Monday, 11 February 2008

Just Another Manic Media Monday

It's odd being in England when so much is going on back in America: the presidential primaries, the new Washington Nationals' ballpark, Britney Spears's meltdowns.... Of course, what really affects me are the changes at The Washington Post: a new publisher, consolidation of our printing plants and buyouts. I don't think I'll arrive back in the newsroom this summer to find the lock on my office changed, but one never knows.

Ten years ago I was away from The Post at a time when there was churn at the paper. A new managing editor had been named and I was off on a fellowship. I felt a bit out of the loop. What if I missed my chance to toady and brown-nose? Successful sucking up, like comedy, is all in the timing. I'm glad to say that despite my absence it all worked out just fine, even if that managing editor didn't stick around.

I think I'm probably too young to qualify for a buyout, though each round does seem to get lower and lower. The Post may soon start paying recent journalism school graduates not to even apply. The main thing is, I like my job. I like The Post. I don't plan on going anywhere. That sound you hear is my fingernails sinking into the wood on my desk.

This is not to say that all is well in Newspaperland. This New York Times story succinctly lays out all the challenges facing the industry. Many of the challenges are external, things newspapers have no control over: the rise of the Web, changes in readers' lifestyle and commuting habits. But some are self-imposed: We've lost some readers' trust, we haven't reacted well to changes in technology.... Over here, the latest book to pile on is "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies. I haven't read the book yet, but Davies's main argument appears to be that time-pressed staffs are required to pump out more stories more quickly, resulting in a debilitating reliance on PR material.

It's an argument that U.K. journalism professor Adrian Monck carefully disassembles on his blog. Monck argues that, given the great advances in technology in the last 40 years, journalists should be able to work quicker and more efficiently. This review by Peter Preston in the Guardian makes the point that the Golden Age Davies harks back to was probably non-existent, or at least less shiny than he remembers it. Simon Jenkins made a similar point in a recent column.

I liked Peter Preston's closing comments: "One inescapable point about journalism is that, base or lofty, ruthless or idealistic, it is a mess, and always has been. That shouldn't stop us from trying to clean it up point by point, problem by problem. We can't afford not to be serious about our serious trade. But nor -- like rather too many tremulous tradesmen -- should we wallow in a froth of self-loathing that blots out the good and the necessary and the essential, too."

"A froth of self-loathing." Lovely. And worth keeping in mind. Of course, Peter Preston, I believe, is at the end of his career instead of in the middle of it, like I am. Journalists such as myself may need to steer clear of the froth of self-loathing but we need to plunge ourselves into the cold bath of self-criticism and self-improvement. The message of the economics seem unmistakable: Business as usual won't cut it anymore.


mark from alexandria said...

Interesting newspaper facts. The Washington Post still does not consider "redskin" to be derogatory and uses it freely on its front page. Major media now, apparently, consider "black" and "mixed race" to be synonyms (see Fenty, A. and Obama, B and the Metro Section's lead story). Lio is probably the most delightfully subservice comic strip to appear in a long time.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

On the Washington Metro for every person who reads the expansive version of the Post I see five reading the abbreviated (and free) version. I notice too that the newspaperstand or machine price of the daily paper has risen to 50 cents, but this does not affect people, like me, who have the Post delivered.
I read one of Britain's "quality" papers for many years, and found them a "class act": more concise and interpretive than their American counterparts.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

You're not dead yet, only on sabbatical. Besides, they'll love this interactive blog. Despite residing at an ancient institution, you are writing for the future.

John Kelly said...

I love reading the British papers. I've heard several comparisons between ours and theirs. Jeremy Paxman, the incomparable host of Newsnight, said he reads US papers to be informed and UK papers to be entertained. US papers can seem boring in comparison. The language isn't as wild but the facts are nailed down a little more securely. The ideal paper would be somewhere in between, I think.

Kristine said...

On British vs US newspapers, here's another interesting take on it:
When it comes to the 'campaigning' style of UK newspapers, Norwegian papers are much closer to US-style journalism. It's an interesting divide to travel back and forth as journalist. I spent my formative years as a news journalist in the UK, and even though I now write more for Norwegian than British media, I'm still more at ease with the UK style. I think it makes for better, more honest, journalism. I like the more opinionated campaigning style, knowing where the newspapers come from, and I think today's web culture will force journalism to become more like this: more transparent about where it's coming from politically, more opinionated, more human perhaps.....