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April 25, 2005

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... And Another Thing

Having just fired off two ranty e-mails to Robin, I thought I’d just go ahead and take the rants public. My beef was these three reports/manifestos/speeches that have been setting the hearts of the likes of Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis all a-flutter.

If you haven’t read them, they all make essentially the same point — old-school journalism’s in trouble. Shorter Merrill Brown: Young people don’t read newspapers. Shorter Tim Porter: And it’s the fault of backwards-thinking journalists. Shorter Rupert Murdoch: No, seriously. Young people like never read newspapers.

I’ll take my rantings past the jump, so you can continue unassaulted, if you so prefer.

I agree with all of them, and I’m sure they all had quite the effect on their old-school audiences. But I thought the pioneers of the media future had all settled on these points long ago and since moved on to more interesting things. I mean, I’m all for some good, cathartic fawning and all, but this is getting ridiculous. Jay Rosen not only replied in the comments of Porter’s post itself — “This is your greatest post yet. I have some sense of what it took to get here.” — he also wrote at length about it on his blog. Twice. And he’s entitled to it. But it all just feels so twelve years ago. When we start talking around in circles like this, I get impatient about the snail’s pace of this alleged revolution. The brashness of youth, I guess.

The other thing that worries me is that with all the talk of blowing the roof off journalism, I think many of us are still looking for a template. Like, Ooh! Ooh! The inverted pyramid is dead! Let’s go find something else to invert!

I hear a lot of pining for, to give one example, Sy Hersh. He’s often cited as a model of contemporary journalism, the type of journalist we will ostensibly lose when news becomes all EPIC-ed out.

Sy Hersh is a rock star and an outlier. He’s not a template, nor is he an example of why the template of modern journalism works. He has done well in his mode, in his age. Others will do as well or better in future modes, in future ages, but probably not by trying to become Sy Hersh.

Jon Stewart is a rock star and an outlier. Just because he’s more engaging and just as intelligent (scroll to the bottom) as Peter Jennings or Dan Rather does not mean that by emulating the Daily Show format, we can also win the hearts and minds of America’s youth. Stewart took an okay form and made it shine in a way Craig Kilborn did not. And if the next Daily Show host doesn’t, it won’t be because he’s not trying enough to be like Jon Stewart.

Ninety percent of everything has been and will continue to be crap. We’re entering an age of what I hope will be much, much more crap. Because I’ve got my eye on that growing 10% slice of goodness.

mthompson-sig.gif
Posted April 25, 2005 at 4:52 | Comments (11) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism

Comments

Could not agree more, Matt!

Okay, Matt: you got me on the cringe-inducing "I have some sense of what it took to get here." That's pretty bad.

I would caution you about one thing. It's true that there isn't anything new in what people like Brown and Murdoch are (finally) saying. The abandonment of the newspaper and traditional news formats by the young is more than 12 years old. The signs of a major disruption in the news media's way of life have been there for a long while.

What Jarvis and others mean by a turning point is a reference to the weight of opinion in the hidebound world of traditional news providers-- that is what's finally turning, and so 10-15 years after these people could have woken up they actually are waking up.

Is it funny? Yeah, it's funny. And you're entitled to jeer at them for being unbelievably thick, complacent and slow. Unless you care about that world (traditional news providers, daily newspapers, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, etc.) there's no reason to mark the day when opinion finally shifts within it.

But I have to care about it, as retrograde as it seems; many of the students who come to NYU want jobs within that world. Jarvis is an executive within it. He has to care. Do you? Frankly, no.

Your points about Stewart and Hersh are well taken and totally on.

Jay, I definitely see what you're saying. In fact, while I was ranting, I considered tempering my polemic with some recognition of how energetically and how maddeningly long you've advocated heaping improvements in the way we conceive of journalism. I recognize how frustrating it must have been (it must be) to say these things over and over again for years to deaf ear after deaf ear, and how gratifying it must be to hear those same deaf ears finally attain the miracle of hearing.

But I didn't want to get all on-the-other-hand-y in the middle of a good rant, so I figure I'd let the chips fall.

I do care very much about the traditional news providers, and I want them to be involved in what's happening. I work for what I'd say is the biggest, most sophisticated newsgathering operation in Fresno County, and I'm horrified by the thought of this poor, beaten-up region losing the best journalism it's got. At the same time, I think we sometimes squander our energy on bringing our newsrooms along for the revolution at the expense of guiding that revolution along.

Here's what preceded my rant. I spent yesterday afternoon in communication with a vaunted citizen journalist -- a young woman who covers local arts and entertainment for her own Web site. Having no formal journalism training or experience, in a very short time, she and her staff of one have created a site that I'd argue is the most vital reflection of her community.

Right now, the site is essentially her sole occupation. But she doesn't know how much longer she can keep it up.

How do we rescue *that*, Jay? The newspaper is surviving, for the moment. But how do we keep *her* around? How do we instill those would-be reporters coming through your classrooms with talent and passion like hers? If I could focus your prodigious foresight and intellect on that question, and not hear the words "newspaper" or "newsroom" on PressThink for just a little while, I'd be absolutely satisfied.

(Did you see that prodigious? I can totally fawn with the best of 'em.)

Matt ...

As the current object of Jay's fawning, I thought I'd offer some agreement and some disagreement without, I hope, being fawning myself or defensively newspaperish.

First, I share your sense of wonder at the amount of attention paid to my piece on the newsroom. While I can't claim the prescience of Crichton, I have essentially been writing versions of the newsroom post for 2.5 years. In my first entry I said pretty much what I said the other day: "In an age of increasing public sophistication – and diversification – about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers." In other words, the journalists were on auto-pilot while the world had moved on.

So why now? What the fuss over this piece and not the others? I think it's the timing, the growing awareness within newsrooms that there are better ways of doing journalism, the ascendancy of bloggers and, of course, the normal build of critical mass, meaning the eventual pile-on to an idea. It’s become, sadly, fashionable to talk about the death of newspapers.

I also think there’s a personal, more human reason. Most mainstream journalists, even those graying Boomers, want to do good work, to be relevant, to be engaged and excited by their jobs. I called bullshit on one obstacle to those goals – their own attitudes – and perhaps that ignited a flicker of realization that they can control their own destiny, that change is possible but it is up to them. That can be empowering.

We disagree about my focus on newspapers. Because newspapers (and the wires) remain, despite their readership erosion and economic cutbacks, the principal producers of journalism (55,000 journalists) in this country, my intention is shove them from the rut in which they’ve wallowed for the last few decades. And in that context, as Jay said, it matters what the journalists in the newsroom and the news executives at their conventions think. My role – and I see it as a small one made large in bloggo-landia for a day or two – is to encourage a new form of thinking. That is why I try to write directly to those folks. I am from their world and I can speak their language (although I like to think I am at least bilingual).

The young citizen journalist you wrote about, Matt, isn’t in that world and your question about how we can “keep *her* around” and transfer (or inject) her passion into the next crop of journalists is an excellent one. Mainstream news (print or broadcast and even web) tends to drive out the most creative and the most passionate. How do we prevent that and devote the intellect and energy of these people to creation of new forms of substantive journalism?

Part of the answer lays in the current conversation that folks like you and Jay and I are enabling. Yes, it’s late, but change always begins at the edges. The middle is the last to move and few institutions are more middle of the road, and deliberately so, than news organizations. Encouraging and enabling people to envision change in the first step.

I also believe, though, as you seem to, that it is not necessary to save newspapers or further enshrine newsrooms in order to save the principles journalism. Perhaps collectives of independent journalists will form. Perhaps, as Phil Meyer has said, non-profit institutions will underwrite some types of journalism. I would prefer newspapers survive, not in place of these other forms of journalism, but as a complement to them.

Finally, a personal note. I was appropriately embarrassed by Jay’s “what it took to get here” comment, but, hey, he’s passionate and effusive and that’s where those characteristics lead. Love ya, Jay. But he was right in benchmarking my own evolution in from a hard-core newsroom editor to a wide-eyed geek entranced by what my colleagues were doing with the early web (prototype Examiner, strike newspaper, Salon) to an ex-journalists working on a start-up to the returning prodigal journalistic son I am today. It is my journey and it is not dissimilar to many journalists of my time.

Cheers,

Tim

Since I was mentioned (you are too kind Matt), I thought I would chime in. I am indeed not of your journalism world, but it is painfully obvious to me and I would say most others that newspapers- especially monopoly papers in mid-sized towns- do an abysmal job. The business is an old one that had it easy for a long time, and as it's seemingly impossible for Americans to produce a decent (and profitable) automobile, I would imagine any shift in newspapers will be (and has been) slow in coming.

One real issue is how to support these newish forms of media. The business model has lagged the technology, and there's lots of room there for clever ideas, especially in local advertising (to help out those "citizen journalists" everyone is so fond of). And that's a big push for newspapers- when not only are their revenues shrinking, but others are growing. Perhaps that speaks to your question, Matt. Maybe one day you won't have to work at a MSM company to be a respected journalist *and* make a living.

For the record, a comment thread that includes the authors of both PressThink AND FresnoFamous is officially best. ever.

There are so many conferences... so many blog-posts... so many Flash movies (natch) about the future of news -- ideas, theories, suggestions, directives. But at some point somebody's got to actually DO it.

So let it be blogged about, so let it be done:

More FresnoFamouses, more Naka Nathaniels.

More experiments and, I hope and expect, more successes.

Tim, make no mistake, I'm totally down with your Mood of the Newsroom post. I stand by what I said -- I'm sure it had quite the effect on its audience. And I'm happy you write First Draft. Lord knows I'd like to point a few people to it, except they're still not ready to hear it. I spent a year talking with the journorati about this stuff, so I can't help but respect anybody who's been doing it for years (or in Jay's case, decades). I come not to bury the newspaper, but to praise Jarah.

Edited to add: What I want is to be able to point the most ardent newsprint fetishist to an example of new journalism and fascinate her with not just the possibilities, but the awesome realities of what already exists in the young media. I mean actual works of journalism being put together in smart, efficient ways that just beat the pants off anything else out there, like Famous does.

We need a constant drumbeat of the best of online journalism that doesn't consist solely of our traditional news organizations slowly trying to make their way into the new world. While BlufftonToday, the efforts of the VC Star, and any of a thousand Flash movies hint towards what can be done, I think efforts like FresnoFamous represent what is being done by CJs who draw no distinction between the old models and the new. That's what I hope to see more of on PressThink and elsewhere, and that's what I hope might ultimately pull a few of those old-timers along for the ride.

Great Discussion! Let's talk about the business models more. (My blog, your blog, it doesn't matter. Where's your trackback, guys?).

Spammed to the point of no return, sadly.

You make excellent points, Matt. Thanks for starting this. And yeah, Famous Fresno is pretty damn good.

Matt, you truly are EPIC, man. Robin, the Boy Wonder, too. I think one form of tunnel vision for mainstream journalists is the belief that the journalism of today is the way journalism has always been. I'm no historian of journalism. But I do listen when folks like Jay Rosen and Jim Carey think out loud.

The human interest story did not always exist. It was a product of a new kind of newspaper product. Of new kinds of readers (including waves of immigrants). Of new ideas about marketing. Of the circulation wars in the big cities. Those who thought journalism was the "palladium of democracy" considered the human interest story to be a blood clot in the body politic.

I think a memory of how new forms were created in the past is one way to open doors of innovation in the future. Cheers to you.

Posted by: Roy Peter Clark on May 4, 2005 at 07:25 PM
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