January 29, 2004

High Tech, Low Think

In Circuits today, the New York Times looks at the increasing digitization of the political press corps - from wireless laptops to Blackberries to voice recorders that can store hours and hours of candidate screams.

The story refers only in passing to the question of whether all this gadgetry is actually good for journalism:

"A deadline every minute, once the preserve of the wire services, is now the motto for most of the press corps, from print reporters with newspaper Web sites to still photographers, cable producers and bloggers. The news cycle has condensed into one endless loop, and with it has come an endless stream of technology to accommodate it, or fuel it, since it is hard to say which came first.

"Campaign reporters, like war correspondents, are not necessarily gadget geeks. But the rapacious 24-hour news cycle has forced them onto the cutting edge to do their jobs better - or at least faster." (Emphasis added.)

As it turns out, the untethering of reporters from power cords and modems increases their competitive capabilities - competition being defined as being first or being exclusive, not being deeper or having more insight - but lessens their time for reflection, or thinking, about the daily events of the campaign.

Campaigns, knowing that reporters can now file while mobile, are reducing or eliminating the traditional end-of-event window when the campaign stopped moving to give the press time to write and file their stories.

I was thinking about the Circuits story - and wondering about how the technology-enabled acceleration of reporting is affecting the quality of journalism - while I was reading today's PressThink in which Jay Rosen presents the lament of a small-newspaper political reporter caught between his desire to do individualized, deeper stories and the demands of the larger media machine to produce formulaic horserace and he-said-she-said stories.

The reporter, Richard Nangle of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, asks in a letter to Rosen: "The question I keep asking myself is how do I file a dignified report and not get beaten by the competition at the same time?"

Certainly, Nangle's plight is not caused by technology - the media pack preceded the wireless card - and certainly there are reporting strategies Nangle could adopt, if his editors are willing to allow him, that would produce singular stories. In the comments, for example, Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine offers Nangle good, tough-love advice:

"Instead of writing for other members of the press, write for your audience. You are there instead of them. So go write the best and most honest and direct story you can. It's not complicated and it suffers from overcomplication." (Emphasis added.)

The elephant in this press room is the unrelenting pressure on reporters - especially those from smaller news organizations - from both peers and editors to produce at least the same story as everyone else.

Yes, reporters and editors are motivated by a desire for exclusives, but an even greater compulsion is, as I wrote the other day in Politics, "The Press" and Servant Journalism,
"an ingrained fear of missing the news."

(In that piece as well, I echoed Jarvis' advice to Nangle, saying newspapers could improve political coverage by "listening to their readers - to their audience, to their customers - and hearing their political concerns and their community agenda, and then going after focused, well-reported news stories that fulfill those needs.")

Unfortunately, the news media machine's obsession with competition is further enabled by a level of technology that, to borrow an anecdote from the Times' piece, allows a CNN producer to see an overly religious young man's impromptu prayer for Howard Dean as a competitive moment and blast a Blackberry alert about it to the studio.

"Four years ago, I wouldn't have called that in until the event was over," Mike Roselli told the Times. "But there's more competition now, 24 hours a day."

Higher forms of technology have not produced higher forms of journalism. If most political reporting is useless to readers as a tool for democratic decision-making - and it appears to be so given the political press' disconnection from voters in Iowa and New Hampshire - all technology is doing is enabling more useless stories to be filed faster than every before.

A reporter's best two pieces of technology are organic and they sit not in a holster on his belt but atop his neck and inside his chest. Good reporting requires thinking and consideration; breaking away from the pack requires heart and fortitude. Neither needs batteries.

UPDATE: Tom Mangan also keys on the reluctance of editors to take a chance:

"I suspect the problem is that political editors are former political reporters who don't really trust their reporters to be as good as they imagine they used to be, so they match their reporters' work against everybody else's to judge how well their folks are 'covering' the story.

"Nothing changes until editors start telling their boys & girls on the bus: I don't want anything I can get off the wire." (Emphasis added.)

 New York Times Making of the Digital Press Corps, 2004

Posted by Tim Porter at January 29, 2004 09:01 AM

Colourful analysis of The Third Wave of Online Journalism

Posted by: Jozef on January 31, 2004 02:20 PM
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