February 02, 2005

The Power of One

Over and over again I hear journalists bemoan the falling numbers in their newsrooms or shrinking size of their news hole. And they are right to do so. They are also right to pursue efforts to link quality journalism to higher profits. But that is not enough. Individual journalists need to take personal responsibility for the quality of their work and get beyond the question someone asked yesterday at a conference on homeland security reporting: What can one person do?

The answer is: Plenty.

The question was directed at Robert O' Harrow, the Washington Post reporter I mentioned yesterday who took a year's leave from the Post to write "No Place to Hide," a book about the growing security-industrial complex in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

O'Harrow was very animated in replying to the question: What can one journalist do? Here are some excerpts from my choppy notes:

 Independence: "What did Rachel Carson do? Set your own journalistic agenda. We're advocates for openness of government and accountability That's what we should be advocates for. Go off on your own and within those journalistic constraints tell the story. Where is the lack of accountability? Show that and lay it out for the reader."

 Persistence: "Take the heat when people say, 'Who gave you the right to write about this?' Say, 'Well the Constitution gave me the right.'" Do the digging and take the pain. Be righteous form a journalistic perspective."

 Focus: "You can only do one thing at a time. Just do that and then do the next thing."

 Dream: "You have one life, one career, you might as well shoot for the stars." Maintain the traditional values of journalism but give in to the voice that says, "I want to be romantic here."

These are great pieces of advice for individual journalists - be dogged, follow truth, think big - as well as for newspapers as organizations, which, sadly, too often lack these qualities.

O'Harrow burns with the passion to do great journalism and he does not let himself be deterred by conventional obstacles. Yes, he works for the Post, which has a sizable staff and it affords him the time to report deeply, but O'Harrow says he worked the same way on smaller papers and there is no reason to doubt that.

Interestingly, O'Harrow's desire to tell the story he wanted to tell to as broad an audience as possible led him to the Center for Investigative Reporting and to collaborate with a radio and a television producer to create documentaries about the subject in both those media. You can listen to the radio piece here. There is a lesson in this approach, as well, for newspapers: Extend the journalism beyond the paper; collaborate; think multi-media (not just web) from the beginning.

The core message I take from O'Harrow is this: Quality journalism requires passion and persistence. These are characteristics that can't be downsized.

Posted by Tim Porter at February 2, 2005 07:54 AM

Thanks for taking the time and effort to get and share Robert O'Harrow's inspirational and instructional philosophy. Like many of the best reporters, he takes responsiblity for his own life and career. The only way you get to places like The Post, which underwrite serious journalism, is to do it first at places that may or may not.

Posted by: Chip Scanlan on February 2, 2005 10:14 AM

Personal responsibility for the quality of our work? Yes!
And, Chip, I perfectly agree with you: The only way we get to places like The Post is to do it first at places that may or may not.

Posted by: Leon B on February 3, 2005 04:34 AM

I buy newspapers when they have something to tell me that I can't find on the Internet news sites.

Many newspapers today make the mistake of quoting the news we have already read on the Internet (often the NEXT DAY).

So: if newspapers want to save their falling circulations, they should seek out unique (and true) news stories. That is why local newspapers probably have more of a future than "international" ones -- if I want to know what happened in the city where I live, I don't go to the Internet.

Unique stories do not have to be huge -- but they have to be true and relevant and contain "human interest". In the old days, small-town reporters dreamed of getting work at big-city newspapers. In the future, formerly "big" newspaper staff will search for jobs at small-town newspapers.

Or, if they are brave, they get a videocamera and a passport, and seek out the stories abroad.


Posted by: A.R.Yngve on February 3, 2005 12:54 PM
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