Journalism's Future: Will Subjectivity Trump Objectivity? Does It Matter?
Once upon a time, I was a newspaper reporter and editor. Over nearly four decades in the business, I saw the world, covered the O.J. Simpson trials and a few wars, did investigative work that got laws passed than nobody paid any attention to, mentored a bunch of rising stars, won some awards, made my mother proud and eventually got so burned out that I quit the business. Barely two months before the 9/11 attacks. Whew!
Once upon a time, I bled printer's ink and feared newspapers had become dinosaurs that would be wiped out in the next ice age or the Internet revolution, whichever came first.
Six years after my retirement, I take a more sanguine view: Global warming appears to have postponed the next ice age, but the Internet revolution has arrived and then some and newspapers as we have long known them are indeed an endangered species. But to twist Rhett Butler's legendary line, I sort of don't give a damn.
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One of my fondest childhood memories is of lying on the living room floor reading the Sunday New York Times, which we wouldn't get until Monday because we lived in a small town fairly far from Gotham. As I would pour through section after section, my mother and father sat on the couch doing the Times crossword puzzle, which they would pick up through the week and usually had completed by the time it was Sunday, or rather Monday, again.
My world view was substantially shaped by the Times: Appreciating the United Nations as the important global institution, soaking up dispatches from the paper's far-flung foreign correspondents on what was going on in
or Argentina , the editorial pages inoculating me with shots of Eastern Liberal Establishment dogma, the Book Review broadening my literary horizons. So what that there weren't any funny pages. This kid didn't care. Burma
Today the U.N. is a bad joke, the Times' correspondent corps has shrunk substantially, I can find out what's going on practically anywhere through websites and blogs, that liberal dogma is beyond tired and . . . well, the Book Review is still good.
Don't get me wrong. The Times is in some respects a much better newspaper than it was 50 years ago. It has been able to keep up with that Internet revolution, make some dough off of it and has one of the best websites going. (The industry as a whole isn't doing quite so boffo.) But to the shocks and alarums of many an old school journo, it frequently shows that it has lost touch with that holiest of holy traditional journalistic grails – objectivity -- and has done a pretty good job of squandering its most precious asset -- credibility -- because of self-inflicted wounds inflicted by spear carriers like Judith Miller.
I suppose I should explain why I sort of don't give a damn:
Because I have come to understand that in many respects the old model of the journalist as the indispensible professional dispenser of information, insight and analysis is as passé as the eight-track audio tape. And that the explosion in journalism as practiced by non-professionals like bloggers, while often messy and substantially unedited, is not the disaster that many pros declare it to be.(A brief aside for an object lesson in this regard: The number of visitors at Kiko's House spiked at the end of last week. I thought that was because of an in-depth analysis on the forthcoming Iraq progress reports of which I was especially proud. Nah. The increased interest was in a brief throwaway post I did on a woman being threatened with getting bumped from a Southwest Airlines flight because of her skimpy garb.)
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Sam Smith is a former journalism school professor who is authoring an excellent series of articles at an excellent blog, Scholars & Rogues, in which he asks and tries to answer some tough questions that are at the crux of whether traditional journalism can survive:
*What is a journalist?
* Beyond learning how to master the technological bells and whistles, how should future journalists be trained?
*Can the concept of objectivity survive in the Internet age?
It would be unfair to say that Smith doesn't want to let go of the Good Old Days as I more or less have, but he does desperately want to keep alive the core aspects of what he calls "legacy journalism" that I readily acknowledge held me in good stead as a dead-tree journalist and in theory give me an edge over my amateur peers as a blogger:
[S]ince this brave world of new reporters come to the table with lots of attitude, tremendous technological capacity, and precious little grounding in the fundamentals of good journalism, our information landscape seems fated to be more noise and less signal.
The stakes are too high to let this happen. The truth is that while reporting might become less "objective," there’s no reason at all why more "subjective" approaches can’t do a good job serving our culture’s need for dependable information and analysis. A blogger who has studied the principles of newsgathering, who has taken the time to understand how to vet the claims of scientific and social research, and who has cultivated a clearly stated code of ethics is bound to be of greater value to his or her readers than one who hasn't.
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I loathe labels, and my least favorite as an editor was public journalism, a concept that was all the rage at Knight Ridder newspapers in the last few years before I turned in my press card.
As the deep thinkers at KR defined it, public journalism was a way for newspapers to connect with readers by treating them not merely as readers to whom they would provide daily pearls of wisdom, but as participants in the discourse and affairs of their community. Or something like that.
What drove me batshit about the concept is that my colleagues and I at the Philadelphia Daily News, a tabloid that stood apart from the rest of KR’s stable of staid broadsheets because of its feistiness and street smarts, had been involving our readers all along. It's what we always thought we should be doing. Period.
Well, I can’t tell you how many expeditions of editors from those KR broadsheets (but never the reporters who actually would make public journalism work) beat a path to the Daily News in the hopes of becoming initiated into the secrets of public journalism.
They would meet with the Bigs in their offices before being introduced to Phantom Rider, who was our longtime undercover public transit reporter, or The Marquis of Debris, who snitched on the owners of trash strewn properties, or The Road Warrior, whose phone rang off the hook with reports of killer potholes and other outrages, or Joe Sixpack, who would shame the vendors at local sports venues who short poured beers. Or . . . well, you get the idea.
(My own contributions to reader connectivity included a series of snarky reader participation columns off of the O.J. Simpson murder case and criminal trial that gained a national audience, and Millennium Man, a series of over 250 columns written in 1999 ahead of the tidal wave of millennial musings in which I took on the persona of an elderly man who had been present for the big events of the 20th century.)
So alarm bells went off when I read Smith's idea for a way out of the wilderness – something that he calls interpretive journalism.
This at first glance seemed to be a way to cling to objectivity while grudgingly acknowledging the positive aspects of subjectivity. As well as keeping J-school profs employed at a time when traditional journalism's disappearing act has accelerated as those big bad media conglomerates become ever more fanatical about jacking up their stock price and ever less interested in investing in the most important aspect of the product -- their newsrooms. (For more on this, check out my post on Journalism's Darth Vader, aka Anthony "Tony" Ridder, who almost singlehandedly drove Knight Ridder into the ground.)
As it is, I believe journalism schools to be a huge waste of time and money for aspiring journos. This is because there is nothing that these up-and-comers can't learn on the street through dogged, hair-on-fire reporting that may or may not be taught in four years at Medill or Mizzou.But there is virtue to Smith’s idea because it is an instance in which old media can learn from new media and the other way around. And not necessarily in a classroom. While the golden age of journalism is as dead as Francisco Franco, it's virtues are indeed worth preserving and passing on.
So if you care about the future of journalism, click here and here. And stay tuned for future installments.