Monday, 12 November 2007

Are Reporters Doomed?

"Are reporters doomed?" That's the attention-grabbing headline of an essay by David Leigh in this morning's Guardian. Attention-grabbing if you're a reporter, anyway, or if you're married to one, parenting one, being parented by one, sleeping with one or blackmailing one.

Leigh, an investigative editor at the Guardian, argues that in the rush to adopt blogs, explore citizen journalism, embrace new technologies and cut costs, media companies are jettisoning their responsibility to do creditable long-term investigative work. He advocates "Slow Journalism," a practice which "would show greater respect for the reporter as a patient assembler of facts."

I think Leigh makes several good points and, to his credit, he recognizes that the future is coming, no matter what. (That's what the future does, after all. It comes. [And comes.] {And keeps on coming.}]) But I was struck by one sentence: "Too much competition leads to a race to the bottom." This comment crystallized for me something that's nagged at the back of my mind for a while: There exists a certain lack of faith in the market when it comes to some journalists.

To simplify an argument I detect in Leigh's essay: The public prefers crap journalism. Now that it can easily get crap journalism--cheaply produced and pushed at them 24/7 via myriad formats--it won't care to sample "the good stuff." If this is the case--if, when people are offered a choice, they choose wrongly--then what's the point of anything we do? The only possible response is to eliminate choice.

Journalists would never make this argument about any other industry or profession: "What really ruined the motor car was when more manufacturers started making them." "You know what I really hate? The fact that I have to decide between a PC and a Mac." "And have you seen how many types of baked beans are available?! It's not fair."

Saying that the only (or a major) reason that journalism has been heretofore successful is because it didn't have to compete, is like saying that the only reason most men shave their faces is because razor blades are available. (Actually, it's nothing like that, or maybe it is, but this being a blog I don't have time to properly develop that analogy.)

When it comes to the so-called "mainstream media," I'm not one of these Let's-kill-them-all-and-let-god-sort-them-out people. I like newspapers and the people who produce them. Sometimes I'm just as irritated as Leigh at the belief some hold that journalism is "easy." I may be naive in my hopes that Slow Journalism will succeed in the market--that readers/customers will value it the same way they value a Gillette Mach 3 Turbo Razor (no, still not working, is it?)--but I won't impose different standards on my profession than I would on any other. Yes, I think what we do is different--more important? more sacred?--than what General Motors or Toyota do, but the way we survive and thrive in the future (it's coming; see above) is by rising to the challenge: think of ways to make our product better, more relevant, more transcendent. We take the best of the old and the best of the new, trusting that if we do that correctly we can't help but succeed.

In other words, we compete.

Happy, Shiny People
Elsewhere in Media Guardian, Peter Wilby writes about efforts to put happier stories on front pages in the belief that readers are more likely to buy them. It reminds me of a statistic I once heard about The Washington Post. It used to be we sold something like 20,000 more papers on the Monday after the Redskins won. Just one more reason to dislike current owner Dan Snyder, who can't seem to field a winning team.

16 comments:

suburbancorrespondent said...

We've never had government support of print media (have we?) in this country, and there have always been muckraking publications alongside the good ones; so I do think good journalism will still survive. But why then does the government feel the need to subsidize NPR? Doesn't that illustrate a lack of faith in the market to support decent radio? And isn't it justified?

Also, is Leigh's argument for the elimination of choice, or for the deliberate support of "slow journalism" to keep it from disappearing?

suburbancorrespondent said...

Okay, I just read the article. I do love the British. "News bunnies," "commentariat," "people shouting past each other" - how do they come up with such great words and phrases? I think he voices a valid concern: "Where will responsible, in-depth reporting come from in this brave new world?" But what's your answer? That advertising revenues may be enough to encourage major news outlets to continue paying for this sort of journalism? Or that this sort of journalism will continue, despite the fact that no one pays very well for it anymore? Or do you believe the major news outlets will continue to function viably alongside the new journalism?

Comparing anonymous bloggers to the pamphleteers of the 19th century was very apt. There was an article in the New Yorker by the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism recently (can't remember name - curse this early, child-inflicted dementia) which made the same point.

Richard said...

I think this illustrates a quite funamental difference between the European and American attitude to the people. The US tends to recognise the wisdom of the crowd, and hence have faith in expressions of democratic will. In Europe, perhaps because we've had a number of rather bloody expressions of the will of the people, we are more suspicious of it. Hence in the US there is a belief that in the battle of ideas (or newspapers, or razors), the best will emerge wearing a sort of Darwinian Crown. In Europe, we fear that in the battle of the market place, the mob will emerge with red fags, crowing over the carcass of quality.

There. I took your analogy and ran with it. Do I have to pay you copyright?

cktirumalai said...

In the five or so years I have been reading the "Post" the Redskins frequently seem to be front-page news, whether they win or lose. This morning there was a long article about their loss to the Eagles. And in the halls of the Library of Congress there are among some of the staff informed and animated discussions of the game, before and after, and indeed throughout the metropolitan area.
I once saw a man wearing a T-shirt which said, "I root for two teams, the Redskins and whoever the Cowboys are playing against."

cktirumalai said...

Richard's comment is very interesting, quite in the spirit of Tocqueville, that great interpreter of Europe and America.

Ken said...

Richard D and Tocqueville compared in the same breath?! Who says British journalists are dumbing down?

The market still permits high end-journalism - the Noo Yoiker and the Atlantic seem to be doing okay, for example, despite great long articles, often on obscure subjects. But there's no doubt that in my neck of the investigative journalism woods budgets and timelines for investigations are falling at a rate.

Still, there's so much journalism out there that some of it has to be good, surely?

John Kelly said...

I don't doubt that some sizable portion of the crowd are idiots. But they come by their idiocy honestly and as long as they aren't bothering me--forcing me to watch "Celebrity Big Brother Cannibal Island"--then let them have their fun, I say. It would be a challenge to find a journalism--a proper journalism--that appeals to them. And if not, then there are non-idiots out there who hopefully will watch/listen/read.

I mourn the cuts that Ken detects and I think they are ill-considered, since they serve to remove a distinction that proper journalism has had, a thing that separates "us" from "them." And I think there's a market for it. "60 Minutes" is one of the most-watche TV shows in the U.S. and NPR (more listener-supported than government-supported) is going gangbusters.

So I support quality journalism but don't think the way to assure its future is to slag off the competition. Who was who said "Let a thousand flowers bloom"? Oh right, it was Mao. But Ben Bradlee used to say it too.

Alexandra Kitty said...

I don't think reporters are doomed -- so long as they are open-minded enough to understand and embrace the evolving medium we call the Internet -- which can take the elements of print, television, and radio, blend them together to make something that is superior to each of the three traditional media.

Journalism doesn't have to suffer -- it can, in fact thrive, but too many players don't truly get the Internet -- they treat it the same way as they treat the old media and that's the precise reason why mainstream outlets are now struggling.

Couple this with the fact that reporters are far less open about themselves than the new younger audiences (the ones who put their entires lives on their blogs and social networking sites) they need to capture to survive -- and it's no wonder the old guard are finding themselves increasingly irrelevant in this changing world.

The old rules of journalism no longer apply. The only way journalism going to survive is for reporters and media owners to stop playing it safe and, more importantly, to realize their mandate to inform the public about the world around them is more important than any sentimental attachment they may have to the medium they have mastered.

John Kelly said...

Those are some interesting points, Alexandra Kitty. I think you might enjoy a response that my friend Craig Stoltz posted at his blog:
http://2ohreally.wordpress.com/

I don't think I'm old guard, but nor am I young guard. Is there a medium guard? My worry is that the old guard (some of them, anyway) are reflexively antagonistic towards anything new and the young guard (again, not all) want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I suppose by trying to find a middle way, I'm the sort who would be first against the wall in the revolution.

Ken said...

Craig Stoltz clearly has my humanities-educated, George Packer reading card marked ...

Those sites look great, a fantastic resource, and undoubtedly good journalism. But I'll stick with the Atlantic and the NYRB as my first port of call. Reporting's about facts, sure, but it's also about style too - at least for me.

frustrated reader said...

The public NOT prefer "crap journalism." Some time last year the Washington Post reported on an experiment by Midwest city newspaper (I think in Milwaukee, but I'm not sure). Anyway, the paper posted several topics on its Web site each day and asked readers to vote on which ones should be on the front page. EVERY DAY, the readers voted for hard news, frequently international, rather than the "human interest" stories the editors had been planning to use. Journalism is like television; if the consumer prefers the "dumbed down" versions, maybe it's because those who don't are giving up and turning elsewhere. Papers should try winning back the intelligent part of the public instead of driving them away. (A few reporters who can use the English language correctly wouldn't hurt, either--how many times have you seen something like "The setback didn't phase him"?)

richgor said...

Here's the way I see it:

I *want* there to be money in good journalism. Because if there's money in good journalism, more good journalism will be created.

And I believe there is more than enough demand for good journalism in most communities to finance at least one darned good business built around producing it.

It's just a question of understanding what works in the interactive medium, and learning how to do compelling "storytelling" in this new world. I know we can figure it out.

Rich Gordon

John Kelly said...

I think you're right, Rich. And if we can't figure it out, then the market has spoken. But it doesn't mean we should throw in the towel.

Craig Stoltz has some very interesting thoughts on this at his blog ttp://2ohreally.wordpress.com/

Or, specifically:
http://2ohreally.wordpress.com/2007/11/12/are-reporters-doomed-contd/#comment-2263

hb said...

Sorry, frustrated, I'm skeptical of that study: it seems entirely too vulnerable to reflecting disproportionately the views of people who care about the hard news (and read surveys, and are inclined to vote) than those fluffy types who can be grabbed by the impulse of a Paris Hilton headline or cute kitty photo. Of course, unsourced study, etc., neither of us can be sure.

Craig Stoltz said...

Back when John Kelly and I were friends. . .

No, just joking, of course! John and I have the sort of friendship that can easily withstand a strong professional disagreement in which he is so tragically wrong.

Today there was a major earthquake in Chile. The New York Times (just to pick on the big dumb kid at the back of the class) has a 16-graf news story on its Web site. It has a map, a photo and two hyperlinks, one to a Chile Travel Guide entry on the country, one to a link explaining the U.S. Geological Survey (there are unwholesome motivations for providing these inline links, but I won't get into that here).

If I were a multimedia news editor (I'm not), when the news came across my screen I'd have fired up the browser and tracked down some shaky-cell-phone video. I'd have posted a Google map of the affected area and put a fast-typing, web-savvy staffer on the task of harvesting the best UGC and geotagging it to the map. I'd have my most ferociously focused and gifted newshand craft 300 highly compressed and brilliant words, culled from news service reports and UGC, like those newsmagazine write-throughs but done in real time. I'd link to a Flickr photo gallery that aggregates images in real time. I'd have a newsbox that updated all day with the latest facts, and I'd have an editor from the South American desk scour for blog entries of the moment.

Or I could have done what some poor, habituated, hidebound, put-upon schweck in the Times newsroom did: Order up a 15-graf ho-hum, put a postage stamp photo on the page and a dead .gif map, and be done with it.

If this is the baby, then I say pitch it out with the bathwater, and smack its shabby butt on the way down.

Editors and writers will continue to produce this sort of outdated. . . typing for as long as they can get away with it--until someone holds a gun to their heads, says we can't keep doing this, that it's time for a major change in how we do business in a newsroom.

The multimedia production I've described above is *not* more expensive than the 16-graf ho-hum. I'd argue it's better, more complete journalism than the words-alone approach. Others may disagree.

But creating the multimedia production simply requires a different skill set than the one you find widely distributed in the Times newsroom. Editors are used to assigning stories comprised of words, and writers used to delivering them. They can do it in their sleep. Sometimes, I think, they do.

We can discuss the role of investigative journalism--how the essential reporting of public affairs and the vital task of holding power accountable can be funded and conveyed in the digital age.

But I don't think there is any justification, at this point in the transition of media, for major news institutions to continue to produce one-color, one-dimensional content on a daily basis. It serves only to marginalize the very media companies that need to survive if there is to be thoughtful, principled journalism in the digital age. Too many seem to be riding their revenue curves to the bottom of the chart and complaining about how kids today don't read newspapers.

We shouldn't let the habituated and sentimental run the trusted, credible news institutions into poverty because. . .why? They don't "get" the news stuff? They don't know how? They genuinely think the old way is better?

To cite a quotation from, god help me, Lee Iacocca: It's time for top newsroom managers to lead, follow or get out of the way.

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