Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life by Margaret Sullivan
Published in October 2022
Quick, name five things that academia and journalism have in common.
My list would include the following:
- Undergoing a painful, unnerving and often exciting industrywide transition from analog to digital.
- Vital elements of a functioning democratic system that are under attack by antidemocratic forces.
- Real worries about the long-term financial viability of our industries as currently constructed.
- Populated by mission-driven and values-based people who entered the profession as something of a calling.
- Navigating a challenging new reality of big tech competition, partnership and control.
These commonalities between academia and journalism, universities and print/digital publications, provide all the motivation required to recommend Newsroom Confidential to our Inside Higher Ed community.
Reading about the inner workings and external struggles of The New York Times (as well as The Washington Post and The Buffalo News) is helpful in making sense of the challenges we face within our colleges and universities.
Newsroom Confidential (a terrible title, by the way—as it is well past time to move beyond Anthony Bourdain–inspired publishing knockoffs) illuminates the culture, structure and economics of the newsroom business from the vantage point of a single long career in journalism. Margaret Sullivan is best known as the public editor of The New York Times from 2012 to 2015 and as a Washington Post columnist to her retirement from the paper in 2022.
Newsroom Confidential is part career memoir, and I suspect it will be one of those must-read books for anyone thinking about a career in journalism. (A career path that, while acknowledging the valid worries that choosing a journalism career may not be the best financial move given the underlying economic fundamentals of the industry, Sullivan still sees as a compelling option for the most dedicated and curious, and persistent.)
In academia, we talk about those who have “come up the hard way,” meaning university leaders who successfully navigated the tenure track before transitioning into university leadership roles. In journalism, Sullivan came up the hard way, spending decades as a reporter, editor and newsroom leader at The Buffalo News before ascending to her perches at the NYT and the Post. A commonality that might be listed between academia and journalism is our shared histories of structural sexism, a reality that Sullivan describes in her career progression toward the heights of her profession.
The other thread that runs through Newsroom Confidential is Sullivan’s arguments around the relationship between journalism and democracy. She puts much of the blame for the election of Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection on the failure of mainstream news to accurately report on the dangers of the far right to basic democratic norms and values. Newsroom Confidential can be read as something a journalistic companion piece to What Universities Owe Democracy.
Sullivan may have some things to say about the parallels between journalism and academia, as in August, she was appointed the 2023 Egan Visiting Professor at Duke.
Here’s to hoping that Margaret Sullivan transitions her keen eye, analytical rigor and quick wit for analyzing the achievements and shortcomings of journalism to her new home in academia.
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