July 8, 2008
Big Daddy Newspaper Has Gone and Left Journalism
Tree House Media Project Debuts. Self-reliance for angry journalists, preached by a former member of the tribe. Plus: "Last gasp of the curmudgeon class." NEWSROOM ID EXPLODES LIKE FIREWORKS OVER INTERN'S UPBEAT BLOG POST. Newspaper revanchism 'splained.
Now this is interesting. Kind of an anti-curmudgeon site. The opposite of bitching about the bosses. Or unloading your frustrations on newspaper interns. I give you Tree House Media Project and its blog, which appears on a tab called “Fuck Google.” (Just an expression, wastes zero time on that.)
The first entry—Free or Subscription?—is informative and unhysterical. It highlights some of the “niche” news sites that have proven sustainable on the Web, each created by a person, not a firm.
The tone is self help for angry journalists. Empower ex-newsroom people with tools to learn with. Enough with the ignorant griping, the site says: figure out the self-publishing puzzle and you can take matters into your own hands. It’s like a band with a new sound. “No amount of bitching will prevent Yahoo from poaching our readers.” Suck it up, news tribe.
First, we should give thanks, for we are far luckier than the textile and steel workers who have found themselves on the wrong side of globalization or technological change before us. As knowledge workers, we can benefit from the technologies that are threatening newspapers’ survival: No longer does one need a printing press to publish, only a personal computer, an Internet connection and an idea.
Or as Chris Nolan put it at PressThink in 2005, The Stand Alone Journalist is Here (“And the newsroom has left the building.”) The founder of Tree House is Rich Heidorn, Jr., formerly an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer during the Gene Roberts era. “We won 18 Pulitzers in the 17 years.” Who’s going to tell him he doesn’t know the newsroom? He certainly knows about its dependents:
No IT department to fix our PCs. No advertising sales or circulation staff to generate revenue. But by banding together, we can reduce our learning curve. We can generate economies of scale (share costs) in marketing and information technology.
Recognize that sound? It’s an old American creed, self-reliance—and voluntary association—preached back to newsroom folk. Your news organization sucks? Start your own. Be self-reliant!
Laid off? Bought out? Pissed off? Or just overworked because you’re one of the “lucky” ones still working for the walking corpse that is the daily newspaper? Join us, the diaspora of a generation of once-proud working journalists, as we try to recapture the joy, the passion and the creativity of our noble profession.
I don’t know the founder, Rich Heidorn, or his earlier work. (But here’s his Linked In profile.) I know some people who worked with him at the Inquirer; seems solid. His project doesn’t sound like what I’ve heard before. Big Daddy Newspaper is gone, he’s explicitly saying. There’s just us.
Heidorn’s idea—equipping journalists with the skills they need to be self-publishers—stands in helpful contrast to (this is my name for it) the last gasp of the curmudgeon class, an awesome display I observed over the Fourth of July weekend. I urge you to get the full effect. It has anthropological value.
The show unfolded at intern Jessica DaSilva’s blog after she wrote about a staff meeting where Tampa Tribune editor Janet Coats announced more layoffs and talked about what was to be done, including a more dramatic re-organization involving the Tribune staff, tbo.com and WFLA, the NBC affiliate, all owned by the same company. (Here’s the Coats memo describing it.)
Coats had said a few things you don’t normally hear. For example, the newspaper should be seen as an adjunct of the web site, not the other way around. Jessica DaSilva cheered those things in her post, and her new media self called Coats “my hero.” But Coats had just laid people off. The grim reaper had come, and DaSilva wasn’t being grim. Coates also said things you always hear, like local, local, local. Toward these DaSilva did not perform the necessary eye rolls. “People might be angry or frightened by what Janet is saying, but she’s right, and they need to start recognizing that,” she wrote. She also made a few spelling mistakes that copy editors would easily catch.
I thought it was an interesting piece of writing because she was rooting for her editor to figure it out without expecting her editor to know.
But the tonal miscues seem to some set off something in the tribes people and they began unloading on her in the comment thread. One of these—anonymous, of course—even said he or she was an editor at a midsized newspaper and would call friends to make sure DaSilva never gets a job. They told her she would make enemies in the newsroom. They told her (repeatedly) that she was young and naive and should learn to spell. Others came to her defense and sent some of the ridicule back over the fence.
Jeff Jarvis wrote about her post at Buzzmachine. Romenesko put her on the left rail for July 3rd. I Twittered about it. The argument soon spread to other sites. See Ryan Sholin’s blog and John Zhu’s. Then go to John McQuaid (ex-Times-Picayune, Pulitzer winner) remarking on the futility of the exchanges, and Web thinker Stowe Boyd taking that theme even further.
Former Tampa Tribune staff—as if alerted by a grapevine—dropped in to express animus, extend sympathy. Current Tribune staffer Elaine Silvestrini gave Jessica some advice: “If you do celebrate the person swinging the ax, those who are cut and those who are ducking won’t like it. We are already in pain and looking for a place to direct our anger. You really shouldn’t volunteer to be a target.” Reporter Daniel Victor, closer to Jessica’s generation, said that everyone should be ashamed of how vitriolic the thread became.
We’re in pain and looking for a place to direct our anger. Silvestrini’s words are accurate. Some chose to beam that rage at the young woman who identifies with the female boss. She’s not one of us, not really “of” the newsroom. She’s cheering one of them: the executives who screwed up our thing. Them: the know-nothing, misspelling bloggers. Them: our unpaid or lowly paid replacements. Them: generaton whoop-dee-Net. She’s one of them. Her post proves it!
This is boundary policing, in which deviant behavior is denounced and community bonds are renewed in a casting out motion. Which is why it was appropriate for people like Howard Owens and Erik Wemple—also part of the news tribe—to appear in support of DaSilva’s post: “No, she’s one of us.” And here I direct you to Chris Nolan, writing about the same incident: Thugs in the Newsroom. (“…how the mostly male news establishment goes about silencing enthusiasm and optimism.”)
You can hear worse than casting out in comments like this. It’s almost newspaper revanchism, an irrational demand to restore the Kingdom of Print, and the suggestion of a monstrous, industry-wide lie preventing that restoration. (See Mindy McAdams, The survival of journalism: 10 simple facts.) By an exploding newsroom id I mean stuff like this…
What’s occurring now is that newspaper managers and media company chiefs are being sold a bill of goods about how the Internet is the only way to survive, and so they’re all jumping on the cyber bandwagon, throwing aside talented, dedicated people in favor of techno geeks and cheap labor who can sustain a Web page but who can’t write a compelling article or edit a story with care and sound news judgment.
Post it now, fix it later.
Get it out on the Web site now. Who cares if it’s well crafted or well edited.
The prevailing mindset – always spoken as a fact and foregone conclusion — that nearly everybody in America is constantly on the Internet and gets his or her news from that source is an outright lie.
Plus: “TBO is an adequate Web site, but it doesn’t replace what a real, quality print edition can offer.” Notice the charming phrase, “Techno geeks.” I wrote about this trope in Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class from ‘06. It reveals an uncomprehending bitterness about news aggregation. Robots are stealing our news stories and branding our work as Google News and Yahoo News. “Techno geeks” are the people who program the robots. Fear and loathing are properly directed there. And at bloggers! And at youth! The last stand is indiscriminate. All targets deserve it.
In my previous post, Migration Point for the Press Tribe, I said that pros in the mainstream press “have come to a reluctant point of realization.” To continue on, “to keep the professional press going, the news tribe will have to migrate across the digital divide and re-settle itself on terra nova.” A new platform means, as Stowe Boyd put it, “the end of mass.”
People simply do not hold with mass identity now that they are free to find human-scale identity, and once they find it, they will not go back. Newspapers and other mass media is falling first and fastest because we are rejecting the erstatz, mass belonging that they offered.
Or as the sociologist of media forms, Raymond Williams, put it before Stowe: “There are no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” But we should understand two things. 1.) Those ways of seeing sunk deeply into some people, the media pros of the one-to-many era. No platform shift will pull them out. 2.) The decision to migrate—which has been made, more or less—can still be contested (“doesn’t replace what a real, quality print edition can offer…”) By screaming at Jessica DaSilva, some of the participants were protesting the tribe’s decision to give up on the land, known by its mythological name: Print.
“People need to stop looking at TBO.com as an add on to The Tampa Tribune,” Janet Coats said through Jessica DaSilva’s blog post. “The truth is that The Tampa Tribune is an add on to TBO.” It’s that moment right there the curmudgeons were contesting. Both women they wanted to shout down.
Bob Sipchen, who worked in the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, once gave a striking image of the metropolitan newspaper as it appeared to those who ran it when it was good. He said he “always thought of the Times as a heavy battleship under steam, regarding its critics as no more important than swimmers in the water throwing dead fish at it.”
It’s a hard come down from a commanding feeling like that; and the curmudgeon class is angry about it. But there is progress through the generations. Inspiration runs two ways. Journalists Jessica’s age probably find the battleship image grotesque. And journalists Rich Heridon’s age (armed with MBA, start-up experience, and geek son) are offering open-your-own-shop guidance, re-directing newsroom smarts to the artisanal level for news. (See this post on the curmudegeon v. new media divide.)
Meanwhile, newspaper editor Steve Smith in Spokane was showing us there are alternatives to curmudegeons screaming at interns: Let born-on-the-web people try to figure out better work flows. This is from Colin Mulvanys, the multimedia editor, writing about Smith’s plan:
A few days before the newsroom meeting, editor Smith quietly invited eight of our newest, young journalists into his office. He asked each of them, who basically have no stake in the processes of the past, to suggest ways to streamline the newsroom operation. He wants them to find a way to make it more efficient, thus letting people spend more time on developing quality journalism instead of just shoveling content.
The “Great Eight” as I call them, are meeting daily to share ideas and work up a plan. What they come up with is anybody’s guess. They have been given boundaries with which to operate. No suggestions to stop publishing the print newspaper, no downsizing or upsizing the present newsroom staff. Whatever they come up with, the challenge is for management and older co-workers to really listen to what they have to say. They are the future of our business. If we don’t change fast, they won’t stick around for the sinking of the ship.
There is nobody I respect more in the news tribe than Steve Smith; this project shows why. (UPDATE: the report from the eight young journalists was completed.)
When I flashed word of Tree House Media over my Twitter feed, it was Jessica DaSilva—we follow each other—who picked up on it. And she replied. “I am LOVING this guy. thanks for the link!”
My pleasure, Jessica. Thanks for the lesson.
Posted by Jay Rosen at July 8, 2008 1:24 PM
Jay, thank you for the link and for offering your analysis of this. A couple thoughts on your piece:
-- "This is boundary policing, in which deviant behavior is denounced and community bonds are renewed in a casting out motion."
I would point out that many of the comments from the other camp would qualify as "boundary policing" as well, as in "how dare someone attack one of our own". Not that two wrongs make a right, but I felt it's necessary to point this out to illustrate that such problems afflict all camps in journalism, not only the "curmudgeons".
-- "Notice the charming phrase, “Techno geeks.”"
The term "Techno geeks" strikes me as no more or less uncomprehending as the term "curmudgeon". In any case, the use of either of those labels doesn't contribute anything to productive discussions or help bring the two camps closer together in the newsroom. Frankly, I'm a bit disappointed to detect such a tone from someone who is considered a thought leader in this field and whose writings obviously have a big impact on many of the next generation of journalists. Just from visiting various blogs discussing Jessica's post in the past few days, I have witnessed the proliferation of the term "curmudgeon" and some of the intransigence that accompanies the use of that term.
-- Regarding the comment you held up as example of exploding newsroom id: As much rage and bitterness as there seems to be in that remark, there is also some truth in the litany of complaints it raises, as there have been real experiences where newspapers' rush to get stories online trumped concerns about accuracy and editing. Since I think we can all agree that accuracy and good editing should still be legitimate concerns for journalism, regardless of the medium, then in order for the migration to online to turn out well for journalism, it IS important to note that some of those values have indeed been compromised in some places due to poor policy/practices and address them rather than dismissing them as just bitter rants from curmudgeons. It's all part of working out the kinks.
-- It's interesting how different parties have seized upon different parts of Jessica's original entry. Some commenters decided to pick on her spelling to call her an idiot, some on her hero worship, some on the timing of the entry, some on the hyperlocal aspect of Coats' plan, etc. You looked at the post and the comments and saw Coats' remark about TBO.com taking precedence over the paper and framed the complaints as more evidence of curmudgeons fighting the move to online, whereas to me, that was a minor part of the story as I saw mostly veterans being angered because of the seeming insensitivity of the post toward colleagues who lost their jobs. I guess in a way we each take the part of the story that suits our needs and focuses on it, and one has to piece together all those different focuses to get a semblance of a true picture.
Jessica, I'm certainly not going to jump on you for your optimism about the business or try to talk someone passionate about journalism out of giving it a whirl. My only advice would be to remember that journalism is a craft as well as a business. You can separate the two in philosophical discussions, but you live and work in both.
As for veterans telling young journalists to stay away, I just think of it kind of as an old lab mouse telling a young lab mouse not to touch that piece of cheese or you'll get an electric shock. Often times it's just done half-jokingly, since they know full well they aren't going to talk you out of your career aspirations. When you encounter that, gleam whatever real-life wisdom you can from their experiences, leave the rest, and go into journalism with eyes wide open.
Jay, great post.
Another thought I had reading this -- you know what is really galling to the curmudgeon crowd, though they can't even admit it to themselves -- they know less about the modern news business than an INTERN.
Here is an intern at a newspaper who is more savvy about modern journalism than many people 20,30 and 40 years her senior.
And they soiled all over themselves seeing who could be most creatively mean in exposing their own ignorance.
But let's also point out -- this isn't an age thing. Not everybody Jessica's age gets it as well as she does, and I can name several gray-haired (white hair, really) editors who are pretty much digital natives at this point, or at least have sufficient enthusiasm and willingness to learn so that the differences are mere nuance.
This isn't an age thing. And the fact that so many veteran journalists can get it -- not everybody defending Jessica is a newbie -- then it pretty much boolsters the idea that these curmudgeons are in fact curmudgeons. Yes, to a point by John, labels and name calling can be counter productive to reaching consensus, but this isn't a point where consensus will help the industry. Either you get on board or you're dead weight.
Experience means nothing if it isn't correctly channeled.
However, so ... just how much misogyny do you think is going on here? I've been pretty viciously attacked in the past (of course, I'm pretty hard-headed in my own writing) by the curmudgeon crowd, but the misogyny suggestion has come up a few times in regard to the attacks on Janet and Jessica.
One caveat I should ad: While Jessica was right on point within the context of the post, I would caution all about blogging about work; but, that brings up another interesting point: To all of the reporters who were appalled that Jessica revealed the substance of an internal meeting -- how many times have you sought out sources in other businesses to get exactly that level of source cooperation? Would you report with glee to your editor, "Hey, I found a source who will talk on the record about the layoffs and what was said at that meeting?" And now you want to complain because the information got out. Isn't that being hypocritical? I can't remember journalists ever being particularly sympathetic to workers who have lost their jobs in other industries. I've in fact heard CEOs complain about how the elimination of jobs in their companies have been sensationalized and the nuances of the actual restructuring taking place be ignored. Yet, we think that honestly talking about a layoff situation and a newspaper is somehow disrespectful. I don't get that.
Thanks, Gary. That was something I should have checked; I relied on memory and memory was faulty.
I'm sorry, John, but I'm not a buying what you are selling: The attempt to step between quarreling camps and play the cool minded adult, the breezy "he said, she said" tone you're taking, the "can't we all get along" whine, the unexamined and puffed-up priority you place on consensus, the tsk tsk-ing you are giving to just about everyone, the Rashamon thing at the end. None of it do I buy.
Instead of playing ref or trying to be some school yard monitor, make an argument yourself, John. Mix it up. This attempt to separate the parties and get them to shake hands reveals nothing, solves nothing and advances nothing.
Please try to understand: in my view, the curmudgeons are not a camp with beliefs and interests that must be respected, or a union that you either join or remain outside of. The curmudgeon is a personality type, which people may or may not inhabit, and to a greater or lesser degree. And it is a common type or tendency in newsroom people, as anyone who's familiar with the environment can tell you.
In my view, this type ought to be seen less and less in newspapers, which cannot afford its excesses any longer. In my view, journalism would be better off if this tendency could be identified, named and discredited, just as the conservative movement would be better off if its tendency toward natavism got discredited.
The romance the newsroom has had with the curmudgeon type had been a disaster for journalism, and the sooner it's over, the better for everyone.
"Instead of playing ref or trying to be some school yard monitor, make an argument yourself, John. Mix it up. This attempt to separate the parties and get them to shake hands reveals nothing, solves nothing and advances nothing."
Right, and fiery rhetorics are so much more effective. If I'm "playing the cool-minded adult", as you said, then what are you playing? An immature, name-calling child trying to instigate a playground brawl?
Did that just make some people's blood simmer? See what fiery rhetorics are good for?
Sorry Jay, we'll just have to disagree here. My calling for an attempt at cordiality and understanding between the two camps has nothing to do with playing school-yard monitor and everything to do with helping save journalism. It's not about separating the parties and shaking hands, it's reaching out to the other party and pulling the two closer together.
My biggest problem with the whole "curmudgeon" idea is that it oversimplifies the situation and ignores the human element.
-- The oversimplification: The label tries to reduce people who protest against certain changes to a faceless mob, possessing only one attribute -- the aversion to change. It defines them only by the fact that they oppose the set of changes you're pushing and ignores all other aspects, all other things they might have to contribute, thus painting them as useless and not worthy of respect, time or effort. In that light, it makes it so easy to vilify them and say there is no point in trying to work with them or understand them, that they are irredeemable. It says they don't want to be engaged, yet never makes the attempt to engage them.
-- Ignoring the human component: This "curmudgeon" idea also ignores these people's humanity: their pride about their work, their passion for journalism (no less than your own or that of anybody championing changes), their fear about losing their livelihood, their hurt over losing colleagues, etc. These are the things that influence the way they think and act. You can strain out and deny that humanity in a philosophical discussion, and you can dismiss it all here simply with "tough sh*t", but not in a real-life situation where you have to work with that humanity. These are people in the newsroom that you're working with, and rather than trying to understand and identify the things that have made them averse to changes and trying to overcome those barriers, the curmudgeons idea seems content to call them names and leave it at that.
In reading one of your posts about curmudgeons, I noticed that you linked to a discussion on visualeditors.com to illustrate your point about how curmudgeons can still do a lot of damage in a newsroom. Unfortunately, you didn't see/neglected/overlooked/ignored a reply on that thread in which Charles Apple shared a personal experience about how he won over one such change-averse individual and the benefits that brought, and I've had similar experiences of my own. Yes, it takes effort and time, and no, not everyone will be receptive, but considering the following two points, I think it's worth at least making the effort:
1). One doesn't have to be an old geezer to be averse to changing. There are journalists in their 30s or 40s who are skeptical about some of the changes that they see being put forth or ignorant about technology. They have enough time left in their careers that you can't simply wait for them to retire. So you can either vilify and alienate them for the next 20-30 years, or you can try to engage them and gain their cooperation on at least part of, if not all of, what you're doing. To me, partial cooperation is better than zero cooperation, especially since it opens the door to more cooperation in the future.
2). You said in your reply above that you believe curmudgeons to be a personality type or a tendency (though in reading some of the things you've written I got the impression you were talking about them as people, not tendency), and that the less of it one sees in a newsroom, the better. I completely agree, but do you really think that vilification and alienation are the best route to go about reducing that tendency? Are people really more open to changing their ways when they are thrown on the defensive? Do you want to metaphorically march them through the streets and have people hurl rotten fruits and produce at them? In fact, given the camaraderie that exists among people in the newsroom, such dismissive treatment of a few of their colleagues, especially if they are respected veterans, could even rally more people to their support, hurting your cause. You can call that journalists' romantic delusions about the newsroom if you want, but it is human, and it is there in the newsroom you're trying to change, and you have to anticipate and deal with it if you want your plan for change to be successful. Saying we should get rid of curmudgeonly tendencies is fine, having a realistic plan for doing so that might actually be effective is better.
Whether it was your original intent or not, from what I've seen, this "curmudgeons" idea has taken on a militant persona, and that's what I am protesting against because while I believe its aim is good, I don't believe the way it goes about trying to achieve that end benefits journalism or journalists young and old. Strong statements are fine until the rhetoric makes it impossible for the two sides to work with each other even though they share the same ultimate goal. You can claim "they have nothing to offer" or "we don't need them", but the truth of the matter is that they DO have something to offer, and you DO need them. You asked me to make my own argument? THAT is my argument.
Saw your question on Twitter re whether to be a "uniter rather than a divider" on the curmudgeon issue. My take: fer crissake, don't stop now. You're just getting started.
The contempt & hatred that boiled out of the comments to DaSilva is, unfortunately, way too prevalent in the industry right now. It's that same ethos that comes across in papers as contempt for the audience, and contempt & hatred for the owners of newspapers.
The unspoken message in many of the posts by the curmudgeons is that the public are a bunch of morons who need the more intelligent, well-read, professional journalists to protect them. The professional journalist has magic knowledge of First Amendment law and the Brown Act, and stands on the ramparts, tirelessly defending the helpless sheeple against the Big Bad Guys.
What a crock. News flash: the sheeple aren't too fond of being treated like dimwit children, only interested in "LiLo dancing on a table." Journalists who assume this about their audience reveal much of what's wrong with the profession, and why polls reveal that the public feels, in their contacts with the press, that they're being treated with condescension and contempt. Thus their disinterest in continuing to plunk down hard-earned cash to be insulted. Instead, they're banding together to do it for themselves - viz Firedoglake, Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post.
The curmudgeons rightly view this as a threat, and attempt at all turns to minimize, marginalize and piss all over the New Media upstarts.
Somewhere along the line, it became the norm for journalists to pass beyond cynicism and on into nihilism. I think that one of the big problems holding newsrooms back is that they are infested with people who cling to that "too cool for school" pose" out of fear, anger or whatever other misplaced mental/emotional dysfunction. These people have a vested interest in the failure of anything new. If something were to actually work out, that would mean that life was not futile, and they'd actually have to get off their asses and, you know, engage with the real world in a constructive manner.
They will not be missed.
You asked me to make my own argument? THAT is my argument. -- John Zhu.
Excellent. Much better than "You're all to blame for the quarreling and, no, I don't care who started it. I just want it to stop..." I don't learn much from that attitude, so if any of it did creep into what you were saying, please edit it out.
I don't think you're understanding me yet, but that's not a big deal. Normal blogging conditions for me. Some scattered replies:
* I intend to keep writing about curmudgeons as a newsroom type and perhaps other incidents where this type is in evidence. It is part of my job as a critic (with a blog in the category, "press criticism") to do exactly that.
* I do of course refine what I am saying--figure out what I mean, how I want to use a term like curmudgeons--as I continue to write with it. This is normal too.
* I have faith that my readers understand me over time, not necessarily immediately.
* As I have said, the curmudgeon is a newsroom type or tendency that newsroom people show. Some show it more than others, of course.
* It is a human tendency. To talk about it is to talk about human beings. But when we try to understand a social type or workplace character trait, we are also aware that it stands slightly to the side of real people.
* In talking about the curmudgeons I am describing what people do when they breathe to life (in a comment thread, for example) the curmudgeon type. When they perform it. I think we are entitled to judge these performances.
* People choose to do the curmudgeon thing or not to; they go with the flow of it, or they don't. Any young person reading PresThink can talk about picking up on curmudgeonly cues and trying it out. This is critical to understanding what a curmudgeon "is." I said it's a tendency, but this means a tendency in people. It is also "in" the culture that teaches them to be newsroom people, and go with the flow.
* Judging the situation as a critic--a writer making sense of things I see happening--I've said the American newsroom had a romance with this type. It went badly. The quicker the news tribe can recover from this failed experience, the better.
* One of your questions, if I understand correctly, is what were the events that caused or sustained this tendency in so many newsrooms? And isn't some sympathy required, once you realize what a long record of screw ups there is to make people cynical?
* Yes. And I agree these are excellent questions. They involve the entire panorama in Migration Point for the Press Tribe ("Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them.")
* I once had some sympathy for the people who were, let's say, "playing to curmudgeon type." No more. I think the influence has become destructive.
* I have experience with this puzzle going back to the mid-1990s and the 40 to 50 newsrooms I visited as part of the narrative in my book, What Are Journalists For? My observations are informed by seeing the curmudgeonly impulse first hand, and also talking about it with many working journalists and news execs I knew. (Lou Heldman is one.) In fact I have been studying newspaper curmudgeons for a long time, since before the Web. I may be wrong but it's not because I am new to the debates.
* Because I am trying to treat "the curmudgeons" as a character type I believe I do not actually call anyone a curmudgeon in this post. I talk about what participants said, and what "the curmudgeons" do, but I do not say, "Willard Norton, who is one of the curmudgeons, said..."
* I am not making blanket statements about an identifiable group of people. I am trying to create critical distance between inhabitants of the newsroom and this wrong turn social type, the curmudgeon.
* But let's be clear: I want to end their romance with it. I am trying to downgrade the prestige of the curmudgeon character. So that veterans of the newsroom will perform it less, while newcomers see less in it.
* If you are opposed to my agenda or think it misguided, that's fine. Normal blogging conditions apply.
Jay. I think it's great that you write about curmudgeonly tendencies, and no, don't stop. The industry needs some constant prodding to keep re-examining itself and its actions.
And thank you for the follow-up post. Your stance on what meanings you attach to the term "curmudgeon" is much clearer in that post than in other curmudgeon-related posts I had read. Thank you for the clarification.
That said, however, it doesn't change my feeling that whatever your original intent and meaning for the term may be, "curmudgeon", as I've seen it used in discussions that have stemmed from Jessica's post, has been used mostly to refer to groups of people rather than a human tendency. A human tendency is something that can afflict anyone in the newsroom at any given time on any given issue, whereas the application of the label to certain groups of people clearly draws a delineation between "them" and "us", creating a division that I find disconcerting. You don't even have to name names to do this; you just have to say "if you don't subscribe to X, then you're a curmudgeon, one of 'them'." It's hard to point a finger at someone and say "You're a tendency", but it is so easy to point and say "You're one of them." That may not be your original intent, but that seems to be how many have interpreted it. You talk of discarding a tendency, but others talk more in terms of discarding people. That's a big difference in meaning and likely produces a big difference in the way it's received. It's the difference between killing the disease and killing the diseased. You can't control how others interpret your words, but as you say, normal blogging conditions.
To clarify one of my other points: I push for understanding the causes of curmudgeonly tendencies in individuals not for the goal of eliciting sympathy for them, but so that you can understand the root cause of the intransigence so that it can be effectively dealt with.
Quick example off the top of my head: A sports writer might be averse to upper management handing down changes to the way he covers his particular beat, but why? Is he just fundamentally opposed to changing, or is he skeptical mainly because he doesn't think much of the head honcho? If it's the latter, and you had identified that reason, then you can anticipate it and have someone else, someone the writer holds in higher regard (say, the sports editor), first present that change to him, removing the appearance that this is something that originated from a top exec whom the writer regards as an idiot. Or it could be something as simple as the tone in which the changes are presented. The point is, understanding the root cause of the intransigence can help you defeat that intransigence and reduce the curmudgeonly tendency.
Thank you for the discussion.
That's the elephant in the room.
Much, though not all, of the invective and anger thrown at Jessica, and at the deluge of changes being forced on the business, stems from fear.
But it's not fear of change so much as fear for oneself. What am I going to do? What will happen to my life? If I am in mid or late career, what about my family, my children, etc.
It's the terror behind the smile of the laid-off autoworker, or the sweat in the hand of the salesman. But it's new to our business.
Then there's the suggested solution: the journalist-entrepreneur. If there is such a thing as a curmudgeon, there are also such things as "entrepreneurs" and "employees."
20th Century journalism, especially after World War II, was employee journalism. We'll go out and get the story, fearlessly, as straight as we can get it. Just give us a paycheck, and (until recently) benefits and a pension.
Entrepreneurial journalism is a much older form. Ben Franklin was the epitome. I.F Stone was another. Freelance writers are entrepreneurs. But most 18th and 19th century journalists had other gigs to pay the bills. I submit that most journalists until recently were employees.
I certainly am, and after 32 years at Newsday and more at papers in New England, I am very glad to be out of that part of the business. But it did not make me a lesser journalist.
Today, veteran, superb, established writers---theater critics, war correspondents---are writing 300-word advances on parks concerts, or covering small-time court verdicts. It is not "curmudgeonly" to be both furious and afraid.
Jay, you may be supremely entrepreneurial and thriving in this new world. But you are also a full-time, tenured professor. You benefit from the professionalization Joseph Pulitzer began when he founded his journalism school. You are observing this from a safe place. How do you think you would respond if, while you were a reporter or editor there, the No. 3 guy in your company reported enthusiastically his discovery that his newspapers actually had REPORTERS IN IRAQ! That his newspapers had BUREAUS AROUND THE COUNTRY! Doesn't take a curmudgeon to be appalled and scared s----.
(Disclosure: I'm also now officially a prof, if not yet tenured. My blood pressure is therefore somewhat under control.)
Reading Jay's comments above made me recall a conversation I had 17 years ago with David Laventhol, who was then publisher of the Times and President of Times Mirror. At the time, I was the manager of training and organizational development for the newspaper. He and I were talking over lunch about the culture of the paper, and I used the biblical story of Exodus to illustrate my point about how organizations change.
Moses had an important job to do – liberating his people from Egypt and leading them to the Promised Land. It sounds simple but it wasn’t easy. For, as you’ll recall, the Isrealites didn’t go straight from Egypt to the Promised Land – they wandered in the desert for 40 years before arriving at their destination. And what Moses didn’t discover until well into his journey was that he actually had TWO jobs: to get the people out of Egypt, and to get Egypt out of the people – which was actually the harder of the two jobs. His people’s traditional habits, old ways of thinking, assumptions, values, and culture all had to be transformed before they could establish a new culture in The Promised Land. An old generation literally had to die off in the desert while a new generation was born.
The newspaper business is wandering in the wilderness. Newspaper people are going through the predictable stages of organizational change while experiencing the normal feelings that accompany such change. There are five stages to the process: (1) denial, (2) upset, anger, betrayal, frustration, attempts to hold onto old, familiar ways, (3) acceptance, hitting bottom, giving up the old, (4) exploration and experimentation, tentatively moving forward into the unknown, and finally, (5) new commitment, fully embracing a new reality, participating with creativity, vigor, and enthusiasm.
The newspaper business is going through the predictable stages of organizational change.
Those in the newspaper tribe are behaving much like the Israelites in the desert – complaining, criticizing their leaders, taking potshots at technology because it’s a convenient target, creating false idols, and floundering around in confusion, anger, and resentment at the predicament in which they find themselves, while wishing they could go back to good ole days in Egypt because at least it was predictable, safe, and familiar (even if you did have to worship Pharaoh).
Pundits who scold newspaper people, urging them to “snap out of it,” don’t understand human nature and the process of grieving. People who are living through the changes their paper -- their entire industry -- are undergoing can’t anymore “snap out of it” than can someone who is watching his home being destroyed by fire, his city being decimated by rioting, or his neighborhood leveled by an earthquake. Individuals don’t just “get over” a cataclysmic change and neither do businesses, or entire industries.
My first suggestion for dealing with such enormous changes is to understand the process – once you know the stages, it’s at least a little bit reassuring to know that there is a beginning, middle, and an end to the process. My second suggestion is to understand that your emotional reactions, and those of your colleagues, are normal. You would be weird if you didn’t feel sadness, loss, grief, anger, confusion, and betrayal. The third suggestion is to extend compassion, patience, and understanding to those who are handling the change badly. Different people have varying capacities for going through the stages of change – some move through the stages quickly with minimal pain, but many more suffer enormously. Some people get stuck at one stage or another and never make it to the fourth and fifth stages of change.
Newspaper leaders – Sam Zell, Rupert Murdoch, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and others -- you bear a special responsibility to shepherd your people through the wilderness with skill, courage, vision, and all the leadership energy you can muster. Each of you is the Moses of your company – your job is to free your people from the old newspaper paradigm and lead them to a Promised Land that no one can yet describe, much less point out on a map. Gird your loins, for your journey in the wilderness (which began probably 20 years ago) may very well last 40 years. And above all, be compassionate. Your people are in pain and they will criticize you, question you, berate you, and perhaps even revile you. Forgive them. Love them and care for them – they need good care and feeding on the journey. And remember, Moses was the change leader – he didn’t make it to the Promised Land himself. His job was just to get them there. So is yours.
It can be played up or played out.
From my micro-blogging (that's one term in use) at Twitter.com come these additional bullet points:
* John Zhu scolds me for use of "curmudgeon." He thinks it divisive. Precisely so. It's meant to divide people from a type or tendency they have.
* Quicky Q & A with John Geraci, who asked me: "What social role does the curmudgeon play within the tribe? ... Braking mechanism?" A: Crap detection, irony police, tribal memory, humor to fend off hype, boss doubt.
* I agree with all the people who keep reminding me that curmudgeons are not an age group. I said a type. It can be played up or played out.
* One reason I write about curmudgeons is simply that everyone who knows newsrooms knows this type, or tendency. They can verify as they read.
* Well, not everyone. John McQuaid, formerly on the Times-Picayune, said the term seems overly broad. "Are curmudgeons anti-blog editors, reporters lamenting layoffs, David Broder?"
* Amy Gahran (of Poynter's E-media blog) asked if the curmudgeon is a personality type, or a personality disorder? "I mean that seriously," she said. "I'm appalled at how many suffer from depression, addiction. I've even known some suicides."
* The curmudgeon as a personality disorder in newsroom culture: "I am crap detection, perfected."
* And for summing up purposes, to vivify the curmudgeon type, try: "I remember the paperless office. That didn't happen either."
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...