Thursday, July 31, 2008

Janus and Julian

My former colleague Mark Bowden is one of the notable journalists of our time. His "Black Hawk Down" was arguably the first major newspaper project to make full use of the Internet. He writes and reports with great facility. He tells interesting tales. And he understands what copy desks do. In his Atlantic piece on Rupert Murdoch's takeover of The Wall Street Journal, written weeks before they announced the end of the Global Copy Desk, he wrote:

"Thomson has made clear that he intends to 'clarify reporting lines,' which is taken to mean that he plans to thin the ranks of the mid-level editors who were the newspaper's line of defense against sloppiness and error. It is worth noting that the number of corrections in the first quarter of this year, under Murdoch's reign, has risen by more than 25 percent compared with the first quarter of 2007, an increase that the company says reflects an increase in the number of stories the new Journal is running." (They have 25 percent more stories? I doubt it, and clearly Bowden clearly does too.)

So who am I to criticize Mark Bowden? Well, I'm a guy with a blog, and this is the 21st century. But the problem is not Mark Bowden, it's an idea that ran wild, an ideal with two faces.

Bowden's article is an incredibly good read and I am only going to be pulling excerpts from it. in his review of the changes that came upon newspapers after TV and radio had rendered them virtual print monopolies:

"The concepts of objectivity and editorial independence grew into a kind of public religion. ... Newsrooms were increasingly peopled by a new generation of white-collar journalists, gentlemen (and ladies) of the Fourth Estate, arbiters of style, taste and decency, who took upon themselves the tasks of keeping government honest and educating the public. ... If only [skeptics] knew how mightily the newsroom looked down its nose at the business side of the operation...

"This vision of a newspaper ... ensured that the paper was not just a propaganda mill, the house organ of some rich man or political party, but a community of street-smart shoe-leather scholars who worked as the eyes, ears, and conscience of their city. This was the world of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, of David Halberstam's and Neil Sheehan's courageous reporting from Vietnam, and of countless other examples...

"Even literary ambition began to creep into the pages of the great newspapers. At the best ones, when the material justified it, reporters were encouraged to write creatively and at length. A certain kind of reporter -- and I was one -- competed against each other not so much for scoops, but for recognition, prizes, and tenured positions at papers where the rarefied work of 'serious' journalism was underwritten. Mine was The Philadelphia Inquirer, where my byline read not 'staff reporter' or 'staff correspondent' but 'staff writer,' and which we writers called, in its heyday, 'the greatest care-and-feeding system for journalism ever invented.'

"In this elevated climate, The Wall Street Journal was held in unique regard. Its disdain for street sales was defining. In appearance, it was defiantly dull and predictable... The Journal broadcast its refusal to pander to readers. Every day the front page featured two 'leders' and the incomparable 'a-hed.' These were long, ambitious, exceedingly well-written stories. ... A probe of backdated stock options ... or Geeta Anand's moving narrative about the crisis at a biotech company that had been asked to provide an experimental drug for a dying child.

"The a-hed was a quirky profile or narrative, usually brilliantly reported, a master class in feature writing: Carrie Dolan on fainting goats, Barry Newman on a man who has a doctorate in bug gunk, or Tony Horwitz on going to work in a slaughterhouse. Breaking news, no matter how shocking, was relegated to a brisk summary in two regular columns. This was a serious newspaper for serious readers...

"When journalists worry about the decline of newspapers, this sort of seriousness is what they fear is being lost. ... The worst part of this is, the public doesn't seem to care....

"Murdoch is a panderer. Like most businessmen, he wants to figure out what his customers want and then deliver it."

Think about this for a while, thinking at the same time about terms such as "USA Today," "local-local," "focus groups," "declining circulation," "public service," "church and state," "readership," "major investigations," "prizes," "Los Angeles Times," "Bloomingdale's," "Wal-mart."

And we shall return to apostacism.

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