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November 1, 2004

No Longer Do the Newsies Decide: Daniel Weintraub on the De-centering of the Press

Daniel Weintraub, political columnist and blogger for the Sacramento Bee: "If our world is changing, we simply have to change with it. We have to engage more with our readers, become more a part of the conversation and less of a lecturer. We have to reconsider the way we think about scoops and competition, and think more about "open-source" journalism..."

I just got this mini-essay from Daniel Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee, who was one of the first mainstream journalists to discover the power of blogging. (See PressThink on Weintraub: Editors Rock Who Let Weblogs Roll.) He was reacting to my last few posts about the confusing predicament of mainstream journalism, and in particular to the “campaign to de-certify and discredit the press,” which came to such a head in the final weeks of the campaign.

“Too much to say— too many changes and disruptions,” I wrote in reflecting on the situation the press was in this year. Weintraub said he agreed with “the ambiguity you leave, your sense that this story is still unfolding and none of us can quite put our finger on it.” Tim Rutten, on the media beat for the Los Angeles Times, shared that sense in his column this week. “Whatever the electoral result of the current presidential campaign,” wrote Rutten, “there’s a growing sense that this race may involve tectonic shifts in the landscape of political journalism. It’s still much too early to recognize clearly, let alone chart, what the new lay of the land may be.”

I agree with that. Early or not, Ed Wasserman of the Miami Herald has some ideas. “I think it’s already apparent that the campaign will be considered a milestone in the history of the U.S. media,” he wrote today.

Weintraub, who is one of the sharpest political journalists I know, is relatively optimistic about the new surroundings journalists find themselves in as camapaign 2004 roars to a close. In an essential essay published at PressThink, Doug McGill says journalists today “are at sea because our Grand Old Professional Code is falling to pieces.” I have called it “the coming apart of an ordered world.” Weintraub agrees with Rosen, McGill, Rutten and Wasserman that things are changing big time for the political press. Here’s his sense of it.

Special to PressThink

No Longer Do the Newsies Decide

by Daniel Weintraub
Sacramento Bee

I don’t really deal with the Bush Administration on a day to day basis, so I can’t speak for how the White House press corps feels about it, but I do cover Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I hear some of the same complaints from my colleagues here.

I think what both groups are feeling, not necessarily for the same reasons, are the loss of control, the loss of influence, the loss of feeling as if they are at the center of the political world. At the national level the blogs and cable news have undercut the gatekeeper function. No longer do the newsies get to decide by themselves what is news and what is not, what to put in a story and what to leave out.

They can decide, but it’s so easy for readers and activists to compare and contrast that no journalist feels as if he or she can file a story without a thousand editors looking over their shoulder. I know how unnerving it can be to have one aggresive editor. Multiply that many, many times and you have the ability to drive people mad.

With Schwarzenegger, you don’t really have the blogosphere playing a role yet, but his unique celebrity gives him the opportunity to go over our heads, to shape public opinion for the most part without having to deal with the traditional press. He does, when he feels like it, but when he doesn’t feel like it he doesn’t really have to. That, too, can be unnerving.

I don’t necessarily see all of this as inevitably negative. I think some good could come of it. I don’t think the traditional media—traditional meaning the past 100 years—have any monopoly on the public trust. We have freedom of the press: the right to print our stories without fear of reprisal from the government. And by reprisal I mean physical, emotional or economic coercion or intimidation, not dirty looks and unreturned phone calls.

If our world is changing, we simply have to change with it. We have to write stories that are more compelling, more stories about what the politicians and the government are doing and fewer, perhaps, about what they are saying, or why they are saying it. We have to engage more with our readers, become more a part of the conversation and less of a lecturer at the front of a great hall. We have to reconsider the way we think about scoops and competition, and think more about “open-source” journalism that truly seeks answers through cooperative information gathering, and not just gotchas that we can spring on the politician in a kind of gameboard journalism.

When my colleagues complain about a lack of access to Schwarzenegger at his media events, I ask, is that kind of access really critical to our doing our jobs? Is it our job to get close enough to describe the color of his tie, or his interaction with a voter, or is it our job to deconstruct the governor’s (or president’s) policies and proposals, their effect or potential effect on the public, their cost and consequences?

Sure it’s great to have an interview with the man, or fire away questions at a press conference, but I think good journalists are capable of informing the public without the benefit of these tools. Think of some of the great investigative pieces of our times, and most of them were written by journalists who had almost no contact with the politician or government official who was the subject of their reportage.

As for the new feedback loop from readers and activists, as Bush and Kerry would say, bring it on. How can it possibly hurt us to hear more from the people who read what we write, or care about it? In their current incarnation, the blogs still feed off the mainstream media, doing almost no reporting on their own. If they move beyond that, and start moving to original sources, so much the better. Let the flowers bloom. I think having more people rather than fewer engaged in information gathering and interpretation is a good thing.

There will always be a heirarchy of information, some source or sources who will help people make sense of it all. As these original sources multiply, this job will become even more important. Some current beat reporters or columnists or editors may wish to take up that new role. Others may want to strike out on their own and become independent journalists like Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall.

All I am saying is that there is plenty of room for everyone in this pool.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Very much on point. Matt Welch in Reason magazine, A Swift Boat Kick in the Teeth: How the mainstream media grapple with partisans. “Large newsrooms have the explicit mission and requisite staffing to arbitrate competing claims — or better (from their point of view), to set off the debate with their own groundbreaking investigations. Yet when faced with a dispute as passionate as the one over John Kerry’s Vietnam service, many responsible editors throw up their hands and wish poxes on both houses.”

Doug, “Our Code is Falling to Pieces” McGill:

Most of the journalists I know, including me, are always in a state of near panic that they have somehow failed in the task of explaining or describing the material, often the very complex technical material that their sources have given them. They worry that they can be called on this at any time, with possibly catastrophic results. The advent of the blogosphere certainly has exacerbated this fear many-fold.

As a result of feeling this vulnerable all the time, reporters naturally look around for a shield. And the most handy protective shield of all is objectivity.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 1, 2004 10:22 PM