Years ago, when I went to work for UPI in Saint Louis, my in-service training consisted of a demonstration of how to operate the teleprinter. Most of the time an operator would be available; but on Sundays, and also on Saturday and Monday nights, it was up to me to do everything myself.
My advanced in-service training consisted of learning how to save time by keyboarding stories on the teleprinter as it transmitted, staying a few seconds ahead of the tape. This was a skill I taught myself.
Knowing how to type with more than two fingers was handy but not a requirement. It was a primitive business.
Journalism no longer is. In this century the demands on journalists have increased almost exponentially. I don’t know what UPI has done to keep up (years ago it was taken over by the Unification Church and virtually disappeared as a domestic news service) but our bigger, richer rival, the Associated Press, developed a training program that became a model for the industry.
I know this about the AP because in recent weeks I’ve been speaking to AP staffers who went through the training and swear by it. The bad news is the reason for these conversations: last November the AP laid off John Dowling, its director of training.
A former AP reporter who wishes to stay unnamed ticked off training programs run by Dowling she’d been part of. One of them was a week-long storytelling workshop in Philadelphia. “That was superb,” she says. Other workshops taught her first the basics of shooting video and then advanced techniques. “They were held in lots of different places—Washington, Las Vegas, Phoenix . . . Each of those was five days long as well.” There was the week she spent in New Orleans learning computer-assisted reporting. And she mentioned a program was for young reporters the AP identified as its managers of tomorrow.
“With all that’s going on in the media world, I’d hope they keep the training program as it is and even expand it so the AP will remain relevant,” she says. “John had been one of the greatest mentors—to myself, certainly, and to many, many of us at the AP.”
Matt Apuzzo, who now writes for the New York Times, won a Pulitzer in 2012 for an AP investigative series on police surveillance of New York’s Muslim community. Apuzzo was a rookie reporter in Hartford in 2003 when Dowling selected him for several days of training in Washington. “It’s not an overstatement to say that week changed my career,” Apuzzo tells me. “John and his program introduced me to a world of reporters and reporting I’d never seen before. They exposed me to the type of journalists I wanted to be and I’m not sure I even knew I could have been at that stage of my career.”
An AP lifer, Dowling started out as a copyboy in Chicago while he was going to Northwestern, became statehouse reporter in Springfield in 1984, and went on to be the AP’s state editor in Minnesota and then Illinois. In 2000 he was named deputy director of editorial training, and in 2005 he was promoted to director of news training—based in Chicago at his request. Last November 7 he was let go.
His letter to colleagues began:
I got word this afternoon that my job has been eliminated, effective today.
How’s that for a wire-service lead? Very tight and direct, no attribution required. Writing with authority!
I will leave it to others to explain what the future holds for training at AP.
That’s what everyone wondered who read Dowling’s message. Dowling was ousted shortly after rancorous contract negotiations between the AP and the News Media Guild had finally reached a settlement, a backstory that deepened the distress of staffers when they got the news. Within a few days a letter of protest to Gary Pruitt, CEO of the AP, and Jessica Bruce, vice president for human relations, had been signed by 67 journalists, only a handful of whom, like Apuzzo, no longer worked at the AP.
“Many of us—and so many we know—are better, more prepared journalists because of the training he oversaw,” the letter said. “That a career, and work that added great value to the AP’s global news staff, would end in this manner is both astonishing and appalling. He deserves so much better.”
Silence is more golden to large companies than it is even to monks in monasteries, and when important employees are shown the door an immediate goal is to negotiate a settlement that shuts everyone up. Neither the AP nor Dowling has had anything public to say about why he’s gone, aside from one cryptic line in Dowling’s original announcement: “I suspect I will come to not miss the job very much—long story—but I will surely miss the people.”
But would Pruitt and Bruce respond to the letter’s other concern?
“This action has had considerable impact on employee morale, already damaged by short-staffing, major contract give-backs and the loss of so many of our talented peers.
“It also causes us to question the AP’s commitment to training. We respectfully request more details about the plan that will replace the previous structure, and question why John could not have administered it.”
The letter ended: “We realize tough decisions must be made at times. But when we start letting go of the very people who could help prepare us for the next chapter of journalism, we can’t help but lose hope.”
As coincidence would have it, a couple days after Dowling was booted, Pruitt held a previously scheduled “town hall,” a periodic meeting attended in person by staffers in New York and via closed-circuit TV by staffers everywhere else where questions are asked and answered. Pruitt was—according to someone watching—knocked on his heels by questions about Dowling and training that he seemed unprepared for. And I’m told Pruitt said training wouldn’t be abandoned but it’d be handled differently and Human Resources would be involved. About three weeks after she got the staff letter Bruce replied to it, and she added her two cents.
“I can’t comment on John Dowling specifically,” Bruce responded. “I can tell you, though, that AP has and will continue to review the location of staff, different department structures and different programs, and will determine on a case by case basis if the department structures and programs still support and provide the services AP needs today. When we have to, we will make adjustments. Sometimes those adjustments may mean jobs move to headquarters, or away from headquarters, and sometimes jobs move and the people don’t move with them.”
Sometimes writing is murky because it’s meant to be. The one thing Bruce made clear was that the AP is in flux and will do whatever it thinks it has to. That would include letting HR run training from New York, which staffers suppose would probably save the company a few dollars at a time when every dollar’s precious. “We’re rubbing nickels together at this point,” says one of the AP’s national writers. “It sucks across the board.”
“I don’t want people to give up hope, certainly,” Bruce’s short message concluded. “I do understand that changes like these can be disruptive, and AP does not make them lightly. Gary meant it when he said that AP will continue to provide training and development opportunities for our journalists across the globe. I mean it too.”
I called Bruce and wound up talking to AP spokesman Paul Colford, who said he couldn’t help me on this one. I called Bruce back and this time left a message in her voicemail; she didn’t respond.
It’s now going on three months since Dowling was let go, and the AP staff still isn’t sure what will happen to in-service training. Some can picture HR running it in conjunction with department heads—”That seems a lot more diffuse than it was when John was in charge,” says a reporter. “Which is a worry. And John was in close touch with the editorial staff. HR wouldn’t be.”
Because professional training was run out of Chicago, it’s not clear if AP management in New York has a visceral appreciation of the job to be filled. I called AP New York this week and asked for the director of training; whoever answered the phone had never heard of the position, had never heard of Dowling, and didn’t know what I was talking about. Was he simply new and clueless? Or do the AP bosses in New York know a lot less clearly than their worldwide army of reporters what they were getting for their money from the guy in Chicago when they decided to lop off his salary?