February 09, 2004

One Reporter's Lament

I'm in Washington, D.C., and wishing I wasn't because it's 20 degrees (yeah, I know I'm a California weather wimp), so filling in for me today is a reporter for a large Midwest newspaper who left the following comment on the Quality Manifesto, the original First Draft entry.

The other day I wrote that "newspapers are lost," meaning that the journalists who work for them are seeking direction and purpose for their work, so much of what has been diverted from the core goals of journalism. The reporter who left the comment echoed that theme. He wrote (all emphasis added):

"I have worked on newspapers for more than 30 years and have heard all the arguments about why newspaper readership has declined. Its my opinion that a segment of the population has lost interest in reading their daily news because newspapers have lost their mission: accurately reporting the news.

"There once was a time when newspaper staffs spread out and beat the bushes and came back with the very best and deepest reporting possible. Basic beat reporting resulted in fine reading. If you didn't, you were replaced.

"But in today's journalism, everyone has tried to take shortcuts. They have tried to compete with the flash of electronic media (unsuccessfully); they have ambitiously tried to compete with magazine reporting (with somewhat success but doomed due to shrinking news holes ); and they have attempted, through graphics and color, to brighten up pages (also with some success.)

"But in some cases, editors have also slotted out their news sections, coverage and display with such predictability that readers' eyes glaze over a product with such consistent, numbing sameness that pages and editions all blend together. No surprises. Little originality. Forget fire.

"There once was a common agenda on a news staff: reporting the news and putting advocacy and personal conflicts aside, including a publication's business interests. Today that has been replaced with a multitude of personal and political agendas. In some cases, such efforts are not only sanctioned and rewarded -- but mandated.

"Is it any wonder that ill-conceived concepts -- often by editors who have never been on the street with pencil and pad -- have served to chill and even kill the creative impulses and instincts of the youngest of reporters?"

Posted by Tim Porter at February 9, 2004 06:42 AM

I'd love to see an objective study of our coverage in the good old days -- to see how well the assumptions here hold up.

It's entirely possible that nothing has changed except for the baby boomer reporters being sick of doing the same work for 30 years.

Posted by: tom on February 9, 2004 08:05 AM

Hi Tim:

I just posted an interview with the API's We Media whitepaper authors Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis at PJNet.org. They address issues from your posts today and yesterday. They have ideas to produce a new collaborative newsroom. Here is one:

"Newsrooms are like assembly lines. That structure works great for hitting deadline cycles. But those cycles are changing, if not disappearing. Maybe what they need is hubs of reporters and editors that manage, collaborate with micro communities to create and distribute news."

Click on my name below to read the entire interview. Tim, keep up the good work. Thanks.

Posted by: Leonard Witt on February 9, 2004 09:25 AM

The notion that newspapers in the gold old days had no axes to grind is ludicrious. And quite frankly, I think the reason newspapers are in steady decline is because they are too mired in the past. Many still cover breaking news as though neither television nor radio have been invented, let alone the Internet. They have the same autocratic, rigid management structure that today is found nowhere else save the military, the only place where it actually functions.

Posted by: Jonathan Potts on February 9, 2004 12:00 PM

I'm a line editor at a major metro smarting at your suggestion that my ill-conceived, ill-informed ideas are killing all creativity here. (Who knew I had that much power? Most days I feel helpless watching wonky, boring stories get into the paper because somebody thinks the somebodies higher up would approve.)
I would argue the opposite is true at a lot of big papers who have staffs stocked with multi-degreed, prima donna reporters who know it all already. Why would they go out and report something?
I do agree, however, with the overall premise that we're lacking fire. My diagnosis: We've become elitist and disconnected from the experiences of average folks. We hire as if we're trying to build think tanks -- requiring master's degrees and bringing in people just because we think they can think big thoughts. It's turned us into a bunch of cubicle-tethered analysts -- not unlike an insurance company.
Newspapers need to get off the ivory tower track and build newsrooms with a diversity of races and also of experience, education and class. We need to mirror the readership we're trying to reach so we can tell their stories.

Posted by: Meg on February 10, 2004 08:23 PM

Meg ...

Please understand, those comments about editors were not mine (I was an editor for much longer than I was a reporter). I posted them as an illustration of the frustrations many reporters feel -- similar to those you expressed as an editor.

I think the point here is that the both editors and reporters want to do better and the conventions, habits and assumptions of the current newsroom structure and culture are impediments to making that happen.

The result: Reporters pointing fingers are editors, and editors doing the same to reporters -- when both should be cooperating to demand from newsroom management a new dynamic that rewards teamwork, learning and risk.


Posted by: Tim on February 10, 2004 10:16 PM

Hey Tim -- I realized it was from your contributor ... was responding to him. ;)
Nonetheless, I thought it was a good jumping-off point for my rant on elitism and disconnectedness, particularly at major metros. And, no, I don't really blame reporters. In flare-up of my Irish, I fought over-generalizations with over-generalizations in response to: "editors ... have served to chill or even hill the creative impusles." Neither argument is fair, productive or accurate as you noted. (It was a nice venting after a frustrating day, however!)

Posted by: Meg on February 11, 2004 12:11 AM
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