December 6, 2006
"A Collection of Journalists Who Have Distinctive Signatures." That's What John Harris Has in Mind.
He and Jim VandeHei will soon open their new franchise in political news. (No name yet.)
"The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work, who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents." Our Q and A...
On November 20, people who follow Washington journalism were jolted by word that John Harris, political editor, and Jim VandeHei, star correspondent, were quitting the Washington Post to start a new “multi-platform” political news operation bankrolled by Allbritton Communications. Explaining this investment, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., the president of Allbritton, said the future demanded that journalists travel “without the baggage of a long-term print institution.”
“We’ll only attract people who are at a point in their career where they want to start something new,” Harris told the New York Observer. “There’s a lot of people who are like me, coming up on mid-career, who recognized the world as we know it just doesn’t exist any more. The world of journalism that I came into in 1985 is changing.” (UPDATE: columnist Roger Simon of Bloomberg and reporter Mike Allen of Time Magazine have joined up.)
On Nov. 22, I wrote my own commentary on the announcement that Harris and VandeHei were striking out on their own. There was a lot that I didn’t understand about their plan, especially: what’s changing?
So I got in touch with John Harris (I’ve interviewed him before about Dan Froomkin’s White House Briefing column) and he agreed to do this Q and A. It’s about his and VandeHei’s press think. I mean, what else would it be about?
Jay Rosen: I understand from other statements you have made that your leaving the Post should not be seen as a criticism of the Washington Post as a news organization, or Len Downie as a boss. Rather, it was the chance to start something new, at a time of breakdown and breathrough for journalism on the Web, that drew you away from what most would consider a dream job as national politics editor— and to be able to do it with top professionals, backed by a company willing to invest.
It sounds very reasonable to me. I think if you’ve been a writer or editor for someone else and gained a bit of confidence, it is very common to dream of starting something of your own. When the opportunity comes along, you take it. Or you keep working for somone else.
However, more than this must have been involved in your decision. Clearly, you sense an unmet need, which must in some way mean a market in political news that isn’t being served. News from the Hill and from inside official Washington is a crowded marketplace. Yet this appears to be the business you want to be in. Roll Call, The Hill Newspaper, and National Journal are very much in the game, along with the big newspapers and networks and others. The Note and Hotline compete in the space online, along with skads of bloggers and tip sheets.
I’m not asking you to divulge trade secrets, or preview your tactics for beating the competition. Rather, from what I have read so far, you see yourself as setting out in a new—or at least different—direction, marking the boundaries between one form of political news and another. But it’s not clear to me: what is this direction, and what unfilled need does it correspond to in people, in the marketplace as you see it? “Multi-media” doesn’t tell us much. There has to be more to it than that.
John Harris: I left The Washington Post—a place I worked for 21 years and a newspaper I love— for a mix of personal and journalistic reasons that were closely intertwined.
We live in an entreprenurial age, not an institutional one. That’s been true of many professions for quite a while, and increasingly (and perhaps somewhat belatedly) it is true of journalism. The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work—who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents—rather than relying mostly on the reputation and institutional gravity of the organization they work for. In your own way, you are an example of this with PressThink.
There are certainly examples of people fashioning this kind of entreprenurial career within the Post. Woodward is the most famous, but more recently Tom Ricks and Dana Priest are good examples, as are talented writers like Laura Blumenfeld and Dana Milbank.
But in general organizations like the Post or the New York Times have been insulated from the spirit of the age— precisely because they were secure and prestigious places to work. Once people got a job there, they tended to stay for years and even decades. Most of the people in those newsrooms are creative, and in my experience they tend to think of themselves as individualists and even iconoclasts. But the reality for many (including me until two weeks ago) is that they have careers that are more reminiscent of the 1950s, when people got hired at General Motors or IBM and stayed put. I believe that for people who want this type of stability, journalism is not going to remain an attractive profession for much longer. But people who adapt will thrive and end up having more fun than in the old days.
Jay Rosen: I agree with you about the way to have the most fun in the profession. But is there an audience you have in mind that’s under-served and feels that way, or does it not know (yet) that it needs your thing?
John Harris: Journalistically, Jim VandeHei and I are placing a bet. We believe that if we assemble a group of reporters and editors—some young people and some in mid-career—with energy and talent, then create a work environment where ideas are nurtured and sharpened, we”ll have the essential elements of a very interesting publication. Robert Allbritton, the publisher of our enterprise, believes in this bet and has made clear he is willing to support it. Again, the key is trying to create a collection of journalists who have distinctive signatures—by virtue of their personalities or source networks or ability to connect the dots in illuminating ways. The reordering of the media universe because of the Web has created opportunities for journalists of this sort that did not exist in an organization-driven age.
You are right in some ways that political news is a crowded marketplace but in other ways I think are you are not right. When I was at the Post, I noticed that a certain kind of story would tend to echo on the Web, staying atop the “most e-mailed” list for days. These were usually stories that somehow shined a light on a back story beneath the news. They illuminated motives, ideas, or personalities that offered critical context to the news. The publications you mentioned do this type of story, but I would not say they are organized around doing them consistently. Quite appropriately, they are organized around covering the front story. The “skads of bloggers and tip sheets” you mentioned do to tend to be very interested in the back story, but with few exceptions they are not bringing reporting resources to the job of illuminating it.
So we think there’s a niche. If we live up to our goal of being interesting, we’ll find an audience, through our own promotional efforts and through the partnership we are building with CBS News.
Jay Rosen: What kind of partnership are we talking about? Is that a fancy term for… Harris and his people are featured as (informed) talking heads on CBS shows? Or is your shop actually going to be a television producer, making news that is carried by CBS?
John Harris: We expect our staff to be making appearances on Face the Nation, and perhaps other CBS News shows. We are also making a major commitment to be on campaign airplanes this year, and on those occasions when we are present and CBS is not we will be in position to help be eyes on the scene for them. They were intrigued by the idea behind our project and the team we are assembling, and we obviously are thrilled to be associated with an enterprise as distinguished as CBS News. So it seemed clear there was a partnership that could benefit both sides.
Jay Rosen: You guys said Allbritton was sold on your “non-traditional” approach to news from political Washington. What traditions will you be breaking with to produce it, and why would you depart from them?
John Harris: I have long puzzled over a phenomenon about many reporters, one that I am sure is true for me also. They tend to be more interesting in conversation than they are to read in the paper. I think one reason for that is that the typical newspaper story continues to be written with a kind of austere, voice-of-God detachment. This muffles personality, humor, accumulated insight—all the reasons reporters tend to be fun to talk to. When it’s appropriate—not in every story but in many—we’ll try to loosen the style and in the process tell readers more about what we know, what we think, and why we think it.
Jay Rosen: The announcement from Allbritton said “the new platform will be anchored on the web, pushing the next generation of political journalism: more conversational, more interactive and more transparent in taking the audience behind the scenes of how news happens and how it gets reported.” I would be curious what you see as the “generational” element here and how that factors in, but also: If your political news will be more interactive… how so? A few blogs with comment sections is what some people mean by more interactive. Is that a buzzword Allbritton’s PR people threw in because its sounds avante-garde, or do you have a notion here about how people will interact with the site— and thus with your journalism?
John Harris: Jim VandeHei and I have a rough division of labor in this new enterprise. His job is to uncork the champagne and serve notice that we are going to take on the world. My job is to keep an eye on how much people are drinking and cut them off before anyone gets too high on expectations. Both jobs are necessary.
We are going to launch late next month. We will come out of the gates with an interesting publication, in print and on-line. I do not believe that we will create something revolutionary on the first day or the first month.
We will, however, put experimenting with different ways of storytelling on the Web at the center of our thinking and daily routines. Jim and I are hardly Web experts, and know enough about what we don’t know that we won’t even try to sound avante-garde. But we will be working with people who know a lot. Over time, these people will help take us into interesting and I hope even uncharted territory.
We had experience with the potential of this kind of story-telling at the Post (where Jim Brady at post.com and others have done good work pushing the newsroom to think anew.) VandeHei and another reporter hit the road in September for a trip through several competitive districts in the Ohio River Valley. They had a videographer with them. They filed dispatches for the paper and for a blog on the Web. They produced video dispatches, did radio interviews, and answered questions from readers on-line. None of those things alone is novel, but doing them in combination—especially if it becomes a matter of routine—is a pretty abrupt departure from how things work at most newspapers. While the Post likes this kind of experimentation, it is never going to be central to the daily mission; The task of putting out the traditional newspaper is how people organize their day and their thinking.
We have a chance to start from scratch so we can organize ourselves differently.
Jay Rosen: The Capitol Leader appears to be the name of a new newspaper from your shop that will descend on politics in Washington in January. As you know, in the European tradition of political journalism, a “leader” is an editorial, an argument written with the news. Newspapers once distinguished themselves that way— by the quality of their leaders. Is your newspaper, your news site going to be an argument? Will its talent in argument matter to its fate as a news vehicle? What place does argument have in your scheme? Isn’t that a way to influence insiders, and isn’t influence the coin of the realm?
John Harris: We are considering possible name changes for the paper. There is nothing wrong with the old name but it was conceived before VandeHei and I came aboard and we are seeking to define our mission somewhat more broadly. We’ll see.
In any event, we’ll have a place for well-turned arguments in print and on-line, but we have no wish to define ourselves by an argument that the publication as a whole will stand for and try to advance. There are plenty of places that do this already.
You are just baiting me, I feel sure, but trying to “influence insiders” is not the coin of the realm for us. Our aim is to have interesting things to say in the daily conversation about politics, in Washington and for a large audience of politically minded people outside of Washington. Along the way, we hope also to add to the conversation about where journalism is heading during a period of intense upheaval and creative possibility.
Jay Rosen: How about an editorial perspective? Got something like that? I know better than to ask you if the Capital Leader and its Unnamed Web Vehicle, in addition to covering politics, will actually have a politics, some political standard or let’s say a vision of American society against which events of the day stand out as significant (or not). That’s too close to the European tradition for you, I am guessing.
I would love to be corrected, but I am pretty sure that when it comes to the politics of the news operation you’re launching with Jim VandeHei, you’re going to go with, “nope, we cover politics but we don’t have any ourselves we can tell you about…” and stay within that rhetorical universe— which, to be fair, is where the Post and National Journal and ABC would be too.
But I ask you, John… is “straight down the middle” going to cut it, ya think? Does a description like that—-or Jim VandeHei’s “fast, fair and first”—qualify as more transparent? How good is it at “taking the audience behind the scenes of how news happens and how it gets reported” at the Capitol Leader? (To me it seems no more transparent than competitors. Len Downie would say the same things.) And is that the best you can do in describing the angle of vision that Harris, VandeHei and company will offer us in reporting on politics? Down the middle. Without bias. Professional. Non-partisan. Not only what’s happening but why. Inside story. Expert analysis. From the best in the business. Sure, no one can be objective but we try very hard to be fair… That’s your basic gambit, right? Or am I hearing you wrong?
John Harris: I think I understand the Rosen worldview: Journalism that tries to stay divorced from point of view is at best bland and at worst fraudulent. Traditional newspaper conventions about neutrality often are an obstacle to truth-telling. Reporters and editors should be confident in trying to describe not just the world as it is but as it should be.
I get why you think all that, but I do not get why you are so fixated on it. Certainly the great growth in recent years, especially on the Web, is in journalism that lives precisely by these advocacy values.. Why are you concerned that most traditional newsrooms do not organize themselves around ideology, and that our new newsroom won’t either?
As you know, there are areas where I agree with you about how some news media conventions are limiting. We often allow partisans to make statements that are demonstrably true or false and make them seem like matters of controversy. A more conversational and self-confident style, for instance, would allow us to say plainly who is telling the truth and who is not when it is obvious.
Even as we try to be more innovative in telling stories, however, there is more need than ever for a journalism that is, as I have said before on this page, detached from the fight for power. Increasingly, we live in a time when there are no shared facts and therefore no authentic debate. Instead, every news story is greeted by partisans as either weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war. There is simply no way you can convince me this trend has lead to a more civilized or constructive politics that is more likely to illuminate real issues or solve genuine problems.
As far as transparency—reporters should stop pretending they have no views—I’ll tell you what I can. VandeHei is my friend and I used to edit his work. He’s my partner in this new enterprise and we spend virtually all our workdays by each other’s side. I can honestly tell you I have no idea what his political orientation is.
I am less opaque, but I still don’t talk about my views much for a variety of reasons. By temperament, I don’t hold my opinions so intensely. It is genuinely pretty easy for me most of the time to see things from different points of view. In addition, to the extent that I have a political perspective it is not a terribly interesting one.
Jay Rosen: Do you think the political press has a “political perspective” or would you say that on the whole it doesn’t?
John Harris: In my experience, the vast majority of political reporters approach ideological questions with what you might call centrist bias. They are instinctually skeptical of what they see as ideological zealotry. They believe activist government can do good things but are quick to see how those aims are distorted by partisan corruption or bureaucratic incompetence. They tend to have a faith that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it is.
I sometimes think that if Washington political reporters ran the government their ideal would be to have a blue ribbon commission go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force base for a week and solve all problems. It would be chaired by Alan Greenspan and Sam Nunn. David Gergen would be communications director, and the policy staff would come from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute. They would not come back until they had come up with sober, centrist solutions to the entitlements debate, the Iraq war, and the gay marriage controversy.
It took me a while to realize how this instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics can itself be a form of bias. It is ideologues, rather than Washington technocrats, who make history. On the right, ideas about free markets that a generation ago were exotic are now mainstream. More recently, what started out as the left’s critique of the Iraq war increasingly defines the center.
I think this constant churning of the terms of debate should be chastening to journalists, and even to you as you urge a more advocacy-driven approach to covering news. Who needs a bunch of reporters popping off with their views? It is hard enough—and honorable enough—to aim to report and analyze politics fairly and with a disciplined effort to transcend bias. That is what we will do in this new venture.
Jay Rosen: To answer one of your questions: Why am I so concerned that most traditional newsrooms do not organize themselves around ideology, and that yours won’t either? I am neither demanding it nor expecting you to organize around an ideology. I was asking about the politics that is built into newsgathering in the way the political press has learned to do it.
I am happy to report that we have some common ground. The “instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics” can indeed be a form of bias. A “fixed idea” as Joan Didion says. Extreme centrism (as I would call it) is about hogging rationality to itself. (See Atrios on it.) This is the default form politics takes in the way the mainstream press conducts its reporting and explains the world to us. It’s software the system runs on. Maybe you plan to un-install it, or put it out of commission. That would be a development I would watch with great interest.
Let’s wrap this up. In my earlier post (Nov. 22) I tried to read between the lines of something Jim VandeHei told the Wall Street Journal: that he hoped your shop would knock down some of traditional journalism’s “state secrets,” like how news is leaked and whose motives are served when certain political stories come out. Here’s how I saw it: “VandeHei and Harris are serving notice that they won’t be bound by certain gentleman’s agreements that have settled over political reporting in the big leagues, the most important of which is: you don’t name your sources, and you don’t try to name the other fellow’s either.”
Is that the basic drift of it?
John Harris: We will not be burning our sources, or trying to burn other people’s. That is not ethical or necessary.
We will be trying when we can to demystify political news, and also to narrow the gap between the audience and reporter—to personalize the relationship to some degree.
What does this mean? I go back to my earlier comment about how reporters sometimes can be more interesting to talk to than read. I have had this experience during campaigns when I show up as an outsider on the campaign plane. It turns out all the reporters have certain understandings—who is really running the campaign, for instance, or the fact that the candidate has a thick book of policy proposals that he has not read, and staff members all hold their breath every time he gets a hard question. The natural question is to wonder why more of this insight is not getting into stories. There are probably lots of reasons, but I think the biggest is the constraints of traditional story-telling. Those are worth pushing up against, and we’ll do it. In the bargain, I think we’ll have more fun covering the campaign and be more fun to read.
Jay Rosen: John, thank you for taking the time, and answering my questions.
: Notes, reactions & links…
Dec. 13: Harris and VandeHei reveal more of their plan. The New York Times reports that their enterprise now has a name — “The Politico, which is its newspaper, and thepolitico.com, its Web site. The name supplants The Capitol Leader, which had been its working title until it broadened in scope. Both the newspaper and Web site are to begin publication on Jan. 23, the date of the president’s State of the Union address, one of the most-covered rituals on the Washington political calendar.” VandeHei told Katharine Seelye what John Harris told me:
“What we can add is fact-based content, and that’s what people on opinion pages and blogs feed off of,” he said. He said Politico reporters would travel on campaign planes, write with a conversational tone, send back video and tell readers things that traditional reporters tend to talk about but not to write about. The staff will also make appearances on CBS News.
Virgina Postrel says Harris “exactly identifies how journalism is changing” when he observes that big prestigious news organizations have been “insulated” from the entrepreneurial spirit of the times. “The WaPost has adapted better to this shift than the NYT, which desperately wants to deny it.”
Harris reveals more than he intends to here. Note that the range of opinions runs from people who occupy what is generally called (rightly or wrongly) the center of political opinion to the extreme right. David Gergen is a Republican. Sam Nunn is a conservative Democrat who likes to run around with Warren Rudman telling people the Social Security is DOOOOMED. Alan Greenspan is an extreme conservatarian freak. Brookings prides itself on itself on straddling the political center, and hosts such grand contributors to our current mess as Kenneth Pollack, while AEI is a right wing freak show filled with hackery of epic proportions.
In other words, as I’ve long said, the range of acceptable positions in Official Washington range from the New Republic to the Free Republic.
Stephen Spruiell of National Review’s Media Blog says that the Iraq Study Group, a bi-partisan commission, is a classic case of what John Harris called an “instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics” among Washington political reporters. And he’s got video of Tim Russert to illustrate.
David Neiwert, ex-newsroom type who went stand alone on the Progressive side (and is quite good at it…) says about extreme centrism: “This kind of approach to journalism is not merely about ‘hogging rationality to itself.’ It is, at its core, bad logic and thus nearly certain to lead to misjudgments, miscalculations, and misconceptions.”
Mark Tapscott, editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner, thinks he hears something in… they have careers that are more reminiscent of the 1950s, when people got hired at General Motors or IBM and stayed put.
This echo of the “man in the grey flannel suit” critique of the 1950s’ uniformitarian corporate culture explains to some degree the prevalence of liberal herding in major newsrooms. The typical newsroom is a bubble in which an insultated group of people from generally similar demographic, political and cultural backgrounds reinforce each other’s views and perceptions.
Former Washington Post editor John Harris makes news by telling Rosen that “political reporters approach ideological questions with what you might call centrist bias”—something FAIR has said for years, and if you look at Harris’s definition of the center, you’ll see that, like FAIR, he is really talking about a spectrum that extends from the center to the right.
PressThink regular Steve Lovelady, formerly managing editor of the CJR Daily and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other stops, e-mails:
Harris’s epiphany is not a new thought, but it remains a provocative one.
I first heard it decades ago from a brilliant reporter, then an editor, named Bill Blundell, who was my mentor when I was a young kid at the Wall Street Journal, and who remained my mentor for many years after I left the Journal. It was Blundell who observed that if you traveled around the country and dropped in on bars that reporters frequented (back in the days when reporters actually frequented bars) in Memphis or Denver or Oklahoma City or New York or wherever, you would hear a frankness and insight about the news of the day and the newsmakers that you would never read in the newspaper.
Reporters off-duty have voice; put the same reporter in the newsroom and the voice is stifled, as he or she reflexively reverts to the institutional tone that, as Harris notes, does not permit “personality, humor, accumulated insight.”
This is not so true of columnists (witness Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, whose one enduring guideline for himself and others is “to cut through the bullshit)” or of magazines (witness Henrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker) but it remains true of all too many newspapers and their employees.
The explosion of the Internet, where you have a cacophony of voices, only highlights the difference.
What Harris is rebelling against is, as he puts it, “that kind of austere, voice-of-God detachment” that dominates the Post’s front page. More power to him — but surely he must realize that he is very late to the game, and he is going to have to run very hard and very fast to catch up to the train, which left the station a long time ago.
Eugene David spots a premise he doesn’t buy.
How many news hacks have “distinctive signatures”? Mr. Harris argues that “the system” irons them out. We argue that most hacks have no style to begin with. Oh yes, there’s the occasional genius who can come from nowhere — Ernie Pyle is said to have been a bland, uninteresting feature typist before he found his voice in the war — but most writers are sterile soil from which no flower will grow. And the “professionalizing” of the biz, the incessant demand that the public treat it as a respectable occupation just like law or medicine (!), drove the eccentrics away. So we’re stuck with the flat, neutral voice of flat writers in flat newspapers that are flatlining.
Gene again: “By the way, am I the only one who notices that ‘PressThink’ suggests ‘GroupThink’?” No. You’re not. The connection is drawn in my Q & A about the blog’s POV.
From an interview with Jim Lehrer of the Newshour on PBS, who along with Len Downie of the Washington Post is the most extreme centrist in journalism:
He has his favorite politicians. “Not the most brilliant people but they are public servants who want to get things done. If the parties are smart, they’ll turn to these people,” including Jack Danforth, Warren Rudman and David Pryor.
From the comments, where I write:
I think they can certainly bust out of formula coverage. If they just do that, their operation will be of benefit to political journalism. We need more ideas of how to go about it on the Web, not less. We certainly need theirs.
There’s a lot of promise in their plan, and a good deal of idealism. I also think Harris could inspire a young generation of political journalists if he lets them be themselves and makes them effective on the Web.
Rod Dreher, editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, responds in his column at BeliefNet: “I can think of five or six blogs on both the left and the right that I could click on right now, and find more interesting opinions and lively, challenging, provocative thinking and writing than in almost any newspaper today. It really shouldn’t be all that surprising to career MSMers like me why people don’t want to read us: we’re boring them.” He thinks Harris and company could shake this up.
Posted by Jay Rosen at December 6, 2006 12:35 AM
Jay: great article, again!
I like a lot of what he's saying (much more than I would have anticipated...): the idea of a unique signature, for instance, I think it's right on! (information alone, however great, doesn't seem to be the complete formula for success online... you need something *else* -- something unique that people would respond to, something that would make a lot of people choose to read *your stuff* as opposed to that of oodles of others that are all trying to do pretty much the same thing). But this quality seems to be not easy to ascertain ahead of time and it can also be ephemeral (so I'd expect quite a bit of movement in an organization of this kind).
As to the 'meat' of their future business, I don't know if it's a regrouping or not but it sounds different from the 'exposing other peoples' sources' thing. IF they want to do *actual reporting* -- just focus on the prequel to the 'hit stories' -- there may be redeemable value to that. If his observation (that it is this kind of stories that linger for longer on the internet) is correct... he maybe on to something... But I'd want to know what KIND of stories are they? I mean, my gut feeling tells me that... they are basically gossip... And then we are back to the 'inside tabloid' idea... (some things at the end of the interview seem to point in that direction)
Re: 'down the middle'
I wouldn't come down too hard on them for having that as a *goal*: I think that it's definitely what we should STRIVE for -- it's just naive to think that you are ever going to quite GET there whenever you go past easily demonstrable facts (and he doesn't seem to not get that). Best we can do is to move asymptotically in that direction (and turning away from even attempting that seems to be like throwing in the towel). Yeah, it's not perfect -- just much closer to perfection than the other alternatives can get you...
Best of Harris (from this article -- according to *me*, of course):
'Increasingly, we live in a time when there are no shared facts and therefore no authentic debate. Instead, every news story is greeted by partisans as either weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war. There is simply no way you can convince me this trend has lead to a more civilized or constructive politics that is more likely to illuminate real issues or solve genuine problems.'
P.S. I'm considering starting a blog, not sure what's going to turn-out to be in the long run (if I don't end-up giving up on the idea altogether...) but I'm thinking to just start with a 'comments blog' (every time I post a comment on a blog also have it as an entry on my own blog)... is that ok?
I mean, it's not one of those things you are not *supposed* to do ... right? I would of course provide the link to whatever prompted my comment so... everybody should be happy... or not?
This would save me the time of describing things that are already there (such as this interview of yours) and aside from responses to my comments on the 'prompter blog,' I might also get some comments on my own blog (I could also post a link to such comments on the prompter blog if desired).
P.P.S. It would be mostly about 'online journalism' and such (at least at this point), although I'm contemplating a craigslist criticism blog of some sort -- I just think there are a lot of good questions about craigslist that are just not being asked or are merely alluded to (BTW, I'd love it if YOU did an article on craigslist... might even change my mind about this 'specialty blog' idea ...).
Harris: "[Reporters] tend to be more interesting in conversation than they are to read in the paper. I think one reason for that is that the typical newspaper story continues to be written with a kind of austere, voice-of-God detachment. This muffles personality, humor, accumulated insightï¿½all the reasons reporters tend to be fun to talk to."
I remember when Kurtz published "in-house electronic critiques" at the Washington Post:
The rhetoric heated up when Pearlstein wrote that Post staffers should "admit that a lot of what we do, and how we do it, is driven by a notion of good journalism that has more to do with 'dominating' a story and keeping up with the competition or, on occasion, winning prizes, than it does with what our readers need and want. . . . Too many of our stories . . . [have] 'obligation' written all over them."
Pearlstein called for a smaller, edgier paper and complained that the opinion pages have become "too tame, too predictable, too R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-L-E and, at times, downright boring."
engage in an admirable, and needed, effort to offer an alternative to the expository style of today's journalism. Kick the tires and see if it can
be accomplished without becoming advocacy journalism or op-ed. Harris recognizes the change in the press-PFKATA/WKM relationship, "trying when we can to demystify political news, and also to narrow the gap between the audience and reporter - to personalize the relationship to some degree."
Harris, again: "It turns out all the reporters have certain understandings - who is really running the campaign, for instance, or the fact that the candidate has a thick book of policy proposals that he has not read, and staff members all hold their breath every time he gets a hard question. The natural question is to wonder why more of this insight is not getting into stories."
Right on! Who needs to burn sources when you can "burn" journalists with their own insights? [Authorized Knower: Farnaz Fassihi's Accidental Baghdad Dispatch, Bloggers Parse Pool Reportage On Bush Doings, A Leaky Post Newsroom]
The political press and press politics needs some more demystifiers (another term for transparency?). Examining the relationship between politicians and the press in a way that narrows the gap between the press and the people would be a good thing, if done well.
Harris: "It is hard enough - and honorable enough - to aim to report and analyze politics fairly and with a disciplined effort to transcend bias. That is what we will do in this new venture." ... Rosen: "Thus, the only responsibility the editors have is to be accurate, truthful and fair (plus 'aggressive') within the messy conditions of their craft.":
Driving the agenda in official Washington (or creating a climate of such urgency that people in government feel compelled to act) is not something the Times imagines itself involved in. Neither is case-building against some figure in the news. Officially, the paper admits to itself no intention to "drive" things one way or the other. It does not take on "cases." Therefore, it accepts for itself no responsibility when things are driven by what the Times does, or when cases explode and soil everyone.
Let's see Harris explain how his venture will avoid the structural biases
, the CNN Effect
1. You nailed him, Jay, with the questions, and his answers reveal there's nothing really groundbreaking going on here. That's not to say they might not produce some interesting journalism worth watching, but...
2. He quickly threw out the "advocacy" word, which shows me he has not read the academic literature on objectivity and is still stuck in a undergraduate journalism student mentality on the subject.
Objectivity has more to do with science than economics. Fairness, balance, and non-partisanship are economic definitions, not scientific ones. The technologically sophisticated audience is looking for scientific objectivity - even if they don't know it because no one on TV is articulating it.
Why? Because to the extent they know anything about the issue at all, broadcast journalists studied it in the same textbooks written by the same journalism historians who have been getting it wrong for economic reasons for 100 years.
It is the definition that gets us this asinine analysis we are getting on TV about the Iraq Study Group report.
As I have said before, you don't have to have a bias or be a liberal or a Democrat to come to the obvious conclusion in your reporting that George W. Bush is a horrible president and that his policities are a failure. It is not a matter of opinion or "belief." The facts support it.
3. I like what he said about "connecting the dots in interesting ways." There's some hope in them hills.
Now, if VandeHei and company plan to give readers this kind of insightful analysis, they may be doing something new after all:
Iraq Study Group Report A Coverup?
For the right price, I might just help them out...
Somebody once commented to me about his distaste for museums: The museum exhibit, he said, bears the same resemblance to the subject matter that a book jacket does to the contents of the book. At best, it can help you decide whether to pursue the subject.
I've been in some art museums where knowledgeable guides made a coherent story out of an artist's work. Can't do it by yourself unless you put in your own work first, in which case, you already saw the exhibit.
IMO, newspapers and TV news approach the museum exhibit side.
We can get the headlines and what amount to the first paragraphs (the museum exhibit) in the papers or on the TV news, but nothing else. We can get more of them faster and more conveniently on the 'net.
IMO, the television and the newspapers might want to look at letting the other media--the net--do the headlines, the alert-the-public stuff and do what a poster above referred to. Do the documentary. Do the thing in depth. Whatever it is.
From what I hear of reporters, they'd probably enjoy that more, and the readers would be getting something valuable, something that's not on the web. And they wouldn't be paying money for a poor version of the day's news headlines-and-first-graf version of the subject.
Currently, the television reporters are doing a pretty good job of talking about rescue on Mt. Hood, survival in cold weather, rescue techniques, what experienced climbers do, and so forth. Good work. It's the full story. The problem is that they're doing it to fill time while the searchers search and that's all they have the resources to do. Nice, in a way, but if the guys had been found right away, it wouldn't be happening. This is Plan B, and an accident. It is not what tv news ordinarily does, or wants to do.
But if newspapers and television gave up the urge to repeat the same story(ies) every twelve hours, dropping one and adding one, and doing so very shallowly, sending correspondents out to stand in front of something that is vaguely related to the story, or not, and decided to go deep on the important stories, the public would be better served and I wouldn't be getting carpal tunnel hitting the remote.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
What Time is it in Political Journalism? "Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...