Nov 19, 2007

Separation anxiety

As leading thinkers around the country attempt to chart a future course for newspapers - past the rocky shoals of declining revenues and through the whirlpool of changing consumer habits - their arguments have become a mashup of ideas that treat the different parts of the enterprise as a single thing.

This is often done intentionally, with a specific goal in mind. I'm not sure if I can call it dishonest, but it doesn't strike me as being that word's opposite.

Let's remember that "newspaper" does not denote a single entity but a conglomeration of enterprises that have come together under one roof over the decades for a mutual benefit. It is a kind of symbiosis, but one that does not need to be preserved for the sake of journalism.

Circulation, printing, marketing, accounting, customer relations, human resources, etc., all revolve around the newsroom. It is the shark, they the remora. The newsroom is why the newspaper exists. Let's not forget that as we adapt to the digital age.

Nor should we let those whose work revolves around us define the "problems" newsrooms face. The threat we now face does not come from the outside but is an internal battle for who will lead. When the foundations of newsroom begin to shake, be aware of who is doing the shaking. And then watch who rushes in to tell us the cause of the tremor and the best plan for our safety.

The business side of the operation want us off balance because it gives them the advantage. And it is time to tell them to fuck off.

That fuck off is not irrational, I assure you. I am keenly aware that someone needs to make money from my work so that I can be paid, so they can pay themselves, so the whole enterprise becomes a going concern. I do not dispute that different approaches to telling stories need to be tried and perfected because of the ways people digest news.

Having consented to those realities, I stand firm in my belief that editorial concerns should dominate our discussion as we migrate to the Web. The business crowd, no matter what their intentions, are incapable of showing us the way. They must bend to the editorial will.

Why? Because this isn't just any enterprise. We do not make widgets, as several good editors have pointed out. We are not in the business to be in business. There is something extremely special about news and it cannot be defined or packaged like other products. Those who will not consent to this reality will have to find someplace else to go with their money.

We reporters and editors who scowl at Readership Institute surveys, arguments for monetization of the news and hyperbole about our declining revenues are not Communists. Moreover, we are not afraid of computers, we do not buckle in the face of blogs, nor do we quake in fear that the youth of America will dig for us our graves. We are, however, tired of hucksters telling us we are afraid and confused, who tell us stories of monsters and Apocalypse and then promise to comfort us. We will not return ashamedly like an abused spouse to an unhealthy home.

Indeed, we reporters and editors thrive on the competition developing online. And we are just as aware that popular Web sites or publications that mention politics, culture, Hollywood or crime are not necessarily news and are not our competition. We are as resolute as ever that good journalism matters. We are not surprised that our career choice presents us with a level of financial uncertainty - it always has.

Maybe the corporate manager and owners who fund the institutes that write the studies that justify the slash and burn approach to "innovation" in the newsroom are the ones who need to grow a backbone. Somebody please inform them that the news business won't necessarily make them rich and the responsibilities of the job require sacrifice, steadfastness and character.

Let's again look at the various organs that make up the newspaper and ask ourselves which are the appendix and tonsils, those that seem to have outlasted their purpose; which suffer "problems" or are diseased; which are vital to the body; and which one stands atop the hierarchy. The answer to the last is editorial. Profit may be the heart that beats blood into the enterprise, but editorial is the brain for which that heart works.

Clearly there are newsrooms that have atrophied, there are journalistic practices that are misguided or need refinement, there is adaptation that needs to be done to keep the newsroom healthy and vital. But the only "problem" I hear being addressed is a manufactured one put forth by those who know how to sell widgets and shrink from the challenge of fostering journalism.

They whine that irascible journalists and unbending editorial guidelines stand in the way of a solution to economic decline. They tell us to change or get out of the way (change to what?). They invent meaningless jargon designed to impugn our most deeply held beliefs. They say our ethics and boring efforts at holding the powerful (including them) accountable are deficient, not up to the task of "future" needs. They repeat simplistic criticisms to bruise us. They feed our fear and foment our self-loathing. They call our resistance to them self-indulgent loftiness, our devotion to our mission self-destructive egotism.

This is why we built the wall between us and advertising. We can survive new symbioses, but not parasites.

The digital revolution is a change in habit. We need not be slaves to habit, however. The argument that to survive we must entertain or become servants to readers is a false one. The same thing that makes us dispensable to the entrepreneur who must adapt to the whims of consumer taste is the thing that makes us indispensable to a society that depends on the fact that we won't.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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