Thursday, July 30, 2009

A prejudice (and a prayer) for the power of the newsroom

Off the news ticker this week:

McClatchy and a number of other newspaper companies recently surprised and pleased Wall Street with first quarter earnings reports far better than predicted. One analyst (who’s invested in newspaper stocks) predicts that cost-cutting at the papers has taken hold just as the economy bottoms out, meaning that even modest improvement could mean “spectacular earnings growth” for several quarters.

By no coincidence at all, newspaper stocks – languishing in the cellar – rose dramatically. Their levels are still at or near historic lows, but after a long, steady plunge many are climbing again.

All of this relies on the economy getting better – people selling cars and houses, placing help-wanted ads, advertising clothing sales – and news on that front also brings tentative signs of improvement. Numbers involving home sales, earnings, declining unemployment claims and news from other sectors all gave hints that the bottom of the recession may be near.

On top of all that, beleaguered newspaper people must have taken some comfort from an article in Advertising Age that show public use of the internet is flattening, while traditional media have generally slowed or reversed their declines.

So it’s all good, right? Won’t be long ‘till everything is back to normal.

Well, no. There is no “normal” nowadays, and there’s no going back. But it is equally true that predictions of apocalytical change are overstated.

This is unquestionably a run of good news for those of us who don’t believe total, immediate digital transformation is the best scenario for journalism in America. Some do, and they argue their case tirelessly. No doubt they’ll find many reasons to dismiss my analysis of those development.

At least I’m consistent. I’ve argued for years that the shift from analog to digital is inevitable; on my first web page, in 1995, I wrote, “I’ve always been a storyteller, and I'm convinced the stories of the new millenium will be told digitally."

But I also argue, against a gale of internet triumphalism to the contrary, that the shift won’t (and shouldn’t) be immediate or total. Many of the people predicting the imminent death of printed news or counseling companies to shutter newspapers and spend all their money on the web are drinking their own bathwater. They have a vision – many times a clear and compelling vision – of what the shift to a digital, networked world will look like, but they’re in danger of leaping to conclusions that aren’t there.

I don’t believe untrained or unpaid volunteers alone can produce the kind of journalism on which democracy depends. I believe most people want and value good filters to separate signal from noise – and the best way we’ve ever found to do that is with professional journalists.

Of course I am deeply prejudiced on this subject. I love newsrooms and newsroom culture; for 40 years they’ve been my church, my job and my playground. You have to view my analysis with that in mind.

But those 40 years have also given me experience and insight I think come to play here. I know what a good newsroom can do, because I’ve been lucky enough to work in some. I have seen principle stand up against pressure, courage hold sway against expedience, ideals triumph over self-interest. I know what it takes to produce work like “A People In Peril,” the Anchorage Daily News’ 1989 Pulitzer for Public Service, when more than 30 talented professionals applied decades of skill and training and all their energy in the service of a singular public-spirited vision. I don’t think that will come from a volunteer collective.

But I neither am I terminally nostalgic about the past. A lot of things need to change, and others will change no matter what we think about it. Hierarchy has evaporated, the gatekeeper role has vanished and what was once inclined to become a sermon must now be a genuine conversation. “Objectivity” and distance – the “news voice” of our heritage – are dead. Transparency and fairness remain achievable goals; combined with the new plethora of views and opinions, that may be enough to support a consensus reality and common vocabulary for public affairs.

None of these things are the exclusive provence of professional journalism, certainly not exclusive to legacy newsrooms built to meet different needs. There are a handful of creditable “hyperlocal” news operations, there are examples of non-professional journalists making important contributions, and a few beacons that show us outlines of how newsrooms may evolve. All of these will grow stronger with experience.

But none of them now come close to the capacity of a good newspaper newsroom, which encompasses so much talent and experience and knowledge that it can produce a fountain of vital, important and compelling journalism where others are still producing trickles.

Talking Points Memo – a clear example of how journalism can evolve into new forms without forsaking heritage – did a fine job (along with McClatchy’s DC bureau) of exposing the politicization of the Department of Justice. And while it was doing that, traditional newsrooms opened our eyes to things like unauthorized wiretapping by the NSA, the CIA's secret "black site" prisons in Europe, illegal back-dated stock options at public companies, scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital, abuses at Guantanamo Bay, and much more.

Thus I come to my continuing prayer: that the potency and capacity of our best newsrooms will be preserved and once again nurtured, and that they will continue to rise to the challenge of embracing a new news paradigm and a new relationship with audiences. I am encouraged to believe this is happening.


  1. It's possible that the appearance of bloggers in the US (a real flowering unlike anywhere else) may have less to do with the advent of technology and the decline-crash in the quality of US journalism that may have begun about 20+ years ago. Frankly, the US intellectual landscape looks eerily like the old Soviet Union where you have highly credentialed and decorated academics like economists and other leaders of institutions having performed terribly. And to compound the pain US professional journalism appears to be a part of the that structure--not in opposition to it. In that light, it makes sense that real world actors in, say, financial markets would turn away from "financial media" and pay attention to financial bloggers. So to with those concerned with geopolitics, poverty, labor, and domestic politics. It's almost hard to imagine turning now to professional journalists either in print or TV to obtain political news, for example. The flowering of independent coverage has simply been too spectacular.

    It's not really about training. It's really more about education and disposition. What was interesting about the old soviet bloc is that so many who wrote criticism, underground news and analysis, books, made films and art were highly educated. It's just like that now.

    I don't want to push the analogy too far, but, the decline of US institutions in quality and integrity does not appear to have been a trend that was halted by "professionally trained journalists." Equally, I wouldn't pin the decline on journalists either. Rather, I make a cleaner point: the public finds that bloggers write material the more closely comports with the reality they see, and are experiencing. Really, it's not a very novel explanation.

  2. This opinion has been written, literally, hundreds of times.

    Wouldn't it be much more meaningful to instead create a service or a product that addresses what you think is wrong?

  3. Howard, about "hyperlocal" experiments you reference -- is West Seattle Blog non-professional, MyBallard? The Batavian? If you are producing news for the web unassociated with a newspaper, does that make you non-professional? And background and training of the operators aside, at what point after you started making your living from your work do you pass from amateur to professional? Or does the college degree matter?

  4. As I think you know, Howard, credentials have always been meaningless to me. When young people ask me about getting a job in journalism, I always tell them that I've hired hundreds of people in my career and never once glanced at a college transcript. I myself have never taken a journalism class.

    I'm trying hard NOT to get caught in the pointless blogger/pro did so/did not arguments.

    I said "creditable news organizations" because that defines behavior, not background or credentials.

    Who is a journalist? A person who produces journalism. And if you make your living at it, you're a professional.

  5. Anonymous5:22 PM

    >I don’t believe untrained or unpaid
    >volunteers alone can produce the kind of >journalism on which democracy depends.

    Really? Wow. Just wow. I can't believe that people can even write stuff like that in 2009.

    I would argue that bloggers are the ONLY ones producing the kind of journalism on which democracy depends. Let's see --- Judy Miller, the Downing street memos, US attorney firings, the laughable fraud of e-voting... I could go on and on listing cases where the corporate media insisted on assuring the public that there was no story right up until it was rammed down their throats by the blogs and the public. In fact, just this week Glen Greenwald at Salon had a piece about Fox and MSNBC reaching a deal to stop criticizing each other because it was bad for their corporate parents.

    Also, I'm not convinced that the list of stories that you attribute to tradional newrooms is accurate. It has been my experience that I read of developments like these in the blogs -- where they're dismissed as craziness, then some traditional outlet picks up the story (usually without crediting the blog) and suddenly it's a "real story" that "serious" people pay attention to.

  6. Anon 522: Thanks for the object lesson in fact-free opinions. "I'm not convinced..." and "it has been my experience" aren't arguments or refutations; they're just air.

    Blogs did not develop the NSA eavesdropping story, nor the black sit prisons, etc. You're just wrong, and telling us what you think you remember reading isn't reporting. Cite specifics. Give us some links. Where did bloggers break those or Walter Reed or ...