Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/04/25/tp_ltrs.html


April 25, 2005

Mood of the Newsroom: Letters from Three Journalists

Daniel Conover, a newsroom veteran, and Scott Heiser, a collegiate journalist, ask Tim Porter if he knows what he's saying. Bill Grueskin of the Wall Street Journal responds to Ethan Zuckerman's "Bloggiest Newspaper."

Three has become four with the addition of Steve Lovelady’s letter, plus a reply from Ethan Zuckerman in the “After…” section.

Letter One: “In any revolution, one hopes for an outcome like the one Vaclav Havel wrought in the Czech Republic, but one is at least as likely to wind up with Robespierre.” —Daniel Conover

Daniel Conover introduces himself, “I was the city editor of a metro daily at 35, begged off the job at 40. These days I’m a mild-mannered features writer for a southern metro daily. I spend much of my time writing about science. I created my first website in 1994, started blogging in 2003.”

Conover, a PressThink reader and able commenter, spent the weekend wrestling with Tim Porter’s The Mood of the Newsroom, which Jeff Jarvis said was Porter’s greatest post. (And I agree; see Tim Porter Lets Out a Roar.)

But unlike me, or Porter, or Jarvis, Conover is working today in a mainstream USA newsroom (The Post-Courier in Charleston, SC, but he doesn’t speak for them.) The sound of revolutionaries outside the institution they would revolutionize causes him to wonder:

How did defenders of journalism in the newsroom become the defensive newsroom—a construct of critics—is a very good question. About the old newsroom, a hulking beast, he advises: don’t wound it unless you intend to kill it and start over. Wounded, it will be worse.

Here is the rest of Conover’s simmering reply at First Draft. Used by permission, and edited very slightly:

Tim: I spent most of the weekend trying to sort out my response to this post, and I still don’t know that I’ve reached clarity on it. It is clearly rife with uncomfortable truths for me.

I can’t stand the status quo in newspapers, and I’m not real happy with most of our society’s other institutions right now, either. In my perfect world, every institution would have a 10-year timebomb built into its management structure. Blow everything up. Start from scratch. It’s a provocative and valuable message.

I think some individual papers are capable of doing what you prescribe, but I fear that as an industry we lack the talent and vision to pull off such changes in a violent way. These days I’m hopeful that the grassroots movement will be able to sneak in through some back doors and change things in a subtle, insurgent way. Maybe our readers can help us find our way again.

But I guess at the bottom of it all I’m scared of what lessons we’ll take from your message — not that the ones you intend aren’t good ones, but that the leaders who are listening with half an ear to this discussion will learn the wrong ones. I fear change that is shallow, selfish and short-sighted. Anybody who has worked in newspapers for more than a decade has seen quite a bit of it.

In any revolution, one hopes for an outcome like the one Vaclav Havel wrought in the Czech Republic, but one is at least as likely to wind up with Robespierre… not to mention the inevitable Pinochet-esque backlash. Such thoughts temper my bomb-throwing tendencies.

I know most people tend to think there’s no value left in what we do — so why worry about what gets lost in the destruction? I fully acknowledge that I’m likely a fool for believing there’s much left to salvage.

And some days I despair of it entirely. The press in general is in retreat, consumed by infotainment media, by our own confusion, by decertification, by profit, by brain-drain. And perhaps blowing us up will clear the ground for something better. What frightens me today is that a press corps that once covered wars and battles has now become the battleground on which a different kind of war is being fought. I don’t know that enough people appreciate the implications of that statement.

So, as someone who has been fighting this fight from the inside, I have just two requests: 1. Before you light the fuse, please do your best to acquire enough explosive to finish the job; and 2. When the counter-revolution starts, please stand with us. I don’t want to be defensive, but I’m in no mood to be martyred, either.

Tim Porter has a reply to Daniel Conover and others up. (“I’ve written more than 400 posts to First Draft and few have elicited more response than Mood of the Newsroom.”) There are responses worth sampling, so check out First Draft.

Letter Two: “What am I, the one sucked in by mythology of Tarbell and Hersh just the same, to do?” —Scott Heiser

Scott Heiser is a young journalist trying to figure out his options at the University of Colorado. Like Conover, he was disquieted by Tim Porter’s Mood of the Newsroom post. For Heiser, a 20 year-old sophomore, the message from First Draft and PressThink is confusing and unfair. (Here’s his latest column, by the way.)

The unfair part he explaineed in a follow-up e-mail. “The reporters are defensive because they’re being attacked from all sides, and where they try to change and be more responsive (to make papers ‘more interesting’ or appealing to younger readers), it comes off like one more case of the old guys pandering to the young.” His letter:

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?

I respect the challenge you’ve offered beyond the words I possess. It is noble, and it is edifying.

Yet I still have problems with what is being proposed. If journalism, the religion of it, is not the function of the media business, but instead profits are, is it any wonder that people stop reading because they’ve got clear perceptions about where the ethics stop and start: $$$.

You’ve both been there, been through the muck of budget cuts and this fanciful attachment. You’ve both felt compelled to make clarion calls to the mainstream media about just where things are going. I understand why it’s not just as plausible for journalism as an institution in the democracy, to make a stand, a real one, and say to readers, publishers, advertisers, et al that there are certain principles we will not compromise on - there is always an incentive TO compromise for better ratings or a better circ. But I don’t believe that one must metamorphize the institution itself. That case seems to be overstated. The internals are killing journalism, and it does follow that internals could save it.

Is obstinance the way out of the abyss of irrelevance? Absolutely not. But if blame is to be proportioned for the crimes committed against journalism, the willingness to descend deeper and deeper into the realms of the possible to grab more market share has got to be partially to blame. The spineless nature of a journalistic industry that is mostly worried about getting paid than about getting the news is there too.

The “what if” exercises are useful, but it seems to me that certain tenets will never change, and most importantly, why would we want them to? Why would we ever want to betray the essential mission of truth-telling? Perhaps it is not about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted anymore, but then what is “it” about? I write a column for my paper here in Boulder and I’ve narrowed “it” down to trying to engage people. I don’t know that writing is capable of doing better.

I don’t mean to play into the “defensive culture” and certainly the boilerplate process stories are hurting more than helping, but I’m still left just so utterly confused. It’s not that I don’t want to change, and am not excited for the future of journalism, but that I’m so lost here. I don’t quite understand what is so different from the newspaper’s commitment to “truth-telling and watch-dogging” and that of blogs or other mediums.

At the end of the day, journalism is about the doing, the production of something new and interesting, and I hope this discussion brings about something wholly useful for news producers and consumers alike. What that may look like, I have no clue. But I’m guessing you both believe it doesn’t look much like an upside-down pyramid.

Regards,

Scott Heiser
University of Colorado-Boulder

A part of my reply:

Truth-telling is of course the first commitment in journalism. No one is saying otherwise, and no one is saying “times change, buddy, get a new commitment.” If we describe the core values of journalism at a sufficiently high level of abstraction—truth, accuracy, fairness—then we can all be traditionalists and go tut-tutting around about how “some things never change,” and “people will always need…”

But don’t mistake that for thinking, okay?

Read the rest, if you are interested.

Letter Three: “When you ask people to pay for your content, you’re going to distribute less of it than when you give it away.” — Bill Grueskin.

It caused some notice when Ethan Zuckerman, fellow at the Berkman Center and a philosopher-geek-activist-media critic, posted, Is Christian Science Monitor the World’s Bloggiest Newspaper? Zuckerman, who has been studying foreign news and its patterns, wanted to test a hypothesis— “that CSM has the highest number of blog links per paper subscribers of any major US newspaper.” Using Technorati as source, “the bloggiest newspapers I found were…”

Christian Science Monitor - 134.90
New York Times - 63.08
Washington Post - 58.44
San Francisco Chronicle - 38.32
Boston Globe - 29.80
Seattle Post Intelligencer - 18.56
New York Post - 12.48
LA Times - 11.21

Down at the end of the list, between the Middletown (NY) Times Herald-Record (0.39) and the Fort Myers News Press (0.50) was The Wall Street Journal at 0.40, among the lowest scores. “The Journal is notorious in the blogging community for hiding nearly all of its content behind a paid firewall,” Zuckerman wrote. “Despite the fact that it boasts the second-highest circulation of a US paper (2,106,774), it’s anemic in the blogosphere, with 910 links from 828 sources.”

Anemic in the blogosphere. I wanted to know what Bill Grueskin thought about that, so I asked him. Grueskin is the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Online and the man in charge of how “bloggy” it is, to use Zuckerman’s term. (See my recent Q and A with him.) “Is being anemic in the blogosphere something to worry about?” I asked.

Jay: I don’t know enough about the methodology here to make a direct comment on the numbers. One thing I’d wonder is whether he’s including traffic to links from OpinionJournal.com, Dow Jones’ free website run by the Editorial Page. A quick keyword search for “OpinionJournal” on Technorati generates well over 3,000 links, and you get even more from searching for “Opinion Journal” (with a space). You’d also get more from including our other free sites, such as CareerJournal.com.

All that said, I don’t doubt we have fewer blog links than many free sites. We’ve taken steps to get more links, via our nightly emails to bloggers, our new page that displays all free stories, and we’ll initiate some more programs in the next few months. But look, when you ask people to pay for your content, you’re going to distribute less of it than when you give it away. I was no Macroeconomics 101 star, but even I can intuit that one.

And there are plenty of standards by which you can judge the impact of your journalism. Here’s another one: Around 10 p.m. Saturday, Wall Street Journal print reporter Susanne Craig broke the news on WSJ.com that Kenneth Langone is mounting a bid for the NY Stock Exchange. Atop today’s New York Times business section is the following, with a generous credit in the third paragraph: “The news was first reported … on the Web site of The Wall Street Journal.” That’s a link, too— one that doesn’t show up in a Technorati search, but that is visible to many people in our core audience.

In other words, take the links where you can get ‘em.

Bloggers can relate to that. Grueskin, I think, realizes the Journal could do way more. Maybe he’s fighting the right fight inside Dow Jones and we don’t see the results yet. Or maybe there’s something he’s missing too. We could hear about it comments. Conover and Heiser are fair game, as well.

UPDATE, Letter Four: “The next day they wake up and William Allen White is gone, and they’re working for Joe Schmoe, an eager-to-please creature of corporate.” — Steve Lovelady

Steve Lovelady, now managing editor of CJR Daily, former managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a PressThink regular, wrote in with his reactions to Tim Porter and Scott Heiser.

Jay: I can add the perspective of one who has been through “the muck of budget cuts,” which is, I think, a key element in the equation, and one that Tim Porter glosses over just a little too glibly.

Newspapers have been eating their seed corn for a while now, which is one of the things that make them easy pickings for whatever turns out to be the next best thing. (This, as you know, is the topic of Phil Meyer’s latest brilliant book.)

Ten years ago, I and a few others spent our last year at the Philadelphia Inquirer fighting with every weapon we could command against the corporate dictate to dismantle much of the operation that we had so painstakingly built over the previous 25 years. We prevailed for the moment, but it was a hollow victory. Soon after we left, the beancounters whom we had temporarily held at bay simply pounded the next round of top editors into the ground.

Multiply that by dozens of times and you have the reason that countless local editors with a vision for their papers that transcends returning 30% of revenues to corporate as profit have finally thrown in the towel and taken a walk. (See Buzz Merritt walking out in Wichita … see Gene Roberts and then Max King and then Bob Rosenthal walking out in Philadelphia… see Doug Clifton and then Marty Barron walking out in Miami.) And almost always, these visonaries are replaced by mediocrities who willingly toe the corporate line.

Is it any surprise then that the talented and diligent staffs of such newspapers give up and leave too — or, in the case of the truy defeated, choose to stay and go on automatic pilot, which just intensifies the death spiral?

Who can blame them? One day they’re working for the William Allen White of their time, the next day they wake up and William Allen White is gone, and they’re working for Joe Schmoe, an eager-to-please creature of corporate, transferred in from a lesser paper where he or she established a proven record of happily submitting to whatever the numbers guys demanded to keep the stock price up.

And what exactly is it that those suits demand of Joe Schmoe? The gutting of the paper. So in the end, what is left ? A newsroom of dead-men-walking. Anything else would be an improvement. Which, of course, is the golden opportunity that lies available to the Internet, the Web and the blog community. It should be as easy as picking apples up off the ground. Let’s see if anyone does it.

Lovelady’s “William Allen White of their time” is a reference to Gene Roberts, executive editor of the Inquirer from 1972 to 1991, and the dominant figure in that newspaper’s recent history. Roberts is famous for inspiring the people who worked with him, for his extremely slow drawl and taciturn nature, and for presiding over a newspaper that won 17 Pulitizer Prizes. He later became managing editor of the New York Times. (A 2001 interview with Roberts; a Poynter tribute to him.)



After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

“We know where we’re going.”John Robinson, editor and man in charge of the Greensboro News & Record, is optimistic as he responds to “tipping point” rumors and PressThink’s last two posts.

As an industry, we don’t lack the talent or vision to redirect the ship, as one letter writer suggests. We lack the will. The data is clear; the status quo is not an option. What are we waiting for? The changes in store should be embraced if we can reach new audiences with our journalism. No one is suggesting we abandon our core principles. Truth telling remains the key. And everything I read challenges us to make that principle stronger.

Robinson remains an inspiration, but then a lot of people in Greensboro are that.

Yeah, but Snarkmarket isn’t buying it:

If you havenít read them, they all make essentially the same point ó old-school journalismís in trouble. Shorter Merrill Brown: Young people donít read newspapers. Shorter Tim Porter: And itís the fault of backwards-thinking journalists. Shorter Rupert Murdoch: No, seriously. Young people like never read newspapers.

“But it all just feels so twelve years ago,” says Snark. “When we start talking around in circles like this, I get impatient about the snailís pace of this alleged revolution.”

Susan Mernit says she agrees. Why don’t they tell it to the snails, say, in this post?

Esoteric Rabbit Films, a weblog about “the acutely inexplicable cinematic addiction,” has an intriguing post about how citizen journalism will become fatally attractive to filmmakers.

“Look into the Newsroom Mirror.” Ryan Pitts of Dead Parrot Society and the Spokesman Review in Spokane says about Porters Mood of… post:

We are posting this in our newsroom, and I sincerely hope some internal dialogue emerges from it.

I have to admit, it’s awfully easy to get sucked into nostalgia for the fat days, when it seemed like we had more of everything to work with. This even happens to me, and I feel like I’m a journalist who’s actually looking forward to all the new things happening. So the struggle is, how do we get people who see these changes as troublesome to see your post as the newsroom mirror that it is?

Ethan Zuckerman e-mails in reply to Bill Grueskin:

I did not include OpinionJournal.com in the numbers I ran last week. I used what appeared to be the official news sites for the publications I considered, favoring a more popular URL over a less popular one when there was an obvious choice to be made - i.e., csmonitor.com rather than christiansciencemonitor.com. I’m running a larger set of numbers - all 150 newspapers that the Audit Bureau lists - today and plan on releasing those numbers in the next 48 hours or so. To do the Wall Street Journal - and several other papers - justice, I’ll likely need to tweak my numbers to consider multiple sites for media properties like the Journal that use several different URLs.

Giving the Journal the benefit of multiple URLs - wsj.com, wallstreetjournal.com, opinionjournal.com - their Technorati cosmos count increases to 8782. Given their large circulation, that’s still as LpkC of 4.17, which puts them between the Houston Chronicle and the Arizona Republic in the set of figures I posted last Thursday.

In other words, the Journal’s decision to put content behind a for-pay firewall has a definite influence on people’s linking practices. (The simple fact that eight times as many people link to their open opinion section as to their closed content section is also a likely indicator of this.) Clearly, the Journal has decided this is a tradeoff that makes business sense, as your interview with Grueskin elucidates.

As Gen Kanai, commenting on my original post puts it: “Ethan, there’s a strong case for saying the exact opposite of your thesis: that the WSJ is the strongest presence online because they’re growing much faster than any other online news source AND they’re charging for their content. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but there was a recent interview with the head of the WSJ Interactive and he was basically very smug about the fact that his publication is a fee-service and that it had the highest growth rates in the industry.”

I’m in no way trying to say that the Journal is making a poor business decision, or that it’s not influential in a community outside the blogosphere, just that the Journal’s solution to the “how do we support a newspaper in the online age” question reduces its influence and impact amongst bloggers.

Zuckerman had a question for readers: “While I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback—and some theorizing—on the Wall Street Journal’s low rank, I’ve gotten very little speculation on why the Christian Science Monitor - as well as the New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle rank so high.” Ideas?

Also see Amy Gahran, who breaks the news to the Christian Science Monitor that they’re the most blog intensive, and gets a reaction from the people there. Tom Reagan: “We believe in links. For us, itís what the Internet is all about.”


Posted by Jay Rosen at April 25, 2005 4:47 PM