April 25, 2004

N.Y. Times: Off the Record

Here's a key section from Daniel Okrent's explicative column on why the New York Times is not the nation's paper of record - nor does it want be:

"Katherine Bouton, deputy editor of the paper's Sunday magazine, said: 'We understand now that all reporting is selective. With the exception of raw original source material, there really isn't anything "of record," is there?' Reporter Stephanie Strom noted that 'we certainly aren't the paper of record for leaders of the African-American and Hispanic communities.' Or, one could add, the Orthodox Jewish community or the Staten Island community or the lacrosse community or ... fill in the blank." (Emphasis added)

All journalistic products are defined by the choices that preceded their creation, decisions driven by various capacities (time, money, amount of staff), skills (reporting, writing, education), needs (standing in a competitive - or non-competitive - market, desire for suburban readers, revenue) and personal interests of the decision-maker (all that messy subjectivity stuff).

Accepting and understanding these limitations frees journalists from a reactive agenda filled with event-oriented "news" and allows them to pursue a pro-active path toward those stories they deem - with the help of their readers - most interesting or most important.

Okrent continues:

"Here's another way of stating it: In a heterogeneous world, whose record is one newspaper even in the position to preserve? And what group of individuals, no matter how talented or dedicated, would dare arrogate to itself so godlike a role? I mean no disrespect to The Times, but what discriminating citizen can really afford to rely on only one source of news? And can't all discriminating readers contextualize what their newspapers (or television stations or radio hosts or Web logs) tell them?" (Emphasis added)

Again, this is a liberating notion for newspapers. Because they can't be the "paper of record" and because news consumers are increasingly using multiple sources of information, newspapers can reform themselves into whatever content configuration best suits their community (and define that "community" for themselves.) For some, it will be providers of analysis, investigation and context; for others, the local appetite may crave more "chicken-dinner news"; for those with integrated online operations, both may be possible.

Finally, Okrent points out that the oft-used canard to describe newspapers - "the first draft of history" - is "definitionally imperfect, sometimes embarrassing and almost always needful of improvement."

As the author of this First Draft, I know that only too well.

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 New York Times: Daniel Okrent Paper of Record? No Way, No Reason, No Thanks

Posted by Tim Porter at April 25, 2004 02:39 PM