Reporters Are Not Doomed, But Their Habits Must Die

Back when John Kelly and I were friends. . .

No, just joking, of course! John and I have the sort of friendship that can easily withstand a strong professional disagreement, especially one in which he is so tragically wrong. [See this entry of mine in response to John’s entry on the whole are-reporters-doomed controvery.  John responds to my entry too. Clearly neither one of us gets out much.]

Here is why journalism must change far more than the conservative wing understands, and why the sentimentalists who protect the status quo actually do the future of journalism harm.

Today there was a major earthquake in Chile. The New York Times (just to pick on the big dumb kid at the back of the class) has a 16-graf news story on its Web site. It has a map, a photo and two hyperlinks, one to a Chile Travel Guide entry, one to a link explaining the U.S. Geological Survey. (There are utterly unwholesome motivations for providing these inline links, but I won’t get into that here.)

A skilled multimedia news editor would have quickly fired up the ol’ browser the moment the news crawled across the wire and tracked down some shaky-cell-phone video. She’d have posted a Google map of the affected area and put a fast-typing staffer on the task of harvesting the best UGC and geotagging it to the map. She’d have her most ferociously focussed, grizzled newshand craft 300 highly compressed and brilliant words, culled from news service reports and UGC, like those newsmagazine write-throughs but done in real time. She’d link to a flickr photo gallery that aggregates images in real time. She’d create a newsbox that updated all day with the latest facts, and have an editor from the South American desk scour for blog entries of the moment.

This is not radical: CNN, whose multimedia production work I’ve admired before, produced a solid multimedia package on the earthquake of the sort I describe.

But at the New York Times, some poor, habituated, hidebound, put-upon schweck in the  newsroom did what she and legions before her have done for decades: Order up a 15-graf ho-hum, put a postage stamp photo on the page and a dead .gif map, and be done with it.

If this is the baby, then I say pitch it out with the bathwater–and smack its shabby butt on the way down.

Editors and writers will continue to create these legacy news reports for as long as they can get away with it. Not because they are better, not because they’ve thought it through, but because. . .well, nobody’s told them they have to do it a new way. Or they don’t know how. Or they are tragically sentimental. Or they are suspicious of the frisky young-uns with the stylish eyewear who know how to do this stuff.  Nobody–nobody–would say that 16-graf wordstring is better journalism than the multimedia package our talented producer cited above would create. And the good one is probably cheaper to produce.

The multimedia production simply requires a different skill set than the one you find widely distributed in the Times’ and other conservative newsrooms. It also requires alert and flexible management by the folks in the big offices.

We can discuss the role of investigative journalism–how the essential reporting of public affairs and the vital task of holding power accountable can be funded and carried out in the digital age.

But I don’t think there is any justification to continue to produce single-color, one-dimensional news reports on a daily basis. No, not every story is worth the scramble-the-jets multimedia treatment. But those that are should get it. Every day. Not on special occasions. That’s how you’ll build the loyalty of intelligent and discriminating readers on the web.

Failing to embrace the new media tools as a matter of course, as a method of daily business, only continues to marginalize the very media institutions that need to survive if there is to be thoughtful, principled journalism in the digital age. Too many of these outfits seem to be riding their revenue curves to the bottom of the chart and complaining about how kids today don’t read newspapers.

To cite a famous quotation from, god help me, Lee Iococca: It’s time for top newsroom managers to lead, follow or get out of the way.

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2 Comments on “Reporters Are Not Doomed, But Their Habits Must Die”

  1. Ben Harder Says:

    Amen! But how to shift the inertia? Sure, it can come from the top of the masthead at MSM outlets. But I have to believe it can be a grassroots effort too, as long as top editors are open to embracing (and disseminating) a good idea when some 23-year-old recruit hits upon it.

  2. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Ben.

    I propose this test for those on the front lines: If you don’t propose at least one new multimedia idea per week that a middle manager nixes, you’re not pushing hard enough to save the profession.

    Boy, is this easy for me to say, not having to work in a newsroom at all. I just get to roll stink grenades across the floor and watch other people scramble.


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