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Attributes Quality Newspapers Look for in Their Young Journalists
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This article approaches the question of ‘which core attributes should young journalists offer’ from the industry point of view. The answers given by senior staff at two leading newspapers are used to deduct a list of qualities cadets or young journalists are expected to offer. For this purpose, this study uses interviews at El Pais and Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Spain’s El Pais and Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung are counted among the ten best papers in the worl, but their histories are vastly different. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung is in its 224th year, while El Pais is a post-Franco foundation. Their approach to the selection of cadets and beginning journalists is equally different. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung only takes graduates but not those with a journalism degree, whereas El Pais has its own post-graduate journalism school from among whose graduates it selects the best to join its staff. Yet the answers regarding the qualities of beginning journalists show a surprising unanimity. They also point to the fact that some attributes, possibly, can only be encouraged but not taught.

Introduction: Benchmarking

When looking at journalism and journalism education globally, as John Merrill and Arnold de Beer have done in the recent edition (2004) of Global Journalism, we are confronted with a picture of great diversity or – as others would call it – with a great multiplicity of cultures (Servaes, 2002).

This fourth edition of Global Journalism is, as the previous ones, characterized by Merrill’s pragmatic stance (Merrill, 1989: 289-90), which takes into account the current state of play. What can be observed around the globe is not very encouraging. In a climate created by concerns of national security, even countries that pride themselves on a free and independent press do not fare well in stakes of press freedom. When Reporters without borders published their first ranking of countries according to their press freedom, “the US rank[ed] below Costa Rica and Italy score[d] lower than Benin” (RSF, 2003). But – as Merrill points out – what might be counted as repression by some could be seen by others as “stability, religion and social order”, and could be valued higher than a free press (2004: 6).

These tensions can be observed equally on a macro level in the wrangle over the world’s information and communication order (Carlsson, 2003: 31-67), which saw its most recent chapter unfold at the WSIS in Geneva in December 2003 ( The same multiplicity of approaches to journalism was already acknowledged in the early 1990s by Nordenstreng & Traber in their Promotion of Educational Material for Communication Studies. The first sentence of the conclusion reads, “It is clear from the survey that the need to publish local textbooks with regional orientation is very strong” (Nordenstreng & Traber, 1992:79), a point also made by Morgan a decade later (Morgan in Deuze, 2004: 128).

Given this diversity, how then do we benchmark journalism and journalism education? Clearly, there are many ways of judging journalism education. Even within one country the needs of young journalists starting in a suburban paper are different from those who go to work for the metropolitan press, or a regional or national paper. This study, in an attempt to benchmark quality, has turned to quality papers.

The approach taken here to measuring quality is undoubtedly influenced by a Western bias of measuring the press in using the criteria employed by Siebert, Schramm and Peterson – that is a bias towards a libertarian and/ or socially responsible press. These ideals inform Merrill’s own ranking, which he has carried out over several decades (2004: 32/33), as they do the German branch of International Media Help which, in July 1999 surveyed 1000 individuals – entrepreneurs, politicians, professors, journalists and advertising professionals – as to what they perceived as the ten world’s best newspaper (IPI Report, No. 1, 2000). The Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) and El Pais appear in all lists.

Research method and questions

In this study the question of core attributes is approached from the industry’s point of view. It accepts industry choices as benchmark rather than establishing attributes free from industry influence. In doing so, this study implicitly acknowledges the importance of the organizational sphere in shaping professional behaviour, a premise strongly supported by newsroom studies (Tuchmann, 1979; Gans, 1980; Sigal, 1973; Schlesinger, 1987; Ericson, Baranek & Chan, 1987; Berkowitz, 1997; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996; Weaver, 1998; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Reese, 2000)

The findings in this paper are grounded in one method of data collection – qualitative interviews. At each paper four to six senior staff and six young reporters or cadets were interviewed. To give the research a solid comparative basis, the exact same six questions for staff and ten for young journalists are used in each study (the interviews carried out at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) and El Pais are two in an interview series, begun in 1999, which includes such diverse papers as Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Singapore’s Straits Times and Norway’s Aftenposten).

The first two questions to the young journalists center on one of the two aims of this research, i.e. on finding out what young journalists need to learn most when entering the newsroom. They establish the young journalists’ knowledge prior to joining their current newspaper, and what they see as their most important learning component since then.

The subsequent questions pursue the second aim of this study of finding out how the process of integration into the newsroom is handled by the newspaper. The third and fourth are aimed at the learning process itself, whether this was a structured process or whether it is learning by watching and/ or imitating. Two questions are directed at ethical decisions, inquiring whether the young reporters had already brought their own notions of a journalist’s ethics to the job, or whether these were shaped in the newsroom.

Since reporters, in order to perform their work, must learn to organize themselves to the point where their activities become habitualised (Ericson, Baranek & Chan 1987: 125), the next three questions are aimed to find out how much the paper’s established news routines – from ways of writing to suggestions of news sources and the reading up of previous articles – determine a young reporter’s approach to a task. The answers provide an insight into the extent to which young reporters are moulded by the existing ways of working. Given the necessity for the young journalists to provide copy that fits into the overall style of the paper, the last question asks how the young journalists apportion their individual freedom within the organization. The underlying assumption is that a journalist can create an autonomous space in which to practice his craft, but at the same time this research attempts to find out whether this is indeed the perception gained by young journalists.

Not explicitly covered in the questionnaire, but always recorded, is the educational path these young people have taken to get where they are. While outlining their university studies and previously held internships, it also becomes clear how much experience they had gathered and how many languages they spoke.

The staff is asked a matching set of six questions, concentrating on the question what young journalists, in their view, need most for their job. It is these questions which carried the greatest weight for this study. Though the sample is not wide – six senior staff were interviewed at the NZZ and four at El Pais – the recurrent mention of certain attributes makes it possible to compile a list that would easily stand the test of a wider survey.

The idea of graduate attributes is taken from Australian universities who nowadays have to have them embedded in their course. If “communicating effectively, thinking critically, reasoning logically, being culturally sensitive” (ECU, 2003) are university established criteria, how much then do these concur with the attributes displayed by the cadets and young journalists at the NZZ and El Pais?

Different view of journalism schooling impacts on the attributes lists

Not only do the histories of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and El Pais vary greatly, they also have a different view of journalism schooling and the role it should play in the education of the cadets or young journalists they chose. These differences in approach have to be outlined to fully appreciate the list of graduate attributes, drawn from the papers’ senior staff’s answers.

Neue Zürcher Zeitung

The NZZ was founded in 1780. For censorship reasons it could only report foreign news, reprinting from other European papers and receiving “private correspondence” (Luchsinger, 1980: 11). For 41 years the Zürcher Zeitung kept to foreign news before, in1821, also including local news. To this day, the NZZ has foreign – or world – news as the front section of its paper. What is more, their foreign news does not make use of the local angle (Josephi, 2002). The paper is small-size “Classicist Modern” broadsheet, whose every trait “stands in opposition to the vernacular form of news” (Barnhurst & Nerone, 2001: 266). In its in-house rules the NZZ declares its allegiance to the ideal of Swiss liberalism and to the endeavour of high journalistic quality (NZZ, Redaktionsstatut, 1998:1). In 2002, the daily print run was around 160,000 copies (NZZ Verlag, 2003).

The offices of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung are in its own building in central Zürich next to the Opera House. It was first used in the late 19th century and grew over 50 years (Wolfensberger, 1980: 191-193). Despite refurbishing, journalists mostly work in their individual offices. Their chance of debating issues is the regular, daily section news meeting. The internal newspaper structure is, as it were, akin to a federation. Each section has a very high degree of internal autonomy – to the extent that each section has its own way to hire and deal with cadets. While there is a central system in place to sort incoming applications – about 200 a year – section heads, too, are sent applications directly, making up well over a further 200 applications (Stamm, 10.7.2002). The four areas that take cadets are world news (Ausland), national (Inland), local (Zürich und Kanton Zürich) and business (Wirtschaft). The world news section, in 2002, took two applicants at a time for three to six months – i.e. four to six a year. The national section took one for four months – i.e. three a year – and the Zürich section took one applicant at a time for three months – i.e. four a year. The business section, at the time, did not have the resources to look after cadets but they had recently employed several young journalists.

While it is already highly competitive to be chosen as a cadet, it is even more competitive to be employed by the NZZ, as a cadetship only in rare cases means future employment at the paper. The NZZ has the explicit policy not to take journalism graduates, a point of view reiterated by the editor-in chief to the author (Bütler, 10.7.2002). This means that the teaching of writing and editing agency news is incorporated, to some extent, into the cadetship.

El Pais

El Pais, by contrast to the NZZ, is a young paper. Its first edition was published on 4 May 1976, less than six months after General Franco’s death. In its first edition El Pais’ first editor-in-chief wrote that at last the dream had come true of an independent paper “capable of resisting the pressures of power” (capaz de rechazar les presiones del poder) (Cebrian quoted in Ceberio, 2001:12). After 40 years of dictatorship and in a country still finding its bearings as a democratic society, this was no small undertaking. El Pais, in many respects, took Anglo-American journalism as its model, though admiration for a paper like Le Monde is equally evident (Ceberio, 2001:12). Its articles favour direct quote and a separation of news and comment.
El Pais built its offices on the north-western outskirts of Madrid with open plan newsrooms. However, unlike English or American papers, El Pais is forthcoming about its political – social-democratic – leanings. Its support for the European Union is mentioned in the very first point of its principles (El Pais, Principios 1.1, Stylebook: 17). El Pais has “the look of a modern broadsheet in tabloid format” with its understated design reflecting “the commitment to debate in the public sphere” (Barnhurst & Nerone, 2001: 278). In the first half of 2002 El Pais, Spain’s highest circulation paper, had a daily print run of around 445,000 copies (Information provided by El Pais, 18.7.2002).

However, there is a small irony in El Pais’ story. In General Franco’s time journalism was controlled through journalism schools. Journalists could not be employed unless they had passed through this government controlled training. After Franco’s death many of these journalism schools ceased to exist, and most of the now senior staff at El Pais did not attend them. El Pais’ senior staff frequently is of the generation of ’68. But as this generation gets older – but is not yet at retiring age – they will fill the higher echelons of the paper still for some years to come, making it difficult for the process of generational change to take place smoothly.

A decade after journalism schools had been seen as discredited the idea had again regained sufficient currency for El Pais to open its doors in 1987 for the first intake of students for a Masters degree in journalism ( escuela/). From this school, El Pais recruits 80% to 90% of its new journalists (Villena, 18.7.2002). The yearly intake for the Masters is 40 students, one or two of whom find employment with El Pais newspaper each year, though others are taken on by other El Pais controlled media outlets. Of the six young journalists interviewed, five had come through the Masters degree. This meant that the craft aspects, such as writing, had been thoroughly covered and were no longer an issue when the young journalists joined the newsroom (Harbour, 18.7.2002).

Graduate attributes

For this study the responses by senior staff to the questions of what cadets and/ or young journalists lack most when first coming to the newsroom and what they need to be taught most of all were used to compile the lists of graduate attributes.
At the Neue Zürcher Zeitung the author talked to the deputy editor-in-chief, who is also the section head for world news. His answers were particularly valuable in shaping the NZZ’s list of graduate attributes. In the national and local section the author spoke to the senior staff entrusted with the task of looking after cadets and to senior staff in the business, sport and arts sections.

Graduate attributes at NZZ

Graduates will:
· be able to make intelligent choices
· show responsibility
· have curiosity
· show initiative and creativity
· be able to reflect on their use of language ( as to whether it presents a fair view)
· research and read up widely
· be able to observe and write with precision
· have wide general knowledge
· provide a proven academic track record (preferably in law or history, or economics)
· have command of several languages
· know the community they are writing for
· fit into the organization

The young people who possess these attributes (NZZ)

At the NZZ one of the cadets and one of the young journalists held a PhD – both in law; one in European law, the other in law philosophy. One cadet, in line with the Zürich section’s policy of taking in cadets at a younger age than the other sections, was at the beginning of his university studies, intending to major in history and economics. The young journalist in the economics section had graduated from Switzerland’s most highly ranked business school at the University of St. Gallen and then worked for two years for an American consulting firm before joining the NZZ. The young journalist working in the sports section had graduated in history, had done a cadetship in the national section before joining the on-line department, and then transferring to sport.

The pattern of educational pathways concurred with the preferences given by senior staff – i.e. for history and law and/ or economics graduates. All cadets and young journalists, however, had already early on indicated their interest in journalism by either contributing in their student days to their local paper or doing a series of internships in the media, also frequently the electronic media. As elsewhere, presenting a portfolio and a letter with a rationale why they should be considered for a cadetship are an integral part of the selection process (Stamm, 10.7.2002).

Graduate attributes at El Pais

At El Pais the author talked to four senior staff, two from the international section, one from the life, science and education section and one from the arts section. Since all but one young journalist were Master graduates from El Pais’ own program, the question was more a case of, ‘when all craft has been taught, what else makes a graduate stand out?’

Graduates will:
· have curiosity
· research and read up widely (and not become enamoured only with ‘hot news’)
· have news sense
· show initiative and creativity (have good ideas and proposals)
· vouch for the accuracy of their news
· be able to make transparent power structures for their readers
· will talk to their sources rather than rely on the Internet
· work with texts (edit) and give them good headlines
· make sure that the article delivers what the headline promises
· have wide general knowledge
· have command of several languages
· know the community

The young people who possess these attributes (El Pais)

At El Pais the picture was somewhat different from the NZZ. The term ‘young journalist’ was a little stretched as the oldest was from the first Masters intake in 1987. The one who had not obtained the Master had studied economics and journalism at a university in Madrid before becoming a financial journalist at a now defunct paper, then went to El Mundo, from where he was invited to join El Pais. Economics was in fact the first degree of three of the six young journalists. However, the one now working in the economics section had studied law in Buenos Aires, then worked for the Italian news agency ENSA and subsequently for the BBC in London, while studying radical political thought at the London School of Economics. But realising that his English would never be fluent enough to work as a journalist in England, he applied for the Master at El Pais. The other two young journalists had already studied journalism as their first degree and had worked for news agencies – the Spanish news agency EFE, AFP, Europe Today (an international news agency with seat in Brussels, specializing on European Union news), and Radio Vaticano – before doing their Masters. By that stage they were fluent in several languages.

Despite these varying biographies, two of the senior staff at El Pais were concerned that the Masters turns out graduates who are “too uniform”. They feared that too few young journalists have travelled the rough road of journalism and thus were somewhat removed from the community they are writing for – hence the emphasis on curiosity and knowing the community they write for as graduate attributes.


The variations in the answers provided by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and El Pais can mostly be traced back to the fact that the NZZ takes young people who have not done journalism studies and consequently have to improve on the craft aspects of the job, while the El Pais list of attributes stresses journalistic attitudes.

Beyond this, there is remarkable unanimity in what these two highly reputed newspapers look for. They are looking for young journalists who have the urge and determination to find out news, and call this ‘curiosity’. The young journalists’ proven academic record is hoped to be a guarantee that they will make intelligent choices when it comes to news selection, interviewing and understanding stakeholder positions. Most of them have a post-graduate degree. Their years at university will also assure their ability and willingness to research. What those years may not do, however, is to connect these young people to ordinary citizen. They are undoubtedly an elite and as such somewhat removed from the preoccupations of the man or woman in the street. This concern was expressed at both papers by wanting young journalists to know their community and the community they write for.
Yet the attributes wished for by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and El Pais – and their wishes are highly indicative of those of other publications (Bice, 2004) – can only partially be taught. Critical thinking can be honed. But it would prove very difficult to convince a highly intelligent but diffident or shy student to have the urge and determination to pursue vital information. Thus the old adage that journalists are born and not made may at least be partially true.


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Content Language English
Publication year 11-05-2005


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