A Special News Update

Nearly 35 years after surveying D.C. reporters, an author finds most are still glad to be in the biz

February 14, 2013

In 1978, when author Stephen Hess began studying Washington reporters’ career paths, women — including Judy Woodruff, left, and Helen Thomas, right (who flank Lady Bird Johnson) — only made up 20 percent of the press corps.

Stephen Hess found good news where no one would expect to find good news: in the news biz.

“People really love being journalists,” says Hess, the author of “Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012.” The book — packed with (mostly) satisfied reflections on career paths from hundreds of journalists collected over more than three decades — illustrates that point.

“One thing that came through loud and clear is that journalists love doing what they’re doing,” Hess says. “And they kept talking about having fun. In lots of occupations, fun is what you do when you leave the office.”

Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, laid the groundwork for his new book in 1978, when he surveyed 450 reporters who were covering national government for commercial U.S. news agencies as research for his 1981 book, “The Washington Reporters.” In recent years, as the industry struggled for survival, he wondered how his 1978 subjects — which included Ted Koppel, Sam Donaldson, Judy Woodruff and Carole Simpson — had fared. So he tracked down 90 percent of them and interviewed 283 individuals. (Almost 90 had died, but plenty were still working.)

“What I’d expected to find was what reporters at that time told me, which was that journalism was a low-paid, high-energy occupation, and a person would be in it until they contemplated … something that paid more,” Hess says. But his studies showed the opposite: “People stayed in journalism — two-thirds of them — for at least 30 years. The longevity was really quite stunning.”

It’s enough to make Hess (who, for the record, has never worked as a reporter) optimistic about the industry’s future, despite the unending layoffs, shrinking newsrooms and vanishing media outlets.

“This is an awkward moment,” he says. “But there are always going to be people who are going to love being journalists, and eventually the profession will adjust to their needs.”

The More Things Change …

Author Stephen Hess traced notable progress in opportunities for female journalists between 1978 and the present, noting that the women he studied spoke about discrimination in the ’70s but now discuss striking a “balance” in their personal and professional lives. Women fill newsrooms in greater numbers today than three decades ago. In 2010, they made up 37 percent of the Washington press corps; in 1978, it was only 20 percent (including Judy Woodruff, above left, and Helen Thomas, above right, who flank Lady Bird Johnson). Not everything has changed for the better, however: Hess estimates that minorities still make up only 4 percent of the press corps — the same as in 1978.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; free, 7 p.m. Thu.; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
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Mark Jenkins · February 13, 2013