Thursday, May 18, 2006

Valedictory or benediction?

In recently rereading two good speechs from ASNE, I was struck by the contrasting message I carried away from each.

The first was John Carroll’s fine speech to the assembled editors, entitled “Last Call at the ASNE Saloon.” It is a characteristically well-crafted work of art, but it is at its core more valedictory hymn than blueprint for solutions.

The writing is elegiac, the focus nostalgic.
“The golden age is over,” he tells us. “With the advent of the web, our rotary presses, those massive machines that once conferred near-monopolies on their owners, are looking more and more like the last steam engine … Then there’s a more subtle problem, a crisis of the soul.”
Well, not really, John.

Contrast his message with that of our colleague Dave Zeeck (who is, I feel certain, as big a John Carroll fan as I):

“I'm not spending another minute of my life worrying about the future of newspapers … I believe in newspapers and I believe they will last. But I also believe in the web. Heck I'm willing to believe in iPods and cell phones. Really what I'm saying is I believe in journalism. I believe in the future of news … What we do isn't about the ink and the pulp, though my love for both endures. It's about journalism. Turning over the rock. Finding the story. Telling it in a compelling way. Changing a life. Opening a mind. Righting a wrong. Making a community better.”
I’m not trying to set up a Zeeck-Carroll steel cage death match here. There is much to learn from each speech, and much in common between then. You can find a pdf version of Carroll’s remarks here, and David’s speech is available here.

But here’s one thought that certainly occurs to me as I read them: the epic, big-picture pirouette may not serve us very well as we go about the daily business of telling our communities what they need to know. Neither the sweeping jeremiad – What Hath God Wrought? – nor the revolutionary manifesto – Blow up the newsroom! – offers much real guidance for doing what we must do.

Dave offered an historical reference, from the Hebrew Book of Ethics, in summary:

The work is great
The day is short
It is not our duty to complete the work
But neither are we free to desits from it.

I’d add that Abe Lincoln had some advice about navigating a considerably more epic struggle back in his day. Speaking of the unimaginable issues facing a country at war with itself, he observed, “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our nation.”

Let’s make it so.
– Howard Weaver

1 comment:

  1. Adrian Holovaty also spoke at ASNE, but his speech took a completely different tack from either Dave Zeeck's or John Carroll's. Read Adrian's commencement speech at the U. Missouri j-school for a taste of what he's been talking about. It strikes me from reading all three speeches that Adrian is delivering lofty ideas in a bite-sized, pragmatic, daily package, while John and Dave are wrapping familiar ideas in higher-level language.

    A heavily truncated summary of John's message might be, "Regardless of the changes in the outside world, we must keep fighting the good fight." And Dave's speech: "Regardless of the changes in our medium, we must rededicate ourselves to our core values."

    Adrian's brief speech was much quieter in tone, but I'd call it more revolutionary. He argued that he is a journalist, that his work embodies all of journalism's core values. He didn't come right out and say, "The work I did in 40 hours could not be replicated by 40 'shoe-leather reporters' working round the clock," but I hope the point got across. Adrian was holding himself out as an example of a brand new kind of journalist with a wholly different set of skills. The summarized message: "Getting better at what we've always done isn't going to cut it. Tomorrow's journalist has new values as well. (And that doesn't mean she can hold a camera.)"

    For a while now, the press' paradigm has been Watergate. Our finest hour. Cynical, tough-minded, cigar-chewing editors have teared up at the sight of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford knocking on door after door, never giving up.

    But I would argue we're operating under a new paradigm: Enron. Despite the excellent reporting and storytelling after the company’s collapse, we’ll look back at the fall of Enron as a failure of the press. We didn't get that story until it was too late. Not because we don't have hardworking, skeptical investigative journalists like Woodstein anymore. But because "it is very difficult for reporters to get behind financial numbers of a company that are not only highly complex and made deliberately difficult to understand by the company, but also which have been approved by auditors that until fairly recently the press assumed -- falsely -- were doing their job in making sure the books were honest."

    Yes, we weren't as skeptical as we could have been. But more importantly, our industry lacks individuals with the acumen for parsing complex data sets.* Enter Adrian Holovaty, and the next generation of reporters. But since I've already rattled on long enough, I'll take the rest of this comment to my blog later.

    *Of course this is a generalization. The Wall Street Journal is crawling with folks who love complex data sets, and I bet we all have a few of them poking around our newsrooms.