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April 24, 2005

Tim Porter Lets Out a Roar

"More simply, professional life isn't turning out quite the way these journalists thought it would - and it makes them mad." Tim Porter, writing about his former colleagues in the American newsroom.

Most people go to J-school hoping to get into the newsroom. Tim Porter started journalism school the day he left the newsroom. Porter spent most of his career in daily newspapers, winding up as a top editor at the San Francisco Examiner. Then he quit, started his weblog (First Draft) and began serious study of the world he had left, including the people he had worked with— editors, reporters, photographers.

The first time I sunk into First Draft and saw what it was, I knew I would be a loyal reader. The title (which I love) comes from one of the clichés we have to suffer about reporting— that it is “the first rough draft of history.” This is a slogan I have always hated. It is both pretentious and unbelievably lax (“just a draft, right…?”)

But First Draft by Tim Porter was actually about a man’s humbling. Or at least: initially so.

“I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it.” It’s one of my favorite sentences in blogging. It appears in Porter’s Eliminating the Bimbo Factor (September 17, 2003.) Porter means that he knew how to do the job, but not how to understand it while doing it. This is an extremely important distinction. I have never been able to communicate it as well as he did in that post.

“I had precious little information about my own profession, about its best practitioners (or greatest charlatans), about its history and role in the development and preservation of democracy, about its standards or even about the people I intended to inform— the community around me.”

First Draft, I realized, was about a man humbled by a lack of knowledge who decides to go out and get some. He approaches this task with a certain intensity, and even anger, because it is revealing of his own career— in fact his own illusions. With Porter, the education is coming after the experience, an “explosion” that also brought us Jeff Jarvis as Buzzmachine.

That’s why First Draft is such a brilliant title for a blog by Tim Porter. He’s writing in the voice of a second professional (a thinker, writer, critic, consult-er) “against” the first— the newsroom pro who thought he knew a lot about journalism but got that part wrong. The pro knew how to get the paper out, and justify it as better than it was.

So in a typical Porter post there’s the scrupulous and passionate discussion of the latest data showing how deep the rot runs in newspaper journalism, and, under that, another story plays. A writer named Tim Porter is doing a second draft of his own history in journalism, and this time around he is richer in arguments, insights and facts.

Where his newsroom illusions were his old colleagues still are. And so he begins to write manifestos back at them— literally. Quality Manifesto: Good Enough is Not (Dec 4, 2002.)

Newspapers are not the victims of homicide but of suicide. They are not dying at the hands of demographic changes or emergent technologies. They are killing themselves with clichéd writing, formulaic stories, hackneyed photographs and adherence to a self-destructive, journalistic form that emphasizes breadth of news coverage over depth.

Porter thought it was easy to get lost in social trends and their analysis. The newsroom was failing for reasons of its own. Porter said it straight out, and directly to his former colleagues. You aren’t good enough. That is why you are having problems.

Newspapers don’t have a societal problem; they have a quality problem. In an age of increasing public sophistication – and diversification – about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy or surprise from readers. Whether editors plaster this daily spackle on paper or spread it on the Internet, the public is not buying. It is no longer good enough.

On April 13 Porter told us about the editors of America at their annual meeting discussing—no lie—“the future of newspapers,” yet only a handful of them knew who Craig Newmark was or what Craigslist was about. Not that he was surprised: “Most top editors at newspapers don’t spend much time online,” he said. (See Poynter’s Steve Outing on the episode with Craigslist.)

The reason I am telling you all this is that Tim Porter’s journey reached some sort of crossroads lately. Out of crisis came clarity. And on Friday, (April 22) Porter wrote his greatest post, The Mood of the Newsroom, in which you will find all that I have been describing. But it’s more than that. It’s the result of everything Porter has been learning in his J-school. Here’s one section. The rest you must read, if you have any feeling at all for his story:

Yes, my friends in the newsroom, there’s less money and there are fewer people. That’s not really your fault - although it wasn’t TV news and the web and shifting demographics alone that drove the readers away. Boring stories, formulaic content and refusal to change with the times are all also culprits.

But, I am sorry, my friends in the newsroom, much of the rest is your fault. The journalism, the leadership, the mandate to reflect and engage your community, the necessity to make tough, but creative decisions in the face of conflict, as all industries must do from time to time - those are all your responsibilities and you have abdicated them.

The obdurance and avoidance endemic in newsrooms rests on a bedrock belief that the “problems” at their newspapers are best solved with more bodies or a return to a more “traditional” form of journalism.

This belief exists in every newsroom I’ve been in during the last 18 months and while it is certainly understandable - most people prefer a known past, however glorified it may be, to an uncertain future, regardless of the promise it may hold - I believe it is dangerously destructive. It focuses on what was rather than on what could be. It is a virtual “benchmark” against which all is measured, usually unfavorably.

Even younger journalists too young to recall the halcyon days of the press invoke phrases like “staffing situation” and “lack of resources” when explaining certain newsroom condition. They have drunk the newsroom Kool-Aid and ingested the defensive culture.

It’s truthtelling at its best because Tim Porter shares every dream these people have— still. The Mood of the Newsroom is sullen and dim. Porter’s second draft shines. It’s time to check in with his weblog if you care about saving what was good in the old newsroom code.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Jeff Jarvis agrees: Tim Porter’s best post ever. See The future of journalism is not its past.

That we’re at a tipping point has been Jarvis’s theme lately, especially after Rupert Murdoch’s “many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably, complacent” speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. (Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit says of the tipping point: “I think he’s right.”)

Now add The Economist to the list of those who agree. “[Murdoch’s] speech—astonishing not so much for what it said as for who said it—may go down in history as the day that the stodgy newspaper business officially woke up to the new realities of the internet age,” said the magazine in Yesterday’s papers. “What is clear is that the control of news—what constitutes it, how to prioritise it and what is fact—is shifting subtly from being the sole purview of the news provider to the audience itself.”

My contribution to that literature is Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die (March 29).

Want understand why people read blog? Compare this account in the Christian Science Monitor, “Newspapers struggle to avoid their own obit,” to Porter’s post. They treat the same subject, and were published three days apart. The article is a good one by industry’s standards. Randy Dotinga did the best he could within established newswriting conventions. And Porter’s post blows away Dotinga’s account.

People will say I speak apples to oranges. I no longer argue with that. I treat it as a step one. Step two: because we have the Web, people can compare apples to oranges, and ask: which am I missing more? In that world, the comparison is apt, and we can use it to understand why people read blogs.

In American Journalism Review, Tim Porter asked why newspapers even do endorsements. See What’s the Point?

Ken Smith (Weblogs in Higher Education): “As Jay Rosen interprets it, then, First Draft is the log of Tim Porter’s self-education. At the same time, it is place where he creates a new public voice. It is no accident that the two go together in a weblog.”

Porter has been writing a lot about the work of the Readership Institute, which has been trying to figure out how to draw younger readers back to the newspaper, and testing prototypes. Read industry veteran Alan Mutter on lessons learned: Getting smart about dumbed-down news. Mutter was once the assistant managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle; Porter had the same title at the San Francisco Examiner.

Robert Andrews in Wired: Vive les Blogs! “Spurred by a culture of popular expression and debate that can be traced back to France’s 17th-century salons, the French are embracing weblogs with a greater zeal than anyone on the European continent.”

Ken Sands of the Spokesman-Review is talking sense at Morph:

So here’s the problem with most blogs being created by news sites — they simply add one more place for people to go to find information, one more RSS feed in the aggregator. People don’t need more sources of information, they need fewer.

Before you launch any new initiatives on the web, ask yourself how this is going to make life easier for your readers.

More on The Stand Alone Journalist by Chris Nolan. The weekend brought this commentary from Linda Seebach in the Rocky Mountain News: JOURNALISM EXISTS IN THE MESSAGE, NOT THE MEDIUM. “Ed Morrissey, Captain Ed at the Web log called Captain’s Quarters, certainly was doing journalism when he blew open a Canadian corruption scandal that was under a judicial publication ban in Canada.”

Katharine Seelye, media beat writer for the New York Times, examines Arianna Huffington’s plans for the Huffington Post:

She has lined up more than 250 of what she calls “the most creative minds” in the country to write a group blog that will range over topics from politics and entertainment to sports and religion. It is essentially a nonstop virtual talk show that will be part of a Web site that will also serve up breaking news around the clock.

Among those creative minds: Walter Cronkite, David Mamet, Nora Ephron, Warren Beatty, James Fallows, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Sen. Jon Corzine, Gwynneth Paltrow, Diane Keaton, Norman Mailer, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, David Geffen, Barry Diller, Tina Brown and Harry Evans. I am quoted by Seelye thusly: “These aren’t exactly people who lack voice or visibility in our culture. Gwyneth Paltrow has no incentive to speak candidly and alienate future ticket buyers. Barry Diller doesn’t have time to hunt down juicy links for his readers. And where does Jon Corzine fit into any conversation those two might be having?”

Ed Cone’s reaction: “Barf.”

See also Gothamist’s Jen Chung on it, “Celebs to Form Group Blog That’ll Give Other Bloggers Much to Blog About.”

I received this letter from a young journalist, Scott Heiser, at the University of Colorado:

Mr. Porter and Mr. Rosen:

As I read the prose you’ve both written, I’m left confused. As a
young journalist, I’ve fallen in love with the profession more than I
thought I could ever love something. The sentiments you are
expressing leave me with an eternal feeling of searching, “So what do
I do?”

Everyday when I pick up my newspaper, I can’t help but marvel at the
product in my hands. It’s not that I can’t see the “amount of anger
and hostility, of distrust and suspicion, of inertia and ennui that
pollutes the journalistic environment in these newsrooms” coming
through the pages, but in the end, it still smacks of an act of
devotion, of love.

Nostalgic? Perhaps, but is the ideology sea change in journalism to
profit margins over well, journalism in the Murdoch-era not at least
as responsible?

Even so, and your diagnosis is apt, that “although it wasn’t TV news
and the web and shifting demographics alone that drove the readers
away. Boring stories, formulaic content and refusal to change with the
times are all also culprits,” - my question stands. What am I - the
one sucked in by mythology of Tarbell and Hersh just the same - to do?…

There’s more. Read the rest—and my reply—in comments.

Seth Finkelstein of Infothought isn’t a PressThink participant anymore. How sad. In fact, he’s so unhappy he will only link to Google’s cache of PressThink, and not the actual blog. Ouch. “When a lead dog of a pack congratulates you on your help in the pack’s hunt, that’s a good time to start checking yourself for fleas,” writes Seth. It’s a reference to this kind of thing from Hugh Hewitt.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 24, 2005 12:07 AM