January 17, 2006

Authentic Voices of Journalism

Few professions are as obsessively self-absorbed yet so stubbornly averse to honest self-criticism as the news media. This combination produces plethora of blather about the press, journalism and the future of all things media (to which I confess to contributing.)

This is why authentic voices of journalism ring so true. They emanate from people who care about news, care about community and care about finding - or preserving - the journalistic means to connect them.

In the last two days, I have heard two of these voices, one from someone outside the newspaper newsroom and one from someone still on the inside.

The former was Deborah Galant's essay on Pressthink about the founding and flourishing of Barista, the hyper-local, blog-powered community news operation she started in Montclair, N.J., where she lives. Galant, a former non-staff columnist for the New York Times, writes about the joy of local journalism, of news writ small but smack-full of personality. To me, her words brought to mind my first newspaper days, which I spent reporting and photographing on a small daily in Carson City, Nev. Journalism was personal then - for me because I brimmed with idealism and intensity (the latter survives), for the community because nothing was too "small" not to be news, and for the newspaper staff because we all lived among the people we wrote about. We heard about what they liked and we heard about what they didn't - often in person, either in the office, at the local saloon or sometimes while getting a hair cut.

Above all, as Galant points out below, this type of journalism is fun. She writes (emphasis added):

"It's a tremendous amount of fun to be the Barista of Bloomfield Ave., or as I sometimes call myself, "the Walter Winchell of Montclair." It's fun to be a professional smart aleck, to be a big fish in a small pond, to cut through the exasperating bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. It's satisfying, when you find yourself standing in a long line in the new $8.6 million parking deck on a Friday night because there are only two pay stations, to be able to whip out your cell phone, take a picture and then post it on the blog - and to have the mayor write in almost immediately with a promise that he'll look into it.

"Power of the press? Maybe. But not power of any press with newspaper covers going back past the Titanic. Not the power of anyone with a special press pass, or access. Just the power of anyone with a cell phone and a computer, who has also taken the time and energy for 20 months to build and nurture a readership - even a sometimes rowdy one."

All reporters have had these feelings (at least I hope they have). But, somehow over the decades, somehow in the march toward bland professionalism (even at the smallest of papers) we drove the fun out of journalism - both for our readers and for ourselves. [Read: Mood of the Newsroom.]

The second authentic voice of journalism belongs to David Hawkins, who works for the the Newark Star-Ledger, which coincidentally covers the same communities as Galant's Barista.

Hawkins read Mood of the Newroom and emailed a thoughtful response (full text below) that captured the conflicting emotions coursing through today's newsrooms - love for the profession, admiration for colleagues, acknowledgement of the challenges confronting newspapers, frustration with leadership that can't seem to settle on and implement a new direction. He writes (emphasis added):

" I find myself complaining a lot these days. I don't want more money. I'm not asking for more people. I am constantly amazed at the talent of the people I work with. Only a few months ago we handed a group of photographers video cameras and they have done spectacular work on a variety of subjects. Unfortunately, very few people saw that work because of our incoherent internet presence.

"I don't hate my profession. Done right I think it is among the most valuable in the world. I don't hate my paper. We won two Pulitzers while I have been here, one for photos.

" I can't shake this feeling that the thing I love -- journalism -- is about to go through a transition that will kill (career-wise) or drive away many talented people. That the ensuing fragmentation may drastically reduce the relevancy of the very concept. And that the institutional and corporate mentality at my newspaper may result in its own demise.

"I would love to embrace the future if someone would come up with a good plan at my place. But they seem more intent on fighting over who gets the credit or will be in charge."

Somebody give this journalist a tomorrow! I'm serious. The voice of David Hawkins carries the desire to do good work and the willingness to follow if only there were somewhere to go. So do most other newspaper journalists.

Deborah Galant created her own future with Barista. Who will make one for David Hawkins?

David Hawkins email:

I hear what you're saying. I work with plenty of people who are just in it for the buck (oh the weeping and wailing when the wage freeze was announced here). But it seems like you are missing a significant group in the nattering nabobs you mention. Namely the 40-50 year-old mid-manager type who isn't afraid of change, but doesn't see it happening as a positive process where he works. The frustrated, soon-to-be-middle-aged people who feel powerless to help save their listing ships.

Money wasn't on my mind when I got into the business or for well after. True story, in the interview for the job I got at my third newspaper I was asked why I accepted almost a 50 percent pay cut at my second job ($12,500/yr to $7,000/ yr). Answer: I wanted to stay in journalism and figured if I left over money, I would never go back.

However, I find myself complaining a lot these days. I don't want more money. I'm not asking for more people. I am constantly amazed at the talent of the people I work with. Only a few months ago we handed a group of photographers video cameras and they have done spectacular work on a variety of subjects. Unfortunately, very few people saw that work because of our incoherent internet presence.

I don't hate my profession. Done right I think it is among the most valuable in the world. I don't hate my paper. We won two Pulitzers while I have been here, one for photos.

I don't think I am smarter than the newspaper management. Heck, the guy at the top is a billionaire, my bank account says I don't have much room to argue with his business sense.

But I can't shake this feeling that the thing I love journalism is about to go through a transition that will kill (career-wise) or drive away many talented people. That the ensuing fragmentation may drastically reduce the relevancy of the very concept. And that the institutional and corporate mentality at my newspaper may result in its own demise.

I would love to embrace the future if someone would come up with a good plan at my place. But they seem more intent on fighting over who gets the credit or will be in charge.

My fantasies don't involve ink-stained women in printer's aprons or wrapping myself in rolls of newsprint, but I care about the newspaper for which I work. If for no other reason, I care because I have more than 10 years of my life invested in helping it become what it is. I don't want to see it sink, but feel powerless to stop what seems like the inevitable.

So I complain after a fashion. I tell the people in charge when they will listen and my colleagues when they aren't rolling their eyes that we have to change now. I cite proofs and examples. I admit to not having a lot of answers, but offer up what I've got often focusing on how they could be done with little money and no additional personnel.

I'm all for creative solutions. But I am beginning to think I will have to pursue them elsewhere. And I hate that thought.

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Posted by Tim Porter at January 17, 2006 06:36 PM
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