Let’s Solve Our Journalism Problem

Celeste Headlee
17 min readFeb 18, 2021
“Newspapers B&W (4)” by NS Newsflash is licensed under CC BY 2.0

(This is the text of a speech delivered at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism on January 26, 2019 while accepting the Media Changemaker award.)

I had intended, at first, to give a speech on communication. You won’t hear it today, but trust me: it’s a good speech. Communication and conversation are two subjects on which I’m very passionate. I’ve dedicated my life in recent years to improving both, because our conversational skills, in general, are in decline.

But I filed away that speech last night, and wrote a new one about journalism. After all, journalism is why I’m an international expert on conversation. I was trying to become a better journalist when I first started to research the subject. Being a good journalist does mean being a good communicator, after all.

Journalism demanded I become a better listener. A good reporter or producer needs to talk and write well. But most human beings are born with reasonably good communication skills. After years of research in sociology and neuroscience and psychology, that’s one thing I’ve learned: most people are inherently good at talking. Listening is where and when we struggle.

Good journalism demands a higher level of listening. Good journalism requires you ask questions without assuming you already know the answers. It demands you really hear what someone is saying, and pick up nuances and surprises — not listen for what you want to hear.

I wrote a new speech because your mentors and elders in this industry have not been listening as well as they should. And we need you, I need you, to do better than we have done.

It’s been an incredible week for news. I don’t just mean the Roger Stone indictment, or the end to the longest government shutdown in US history. I’m also talking about mass layoffs in our industry.

In this one week, more than a thousand writers, editors, and other journalists lost their jobs. Verizon, which owns the Huffington Post and Yahoo, canned seven percent of its staff. Buzzfeed will fire 15 percent of its staff, and Gannett, which owns more than a thousand papers in the US, cut about 400 jobs.

These people didn’t lose their jobs because they were bad at them. The HuffPo laid off a Pulitzer Prize…