Pondering my future, I’m re-reading month-old posts like this one on why business magazines are dying. And this one on the problems of the media in the Twitter era. and this one on the future of journalism as informatics.
I blogged a while back on the journalism critic Robert Picard’s assault on the profession. Picard claims journalists aren’t worth paying much because we add no value to the information we gather. Journalists don’t know anything; we simply provide conduits for those who do. We add some value, but not that much more value.
At the time I said he was wrong because of what was implicit in his argument: people will pay for content of special quality. Obviously wrong - look at Foreign Affairs, The Wilson Quarterly or the American Scholar, which offer exceptional content on important topics but must be subsidized.
But I think Picard also misrepresents how difficult journalism is. Perhaps many people can spew out a newswire-style headline. Perhaps many stories in a typical broadcast or paper don’t go much beyond the classic five Ws. Perhaps most ’stories’ simply don’t need much more than what anyone can pick up from the press conference on YouTube. [part of Picard’s argument, in full, as linked to from this post on his blog]. But good journalists go well beyond that, and all journalists aspire to. We train from the start to become something rare — analytical engines for qualitative content. We crunch numbers as we must, but any one with a computer and a will can do that. We crunch experience and events.
One of my reads of late is “Telling True Stories,” the excellent writers’ guide by Mark Kramer and Wendy McCall. On nearly every page there is a headsnapping example of the difficulty of practicing good journalism. Here’s Louise Kiernan on just one aspect of her reporting a story on how a window from a glass-and-steel tower in Chicago fell off and killed a woman walking by:
“I wrote: ‘no one knows exactly how much time the glass took to fall - twenty-five seconds at most, perhaps as few as five. It may have floated flat as a table for a time or tumbled like a leaf, but gravity eventually pulled it into an angled or vertical position so it cut down like a knife.’”
She says writing that paragraph alone meant talking with two physics professors and two glass experts, and engaging in calculations about the effect of gravity. She needed multiple experts because no one of them knew what she needed to know. Certainly none of them would have applied it to the context she did, let alone go through the police reports she went through, or any of the other interviews. That’s what good reporting does — it adds knowledge.
You can argue that Kiernan does not practice normal, everyday journalism. She practices features writing, with less pressure to respond to the news of day, headline after headline. And she almost won a Pulitzer Prize for her story. It is not a common occurrence. But she provides far more than a vessel for what other people know. None of the people she interviewed knew enough to report the story she did. She is an qualitative analytics engine.
Woodward and Bernstein were also qualitative analytics engines, within a daily news cycle. Aside: Can you imagine Woodward tweeting “source said, “follow the money.” Why am I in a parking garage at midnight again?” Or Bernstein: “snuck another unlisted number from my old contacts at the phone co.”
Picard argues most reporters cannot do these kinds of stories. I think he’s wrong (to be fair, he does blame editors and publishers for constraining reporters, so perhaps he and I agree).
People make plenty of arguments about the problems of journalism.
I’m not worried that Picard is right about us not earning our pay. I’m worried that something else is happening that makes quantitative analytics engines less valuable.