), Timpone is not the only product of that fine facility who believes that journalists should keep certain things secret. Kathy Bernard is a 1982 graduate who drifted into career counseling and now runs a website, getajobtips.com.

Bernard recently posted a helpful list—"15 Ways to De-Age Your Resume." She advises, "Follow these tips . . . so recruiters will focus on your qualifications and not your age."

For instance, "Delete job experience from before 15 years ago unless relevant to the positions you want," "Replace '20+ years of ABC experience,' with 'extensive ABC experience,'" "Remove dates you attended college or received your degree," "Omit dates from activities, honors, awards, and certifications," "Play up recent skills and remove proficiencies for technologies that are no longer used."

Don't say this: "References available upon request." That's an "outdated phrase." Do this instead: "Include a link to your LinkedIn profile in your contact information to reinforce that you 'get' social media . . . Include a list of your LinkedIn recommendations rather than old reference letters."

Journalism is in the throes of an existential crisis, and Bernard's advice is a response to it. Expediencies such as Journatic are one of the reasons Bernard's clients are looking for work, and when they do their age is a lot more likely to get in the way of their next job than their sexuality. Bernard tells me, "I thought that when all we baby boomers got to be this age we'd rule the world, and we don't rule anything. How did that happen? We're the majority, and the world has put us out to pasture."

Her clients are not all journalists, but journalism is the archetypal example of an upended workplace whose veterans are tossed out of work, find themselves marginally qualified for the new jobs that pop up, and don't even know how to apply for them. "There's very little human interactivity," says Bernard. "You apply online. The companies use keyword software, and if you don't have those keywords in your resume you may be rejected with no human being ever looking at your application. It used to be that people who were gung ho would walk their resumes into a place to apply for a job. Now I've interviewed recruiters who say they find it creepy."

So hide your age—at least until you can admit it to a human being at the other end of the phone line who might also register your redeeming qualities.

Digital journalism demands technical skills that are the native language of someone under 30. "We are immigrants," says Bernard. "We learn it, but we learn it as a second language." The thing is, many a native English speaker is in desperate need of a basic course in grammar, while immigrants to the English language wrote Lord Jim and Lolita. "I know so many people in their 40s and 50s and beyond who are good at technology, but it's just that the world doesn't realize it," Bernard says. "A lot of 22-year-olds don't have as much tech experience as they think they've got. People assume they're really good at social networking, but I've discovered most recent grads are only good at Facebook and YouTube. They typically don't get Twitter and very few use LinkedIn. "

Bernard isn't alone in telling me this. A senior Chicago journalist who wouldn't mind a steady job recalls attending a lecture a couple of years ago given by Sree Sreenivasan, a prominent professor of digital media at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Sreenivasan was speaking at Bloomberg's Chicago offices. "There were maybe 40 people there," she says. "Maybe ten to 15 grayhairs—older folks I knew from the tech world. The age range was very young Medill students to a group of people 40 and above and the grayhairs over 45. The Bloomberg host said 'I'm really glad you guys are here, blah blah blah, I also want to announce we're going to hire some new blood because we've got to get into the groove with social media. I'm old and we need to learn this stuff.'

He then turned over the floor to Sreenivasan, who took a little survey of his audience. "OK,' he said, "how many people in the room use Twitter?" A lot of hands went up, but most of them were "grayhairs." "How many have their LinkedIn profile complete?" A few of the people in their 20s and a few more of the people in their 30s raised a hand. Every grayhair had a hand up. "How many use HootSuite?" Again, it was the older folks who said yes. The journalist telling me this story comments, "The senior people had been updating their skills and they were there to see Sree. I thought it was ironic that Bloomberg had this assumption that to hire somebody it would be a younger person."

This journalist had a good writing job at a Chicago daily until she was laid off a few years ago, and then she learned a bitter lesson: "Your brand is everything," she tells me. "And your brand is created by what you produce." Your next employer will google you to see if you're real, so "create some kind of backup system for saving your best work digitally so it can be captured by Google." Her work wasn't.

Yes, her digital media skills are considerable, but they're perishable—because the technology turns over so rapidly—and the work those skills qualify her to do is actually kind of pedestrian. "A lot of it's editorial-assistant kind of work," she muses. "Maybe they think that because I'm older and more experienced I wouldn't want to do it."

She wouldn't jump for joy. Would a reporter of another era who actually knew how to type 60 words a minute do handstands on getting hired as a secretary? But she'd do it. She confesses, "I've really struggled with whether I should dye my hair. I turned gray at 40."

She spots an online help-wanted ad from the Reader's new owners and forwards it to me. It says: "Wrapports and Sun-Times Media are looking for energetic, open-minded and diversely-talented individuals to work as content editors on a team responsible for putting new ideas and business models into action . . . Ideal candidates will be familiar with journalism basics, and will be recent college graduates or professionals generally with less than 5 years of experience."

She wonders, "Is it legal?"

I don't know. Names are changed, hair is dyed, ages are hidden, experience is concealed, and the old-fashioned talents we're most proud of go unmentioned, because that's the way the cradle robbers want it. Forget his sexuality—Anderson Cooper flaunts his gray hair. Give the man some credit!

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