Title

Watching the NYTimes 'The Fourth Estate' Documentary through Higher Ed Eyes

Journalists and academics, newspapers and colleges.

July 11, 2018
 
 

If you didn’t become an academic, then you might have ended up as a journalist. Rather than working at a college, you might have found yourself employed by a newspaper.

I’ve long thought that the world’s academia and print journalism are connected. Watching The Fourth Estate, an excellent 4-part documentary on the NYTimes, has done much to reinforce this belief.  

Some similarities between journalists and academics, and newspapers and colleges, would include:

Existential Threats to Our Business Models:

The Fourth Estate chronicles the challenges faced by the Times to create high quality journalism in the face of declining print ad revenues.

In 2017 print ad revenues at the Times fell 14 percent. Overall ad revenues (print and digital) declined 4 percent. The long term loss of print ad revenues, with no end in sight, has not been made up by a commensurate increase in digital advertising. Instead, the Times has relied on the growth of subscriptions, including digital subscriptions, to make up for the shortfall. Subscriptions now account for 60 percent of all Times revenues.  Throughout the Fourth Estate there is a palpable dread among Times employees about the financial stability of their employer. The documentary covers the period where the Times vacated multiple floors in its Manhattan headquarters to generate rental income, as well as the walkout of Times staff to protest layoffs of copy editors.

The Times journalists followed in The Fourth Estate are hyper-aware that the business model of the industry in which they have devoted their entire careers, one which relied on advertising to subsidize the costs of journalism, is no longer working. The economics of higher education may not be as challenging as those of newspapers, but we are in the same ballpark.  Cuts in public funding, combined with challenging demographics rising operational costs, have called into question the economic viability of many colleges and universities.  Worry about the future of our industries, and the employers that we work for, is the daily context in which academics and journalists operate.

Changing Roles of Journalists and Academics:

The Fourth Estate starts with Trump’s inauguration, and ends (after 4 episodes) with Trump’s short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.  The documentary also covers the time period where the sexual harassment behaviors of numerous high profile men was revealed, a story that the Times helped break.

The overwhelming sense that one gets in watching the documentary is just how exhausting it is to work at the Times. The competition to be the first to report the news is intense. Due to the nature of the Trump presidency, the news itself is unpredictable and often without precedent. The Fourth Estate shows Trump’s repeated attacks on journalists in general - calling them the “enemy of the people” - and of the Times in particular. “The failing NYTimes”.  The result is that it seems as if people who work at the Times work all the time, they also must work differently. They are expected to file multiple stories for digital, as news is covered in real time.  They also are active contributors to social media, the create audio and video news stories, and many are interviewed on TV.

Work / life balance in academia can be equally as challenge as it is for print journalists. The lives of the Times reporters and editors reminds me of the demands of junior faculty on the tenure track and of high level staff. The pressure to produce is relentless.  The need to show strong research productivity is challenged by teaching and service demands. Staff face pressure to bring in new revenues while maintaining existing services, all within the context of severe budget constraints. Times reporters and editors know that they are in a privileged job, the best job perhaps in all of print journalism, but that their positions are precarious.  Neither academia or journalism feel like a secure, stable, or balanced career choice.

Mission Driven People and Institutions:

I don’t mean to leave the impression that The Fourth Estate depicts the NYTimes as miserable place to work. Yes, the reporters and editors are often miserable, but happily so. You get the impression that despite the challenges of the industry that they work, and the incredible demands of their jobs, that they would not want to do anything else anywhere else.

This is also true of most academics I know. The higher education industry has real economic problems. Working in higher education has become more demanding and competitive, while also less secure. Still, most academics I know could not imagine doing anything different - and they love the colleges and universities in which they work.

Are journalists and academics crazy? Maybe.

Another explanation is that journalists and academics are driven by a larger mission than maximizing their own short-term career happiness.  The Times reporters in The Fourth Estate seem to sacrifice almost everything related to a personal life in their efforts to accurately report on the actions of the Trump administration. They see their role as central to democracy. They are not wrong.

Academics believe that the work they do to teach and to create knowledge is of fundamental importance. We are fully convinced that higher education is the primary engine of opportunity creation. What motivates people who work in higher education is the goal to improve learning, increase access, and lower costs.  For academics, knowledge creation and teaching are not separate activities, but are intimately related and mutually reinforcing.

The values of journalists and academics are reflected in the institutions in which they work.  The Fourth Estate makes a good case for the Times as a public good. An institution built to outlast the demagoguery of politicians and the vicissitudes of the digital economy.

Those of us who work at institutions of higher learning would be comfortable, I think, with the work and the culture of the NYTimes.

What are your favorite documentaries and books about the news industry?

Has there ever been a good documentary about the life of academia, and the workings of a particular university?

Where are courses about the economics, culture, and operations of postsecondary education taught?

Could you imagine using the platform of an open online course to do something like The Fourth Estate to document the work of a university?

Have you ever considered a career in journalism?

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top