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SEPTEMBER 22, 2010 1:12PM

Journalists follow their voices, vote with their feet

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As the beleaguring of traditional news organizations continues, newsrooms are actually growing elsewhere. You may have noticed that places like Yahoo, AOL and the Huffington Post are all hiring these days — and they’re hiring, um, actual journalists.

Yesterday we learned that New York Times economics correspondent Peter Goodman was decamping for HuffPo. “For me it’s a chance to write with a point of view,” Goodman told Howard Kurtz. He described fitting into the Times voice as “almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.”

Jay Rosen commented on Twitter:

You get what this means, right? The View from Nowhere has become a liability in keeping newsroom talent

And again:

It’s not so much that @petersgoodman wants to be a pundit. He wants to report what’s really going on. In his own voice.

Yahoo has been building a bloggy news organization, too. But today we learned from Andrew Golis that one of his high-profile hires, former Gawker writer John Cook, was leaving Yahoo and returning to Gawker. Golis explained: “He decided that he prefers the license Gawker gave him to add his opinions into his reporting to the scale and credibility Yahoo! News could offer.”

So Yahoo, theoretically a “new” news organization, also finds itself losing talent because of its house rules about mixing “opinion” and reporting. The story isn’t as simple as “journalists flee old media for new so they can write in their own voices.”

Consider that the most consistently and determinedly enforced code of neutrality in today’s media world can be found not in an old-school newsroom but on Wikipedia, where “neutral point of view” is a sacred first principle. We need a better framework for talking about these issues than the crude formula of “Traditionalists prefer objectivity, new media goes for personal voice.”

I’m sympathetic to Rosen’s “View from Nowhere” argument, which neatly inverts the “fair and balanced” rhetoric of traditional objectivity to underscore its downside, and proposes “where I’m coming from” as a more tenable basis for trust in media. I think the “sacred cloak of objectivity,” to use the term recently invoked by the Times’ new public editor, is tattered beyond repair. But I also sympathize with the folks at the Times and Yahoo who just lost some talented employees by policing institutional boundaries for individual writers’ voices.

To understand today’s newsroom musical-chairs moves, I’d point you back to my post on the blog-broadcast barrier and the reach-reliability ratio. The stewards of a Yahoo News, with its phenomenal-sized audience, or a New York Times, with its blue-chip reputation, need to perform a balancing act: They can’t pretend that the world isn’t changing around them, and that their readers really do expect and demand less faux objectivity and more transparency and interpretive honesty today. But they also understand that their reach and influence demand extra protocols of responsibility and care. I think they’re right to do so, even if it means that they move a little more cautiously into the future.

The challenge for their managers is a subtle one: How to infuse their coverage with the distinctive human voices of journalistic observers who no longer wish to suppress their personal perspectives, while also insuring that the big megaphones they own do not turn into amplifiers of treacherous rumors, personal vendettas, or partisan lies. (Fox News provides a handy negative exemplar here.)

I think the answer will turn out to have a lot to do with really smart editors who are willing to experiment with new forms — editors who actively encourage writers who show “where I’m coming from” but guide them away from the worst excesses of unfiltered personal journalism.

Editing is a behind-the-scenes role, and it’s threatened by both the bruising economics of the current media biz and by the publish-first-ask-questions-later logic of the digital age. But editorial entrepreneurship is how the most creative institutions will begin to square the circle they face — finding a home for writers who expect to have strong voices while also responsibly serving their mass audiences.

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Excellent post. Did you hear today that Howard Fineman is going to Huff Post? I also heard a Talk of the Nation interview with Bill Keller NYT Editor and wanted him to more stauchly defend print but didn't hear that. The interview evolved into a more are we liberal discussion? That's not the point.

Also wanted to comment that I think EDITING has been dead for a long time. I'm a writer, not an editor, and I need a good editor. When I can find the errors everywhere something is wrong, and I have low standards (I'm just kidding but I hope I make my point.) RRR
Let me quote a usually reliable source:

"I think the answer will turn out to have a lot to do with really smart editors who are willing to experiment with new forms — editors who actively encourage writers who show “where I’m coming from” but guide them away from the worst excesses of unfiltered personal journalism.

Editing is a behind-the-scenes role, and it’s threatened by both the bruising economics of the current media biz and by the publish-first-ask-questions-later logic of the digital age. But editorial entrepreneurship is how the most creative institutions will begin to square the circle they face — finding a home for writers who expect to have strong voices while also responsibly serving their mass audiences."

Bravo. Your emphasis on editors -- and the need for them to be at least as skillful at their jobs as the best journalists -- is a much under-appreciated and generally unsung component of whatever will emerge from what you call the newsroom musical chairs phenomenon we're in the midst of.

Firm, thoughtful, knowledgeable and yes, inspired editorial review of copy is the missing ingredient in so much of what passes for journalism in the blogosphere.

If. as a writer / reporter, you've never had an editor with those qualities, that may sound pretty corny. But if you have had that experience, you know what I'm talking about. And I'll go further -- reporters routinely stand on the shoulders of editors who never get the credit they deserve for the work they do.

You make the business of guiding reporters away from the worst excesses of unfiltered personal journalism sound like a noble task, and I believe it is.

The paper I work for has a good blend of old and new school approaches -- blogs, columns, videography, straight news, human interest -- available on its print and digital formats. We have a long tradition of reporters being encouraged to provide news and in a personal voice. It's not a simple black-or-white issue, as your post so clearly recognizes and my experience corroborates.

And no, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an editor.
Agreed, on so many points.

"...the 'sacred cloak of objectivity,' to use the term recently invoked by the Times’ new public editor, is tattered beyond repair."

Not only is the sacred cloak tattered beyond repair, but it's generally considered about as real as the emperor's new clothes. Unfortunately, the death of "objectivity" is a result of the growing chasm between the left and the right... with both sides increasingly concerned about specific issues and not really interested in opposing opinion.

Good editorial leadership may usher in a new era of more personal journalism, but it will take courage to foster an atmosphere where reporter viewpoints are used to produce insightful commentary for a wider audience.
a fascinating post; however, I fear as others do that we will all take off for our own opinion posts and stop talking to eachother; that is dangerous and is already happening
I have a solution:

What we have here is the expert-reporter dichotomy compounded by the reporter-pundit imbroglio.

Newspapers are supposed to print facts, not opinions, unless the facts are about someone else’s opinions, or the opinions are labeled as such. Reporters are supposed to collect the facts that the newspapers publish.

In traditional journalism, the way it used to be practiced, a reporter's job was to talk with the real experts on a given topic while researching a story and then reporting the experts' views rather than the reporter's own ideas on the subject. The expert might be as mundane a homicide detective discussing a pedestrian murder, or as sophisticated as a presidential press secretary explaining what his boss meant by what he said, but the difference between the expert and the reporter is that the expert creates information, while the reporter gathers it.

Really good reporters know that one expert is never enough because there's always more than one opinion on any given subject, so it is necessary to accumulate opinions from a range of experts and present those opinions in a context that allows the informed reader or viewer to draw educated conclusions by contrasting the opinions presented in the coverage.

The problems begin when the reporters, whose expertise is ferreting out information from others, begin to suffer from the illusion that they are experts themselves.

Real experts are people who have opinions on the subjects they study, but their opinions, however well informed, remain opinions. That's why you want to interview more than one expert on any given story. Nevertheless, real experts earn the right to their opinions through education, study, research and peer-reviewed publication of articles that establish their reputations in their fields.

Beat reporters, who cover the same subject areas over long periods of time, inevitably develop a certain amount of expertise in the beat they cover, but that expertise is suspect because it's not based, in most cases, on exhaustive study of a given field. On the contrary, most beat reporters knowledge of their subject areas are broad, but shallow.

The only way for reporters to maintain objectivity is to take themselves out of the equation, collect a range of responsible opinions from respected authorities, verify the reputations of those they quote, and present those opinions to the audience within the context of the experts known backgrounds and prejudices.

That's the real work of a real reporter.

Unfortunately, many reporter have stepped over the line between reporter and pundit.

Pundits present their own opinions but, in doing so, they usually present their beliefs as facts rather than speculation, thus robbing the audience of the ability to form their own opinions about the veracity of the information provided.

The problem with pundits is that punditry is only one step removed from demagoguery, something that has been increasingly exponentially during the past decade, and the hallmark of punditry is the myth of infallibility.

The most egregious examples of this trend are, of course, found on Fox News, followed by CNBC and then everyone else, but others abound.

The failure to properly vet stories based on items crossing the internet, such as we saw in the Shirley Sherrod matter, is ultimately the failure of the news outlets that picked up and promoted the story, but some of those same media outlets sucked it up, dug deeper, and quite quickly divined the truth behind the hype, with CNN being the most notable correcting factor.

So, the question is what do we do with the flood of information passing from the internet into mainstream media?

The answer is that we can’t do anything about it. What’s happening now, and what will continue to happen, is that the process of vetting and verifying stories will take place in the full glare of the media’s own klieg lights, often using the same internet from which the stories were originally plucked.

There is, however, nothing new under the sun when it comes to overstepping newspapers.

In New York, the newspaper wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were so vituperative that combative publishers were not above stealing writers away from each other and exposing the falsehoods in each other’s exposes while hurling frivolous law suits at each other.

The New York Journal once reported Mark Twain’s death, causing Twain to remark that, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

During the Korean war, Republican newspaper publishers were reportedly egging Douglas MacArthur on toward his climatic confrontation with President Truman won, but not until after the staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune infamously bleated that “Dewey Beats Truman” on its front page the day after the election, long after Dewey had conceded.

The takeaway from all this analysis is that, as we move into an increasingly digital-electronic environment, we have to become much more vigilant by distrusting and verifying everything we write, which often requires checking the sources sources…and if that slows you down, good but slow information trumps fast but information every time because retractions are just too embarrassing.

Eating crow sucks.
Labeling is everything. We used to have “News” and “Analysis.” There are now other forms and we've just failed to give them names. They all get lumped under blog.

It reminds me of a time, almost two decades ago, when some historian/analysts from MIT's Sloan School came to interview me and others about some email communications we'd had, back when email was new, trying to characterize what email was being used for. (The report they wrote is here, if anyone is curious.) I kept trying to tell them that it was more like a place than a form, because it had so many different uses. The web, and its sub-area of blogs, is like that, too.

A blog is a place to put writing, it's not a form of writing. There are some conventions that some blogs form, but really it's pretty free format, more limited by the technology a given blogger uses than anything intentional. When we end up lumping them all into one bin, it's easy to confuse the day to day rant with the investigative piece or the steady beat of propaganda. It's all in there. And if that's the level of detail we see in competitive analyses, we really won't get cued to the complexity of what is going on. Some of it is economic. Some is about voice. Some is about timing or placement. Some is about creativity and art. And on and on.

Also, traditional media like to create a “look” for branding purposes, and that is at odds with someone who wants to be part of a living, growing thing unless they work really hard to keep up. Some people want to ride the wave of change, while others are content to just use whatever vehicle is around that will carry their voice.

I just wish there was a better business model based on subscriptions rather than advertising. I think that's having a bad effect, both in terms of economics and focus.
I'm not sure that objectivity is the issue. In Toronto Canada where I live, the various newspapers all have points of view and while I'm not talking so much about the expression of personal opinions of reporters, we get some of that too. Radio here is full of personal opinion on news stories.

The challenge in the social media world is accuracy. Look how quickly and erroneously a Tweet is considered to be confirmation of a news story when it really just means that someone else has heard the same rumour. In the last year we have had two well known individuals (that I know of) erroneously killed off in the social media, hockey coach Pat Burns and musician Gordon Lightfoot. We still turn to traditional media sources to sort it all out.

I'm sure that some journalists welcome an opportunity to express more personal opinion. Others will simply be following the jobs, as hard-copy newspapers and magazines struggle. The internet has proved to be a great democratiser. We're all journalists. I can express my opinion and publish it instantly and at no cost beyond my internet connection and if my opinion resonates with a public, it can become tremendously well read, or I can be dismissed as a crank or a loony or whatever. It matters less and less that a "columnist" works for an organization because not too many web-based news organizations offer more credibility than buddy's personal blog.

It will be most interesting to see how this landscape is shaped in the coming years.
Get real. Journalists have printed their opinions as news ever since print was printed. It's only now that is is being recognized for what it is. The editorializing that passes for objective reporting is a sham. If they go to HufPo so what? Its all HufPo, if you ask me.
Editors do need to step up their game. And writers need to decide what role in society they want their writing to take. I think that's a question that many don't quite answer. We live in an "I feel" kind of culture. I think there is room to shift from "I feel" to "I see." What that means is writers can surely offer an objective view thru the prism of their own experience. If I witness a fire from one side of the street and someone witnesses a fire from two blocks away, we both see it but our visual experience is different. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as we get the full view.

What scares me about writers jumping from objectivity to (as the maligned-on-these-pages O'Reilly might say) bloviation is that, in this user-driven world of content, people will seek out and only read those writer they agree with, and we will continue to retreat into our ideological silos. That is not good for society as a whole. So while we can get very granular about the business of publications or the relationship between editors and writers, my worry isn't opinionated writers or. My worry is the continued balkanization of political and cultural discourse
I've been a reporter for three large dailies, most recently the NY Daily News, where "news" is whatever beats the Post and happens within the five boroughs.

I've been blogging for a year, and just finished my second book -- both of which offer me a place to be BOTH accurate and tell stories and interview high-placed sources, all of which qualify as traditional journalism. I also write for magazines, many of which prize voice. Traditional news? Boring. I read the NYT daily and have freelanced for them since 1990, so am well aware of their gray approach.

I think readers are hungry for authenthicity, not some bland, boring, deracinated recounting "balanced" by the POVs of a few (always) well-placed pundits. The much greater weakness of reporting today -- and who will pay for this?! -- is lousy, lazy, non-existent reporting. It takes time, energy and money to get reporters out of their comfy, warm newsrooms and into the streets, literally, where much of what is really happening today goes on. Not over costly lunches at Michael's with PR flacks or hanging around Capitol Hill.

Real stories interview and quote "real" people, increasingly irrelevant in an era where even labor coverage has become quaint and unlikely -- instead of fawning profiles of CEOs.

I also know firsthand the details of some these HuffPo hirings -- when you can quadruple (yes) your newspaper salary, it's not just about "finding your voice." Let's get real.
I thought it was great that Peter Goodman left for HuffPo. I want to read principled writers' points of view. It was great to hear the Times' economic reporting team in a 2010 POV documentary telling it like they really saw it. We need more of that. But, no, I don't share the point of view of some who say the fourth estate is dead.
It's the game I've seen all my life. NYRB has the story this month of how it brokedown at the Washington Post during their golden age.

One wonder's if there are enough "adults" still around for responsible journalism to have any future at all when you look at the level of polorization currently in vogue, and begs the question: is there any turning back?

I don't frankly think so. I keep coming back to the re-election of Bush and the question of the role of the media in allowing the country to sink to a low that must keep a lot of grad school students busy trying to find it's corolary in times when the majority of the population was illiterate... To what extent does the truth even matter?

I guess that's the faith cause it sure ain't the science.