Institutional age discrimination won't solve publishing's problems

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Wannabe Hacks has published a particularly annoying article this morning, under the delightful headline Investing in a younger team will only help to serve news organisations.

Ah, yes, young people will solve all the world’s problems, right? I’m so glad I’m not a teenager any more.

Actually, there’s a germ of a good article in there. He’s arguing that it’s a good thing that companies are employing digital savvy people to senior positions in news organisations without them necessarily coming up through traditional routes, which it is. But then he makes the unforgivable assumption of marrying “digital savvy” with “young”:

All of those mentioned are – as well as being great at what they do – young.

There’s a simple description for choosing someone for a job simply because they’re younger than other candidates: age discrimination. And George Berridge just wrote a long article arguing that publishers should do something illegal – in a post with an single link (with terrible anchor text to boot) in the whole piece. Remind me again how the young are inherently digitally-savvy?

Actually, it’s not actually the illegality that bothers me: it’s the stupidity. Here’s why:

  1. Digital savvy and youth do not correlate. I’ve met as many young people with starry-eyed visions of newspaper work as press cards in trilby hats and typewriters as I have ones with real, useful digital savvy. Spending all day on Facebook does not make you digitally savvy. Equally, I’ve met many journalists in their 50s with an instinctive and honed sense of how to use online community. Digital savvy is digital savvy, no matter how many summers the body it’s housed in has seen. See: the myth of the digital native.
  2. It perpetuates the horrible myth that some senior publishers are prone to: that digital is the preserve of “yoof”, and thus can be farmed out to new starters. And thus, often taken less seriously by mid-ranking team members.
  3. It helps publishers justify firing experienced people despite their digital savvy – because there are people out there with two decades of it now – and replacing them with young and, inevitably, cheaper people in the name of innovation. They’re not innovating, they’re just cutting costs. (A more cynical take might be that a 20-something digitally savvy journalist is much less of a threat to a 50-something digitally ignorant publisher than a 40-something digitally savvy senior journalist. But we’re not that cynical, right?)

Personally, I’m a huge fan of mixed, non-hierarchical teams. Young people can bring fresh eyes, and no ingrained expectation of established ways of doing things. That’s valuable. But so is experience, hard won through experimentation, success and failure – and the digital space has been around long enough that there have been two decades of experimentation to learn from. There’s been a wholesale loss of those people from publishing businesses in the last five years – many of them victims of political battles they were too busy to fight – and as a result we see bright, young innovators reinventing the same broken wheel because of this lack of knowledge continuity.

Diversity is quite genuinely a benefit in the sort of innovation you need to survive these changing times.

ageismdigital journalismdigital nativespublisherswannabe hacks

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.