What’s eating journos?

It’s pretty easy to touch a nerve with bloggers, says cartoonist Gary Trudeau. Since most of them are not getting paid, he says that narcissism is the only explanation for what they do. Trudeau is the creator of Doonesbury, a popular syndicated comic strip. And last year his character Rick Redfern, lost his job as a journalist with the Washington Post and took up blogging as a way to pay the bills.

Editor & Publisher‘s Dave Astor asked Trudeau what bloggers thought of the strip. "Well, ever since I started writing about bloggers a few years back, there’s been some defensiveness," he wrote. Paul Briand, who blogs at Boomer Angst, certainly feels that way. Like Redfern, he was once a working journalist but lost his job when the paper downsized:

It’s hard as a blogger to be viewed with the same seriousness as a journalist. Anyone can be a blogger, but can anyone be a journalist? I don’t think so. There’s an elevated level of ethics, fairness, research and writing ability that define the latter. It said anyone can be a blogger by putting your name over whatever you want to write, however you want to write about it.

The strip has touched a nerve with non-journalists too. At Red Room, Raul Ramos y Sanchez writes : "As one of the millions of bloggers mentioned in Trudeau’s strip, I felt defensive. Was I one of the narcissists?" But Sanchez argues that blogging may be "ushering in a new wave of democracy into the once-exclusive world of news and editorial opinion". On this view, bloggers are not just looking for attention, they are participating as citizens.

What’s even more interesting is the way that professional journalists are getting defensive about bloggers. When bloggers brag that they are breaking stories, setting the agenda and interpreting the facts better and faster than the ‘mainstream media’, journalists hit back. But most of this journalistic antagonism towards blogging seems over the top. Amateur blogs are no more likely to replace professional journalism than amateur musicians are to replace professional performers and recording artists. So why get so upset about a few deluded narcissists?

Perhaps it’s because career opportunities in print journalism are drying up. Just as journalists have achieved respectability and professional status, their employers are struggling to support them. According to Chicago-based credit ratings agency Fitch Ratings, Revenue growth in the US newspaper industry will be "negative for the foreseeable future". In a 2008 report on the business, the agency says: "Fitch believes more newspapers and newspaper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010."

In the Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn writes that the collapse of daily print journalism means "the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind." No wonder newspaper journalists are getting touchy. According to the Economist, it is only a matter of time until newspapers shut down in large numbers.

When most people think about journalism, they think about reporting. Reporters track down sources, ask them questions and write up the answers. As Jason Wilson puts it, "journalists use telephones." But in recent decades journalism has become more than just reporting. Journalists now research, analyse and interpret. And some now think of themselves storytellers and literary stylists — particularly those who write longer pieces for magazines.

When journalists dig up their own data and interpret the facts, they take on the role of expert sources. Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. For example, journalism academic Jeff Jarvis, is insistent that reporters are not experts. Their job is to find "the real authorities", he argues. Their special skill is in finding experts and getting them to talk.

But increasingly, many journalists are not satisfied with straight reporting. Because many of them began their careers as university graduates rather than as cadets, many of today’s journalists have training in research methods and a solid grasp of the literature in their field. Sometimes they know as much about a subject as the expert sources they interview. For example, Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, graduated from Princeton, did postgraduate research at Oxford and considered pursuing an academic career. He’s more than capable of finding and interpreting primary source material for himself.

The idea that journalists can become their own experts isn’t new. Some years ago, the Atlantic’s Nicholas Lemann argued that while "journalists tend to be intellectually insecure" they can overcome this with "plain old fashioned legwork" in archives and libraries. By taking control of the literature, journalists can interpret and explain as well as report. So long before they started defending themselves against upstart bloggers, journalists were trying to take over the role of the expert (p 269-70).

Journalists not only tried to take over the authority of experts, some also wanted the cultural status of creative writers. Tom Wolfe saw New Journalism of the 1960s as a frontal attack on the privileged position of the novelist. According to Wolfe, professional writers were arranged in a rigid status hierarchy. Novelists sat at the top, ‘men of letters’ like literary essayists sat in the middle and journalists languished at the bottom. In an essay on the New Journalism he wrote that journalists:

… were so low down in the structure that they were barely noticed at all. They were regarded chiefly as day laborers who dug up slags of raw information for writers of higher ‘sensibility’ to make better use of. As for people who wrote for popular (‘slick’) magazines and Sunday supplements, your so-called free-lance writers — except for a few people on The New Yorker, they weren’t even in the game. They were the lumpenproles (p39).

As Wolfe’s sees it, the New Journalism dethroned the novel as "the number one literary genre". Now today’s most successful journalists are as skilled as writers as they are at tracking down sources. Richard Preston, for example, has written successful novels as well as magazine articles and narrative non-fiction books (like Schlosser, he took John McPhee‘s literary journalism class at Princeton).

Now, after decades of invading everyone else’s turf, journalists seem to think they’re under attack on their home territory — the daily news. Eyewitness sources are posting their own accounts of war, accidents and natural disasters. Readers are checking the facts. Experts like economists are getting their own blogs and talking direct to the public. And just about everybody is analysing and commenting on current events.

But none of this would matter if newspapers weren’t in financial trouble. Television and radio journalists don’t waste a lot of time complaining about bloggers and neither do magazine feature writers. While the internet can support vodcasting, podcasting and essay writing, television, radio and magazines don’t rely on classified advertising to stay profitable. As a result they aren’t being crippled by the internet the way newspapers are. And this is the real source of the problem. If the internet hadn’t siphoned off revenue from classified advertising and fragmented their audiences, newspaper journalists wouldn’t be complaining about bloggers and insisting on their role as content makers. Because bloggers happen to work in the same medium that’s undermining the commercial viability of newspapers, they bear the brunt of newspaper journalists’ resentment.

Philip Meyer, author of The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, argues that newspapers need to accept the reality of shrinking readerships and declining revenues. The "old hunter-gatherer model of journalism" will no longer work and the newspapers that survive will no longer be published daily. To succeed, they will need to combine high quality analysis, interpretation and investigative reporting. And most important of all, they will need to earn the community’s trust. But for the average reporter, this future may well mean a career change and a blog.

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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
12 years ago

Though journalist as expert seems to be more an American than Australian thing. Outside of sport, business and day-to-day politics, few journalists stay reporting a particular field for more than a few years, making it hard to build expertise.

Tambourine Man
Tambourine Man
12 years ago

That’s an interesting piece by Don Arthur. But as Andrew says above, what gets lost in these sorts of discussions about the future of journalism is that 99 per cent of working journalists, in Australia at least, are the craft-based ‘lumpen proletariat’ type, as Tom Wolfe so unfairly labelled them – covering courts, council meetings, parliamentary proceedings and the day-to-day need-to-know stuff that everyone takes for granted..

In America, most journalists aspire to be Norman Mailer, writing long-winded articles full of adjectives and with every second sentence starting with a subordinate clause. They can’t write a straight lead. Australian journalism – as exported globally via Murdoch’s successful tabloids – is much less lofty. So it means short sentences, muscular unadorned prose and straightforward reporting (at least it used to).

I spent more than a quarter of a century in mainstream journalism. And while I love blogging as well, I still would argue that many bloggers don’t appreciate the craft of straight news journalism. Watch how a skilled wire service journalist covering a breaking story can weave together at incredible speed a coherent, even-handed and well backgrounded narrative with often incomplete information from multiple and often conflicting sources.

This is not coffee table journalism written by languid ‘freelancers’ who spend a day sweating over 400 over-wrought words about nothing in particular, in the hope of gaining some pseudo-literary kudos. It is craft journalism.

And I think what is happening is that many journos, having been schooled by no-nonsense, unaffected old-school reporters (particularly in Australia), feel this hard-won craft is being downplayed or under-valued in the debate between bloggers and ‘journalists’ (most of whom don’t represent we working hacks).

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
12 years ago

What Andrew said.

But how many journos have kept alive the no-nonsense, unaffected old-school reporting that aimed to provide accurate information?

It is ironic that modern journos get to demonstrate their ignorance and their bias under their own names! Getting your name in the paper used to be the reward for a chosen few in the profession, and that was when there was an ethos of accurate reporting (outside the gutter press).

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
12 years ago

I’ve been thinking about these comments for a couple of days. I wanted to reply earlier but I’ve been caught up.

Do Australian papers move journalists around in order to develop their skills as professional reporters? Do they want staff to focus on the “craft of straight news journalism” rather than entrench themselves in some particular area?

I’ve noticed other organisations doing this kind of thing. For example, the Australian Public Service tends to promote senior managers to move between portfolios rather than those who try to develop expertise in any one area.

If journalists don’t develop expertise in any particular area this means that, rather than looking at primary source material (eg academic journals, raw data from the ABS), they rely on experts to explain what it means. The only facts the journalist offers are: “source x said y”.

I think one of the things that’s worrying Katherine Wilson (the writer who hoaxed Quadrant), is that journalists and editors will publish almost anything as long as the source has the right credentials (and no, I’m not suggesting that Quadrant is a newspaper or news magazine).

If journalists don’t develop at least some expertise, how can they decide who is a legitimate expert and who is a crank, eccentric or shill? It seems to that this is part of what’s at issue in the debate over climate change.