Thursday, May 18, 2006

Attacking things you don't understand

Among my pet peeves are poorly reported pieces about how new-media makes for poor reporting.
And as more old-media types are forced to confront the future, I expect to see a lot more silly pieces such as this one by a journalism professor at Washington & Lee University.
Consider this quote: "The news person who is expected to update a breaking story throughout the day is doing so at the expense of reporting that would develop and deepen the story so that it's illuminating and satisfying to readers."
That's simply absurd. A story isn't updated in lieu of reporting, a story is updated BY reporting. In the 24-hour news operations where I've worked (CNN, Bloomberg), a journalist reports, writes/produces and then files a story. Then he goes deeper. He calls another source. Then another. When he gets something interesting, he updates the story. He starts compiling more source material and posts it to the Web. He starts editing the audio of those earlier interviews, looking for good soundbites and MORE information. Then he calls another source. Then another, ad infinitum.
That's not acting "at the expense of reporting." That IS reporting.
The rest of the essay by Edward Wasserman has similar flaws. Wasserman announces in stereotypical newspapers-first arrogance that few "print reporters are eager to become helpmates to TV news, which they regard as entertainment programming." He suggests that the converged newsroom is some sort of recent arrival that promotes "third-rate journalism," whereas even a casual observer who has ventured off a college campus since the Watergate scandal must realize that convergence has been a well-established practice at some of the giants of journalism for years. Hell, the Chicago Tribune has had cameras in the newsroom for something like 20 years.
As if the essay couldn't get worse, Wasserman ends with the following cry of anguish and outrage: "When do we hear from the professional journalists? Where is their independent assessment of how these powerful new technologies can be used, not to plant the flag in cyberspace, not to reclaim market share, but to provide great, meaningful journalism?"
Really, Ed. Are you kidding me? Those people are everywhere! Have you ever seen the work of Adrian Holovaty, creator of and now an editor at the Washington Post? Ever heard Rob Curley speak? He serves on the professional advisory board of College Media Advisers, the organization that helps folks like you understand the new world. Holovaty and Curley created the converged newsroom at the Lawrence Journal-World, perhaps the best new-media operation in the world.
How about Steve Outing, formerly of the Poynter Institute, the newspaper think tank. How about Amy Gahran? She does some writing for Poynter too. Speaking of Poynter, a search of that site yields 56 results for the phrase "converged newsroom." And sure enough, as I take a look at them, I find that many of them are written by professional journalists wondering how to create meaningful journalism.
Do you know Dan Gillmor? How about Canada's Fine Young Journalist? Have you followed the work of your peers at CMA? Speaking of your peers, do you know Doug Fisher at the University of South Carolina? How about Mindy McAdams at the University of Florida?
Ever hear of Tim Porter? (He knows you. He linked to you once.) Ever talk to him? Post a comment to his site? I mean seriously, Ed, could anyone who claimed to know anything about journalism write a piece about converged newsrooms without knowing about Tim Porter?
Jeez, Ed. Do some more reporting before you sit down and write.

For an earlier post that discusses the disconnect between new and old media at journalism schools, click here.

UPDATE: Given the nature of this post, I couldn't resist the urge to update with additional information. I'd guess that Ed knows all about the Poynter Institute now. Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler used a Poynter forum to respond to Ed's essay. Tom kindly suggests that Ed had an off day and has "spent too much time lately in his Virginia classroom recounting journalistic history and not enough time in newsrooms plotting journalism's future."
My point exactly.

UPDATE2: Do you see how this works now Ed? I found another piece of information, so I'm updating again. This time I think the readers might want to know that Mindy McAdams has also weighed in on your piece. She's kinder than I have been, but she too thinks you're off base.

UPDATE3: OK. I'm just fooling around now. I don't have anymore updates.

tags: , , , , , conversational media, ,


  1. I'm not as tough on Wasserman as you are. I do get the sense he doesn't really know what he's talking about, but I also thinks he asks some really good questions.

    A better journalist would try to answer them, too, but at least it's a start.

    For instance, I think it's worth asking what's lost when a newspaper writer has to file four times a day instead of one. He or she does do reporting between files, but the constant shifting of attention and time taken to revise and rework based on new information does take a toll. There are only so many hours in a day, and I haven't heard much about traditional newsrooms hiring staff so they can apply two people to regular updates of stories that were formerly worked on by one person who filed once at the end of the day.

    It's the same as a cable news reporter doing two stand-up hits an hour -- time spent reporting what's already known is time not spent talking to people and gathering new information. There's clearly a hunger for that and news companies are feeding consumers' appetites, but there is a trade-off that needs to be acknowledged.

    Wasserman does lose his way when he blames "new technologies" for this, and he doesn't give them their due when it comes to improving the quality of reporters' work. It's nothing to do with convergence or the Internet, which are definite positives when it comes to informing news consumers. It's to do with 24-hour coverage and the six-hour news cycle, and those genies are out of their bottles.

    You can complain about them all you like, but you have to figure out how to do the job well in those conditions all the same. Wasserman would have done journalism more service if he'd tried to find some newsrooms that have done so.

  2. Hi FYJ,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I agree that the converged newsroom raises questions about workflow, process, etc. You're right, it is "worth asking what's lost when a newspaper writer has to file four times a day instead of one."
    What I find infuriating about Wasserman are his pompous calls to have those questions asked by "professional journalists" as part of an "independent assessment."
    What I'm trying to get across is that professional journalists ARE asking those questions. We have been asking those questions FOR YEARS. I was there at CNN as we tried to figure out just how to get news on both the cable system and the Web sites. I was there at Bloomberg, watching people struggle with schedules and stress as the company created a system where story updates and multimedia multitasking became the norm.
    We did this. Professional journalists did this.
    I'm proud of what those of us at the fore of new media have accomplished. And I have little tolerance for people like Wasserman who wish we had never come along.

  3. Hi Paul,

    I usually end up reading you on a regular basis for Corante...and you make a number of fabulous points.

    The most important point, though, could be seen as what may separate generic blogging and journalistic blogging is updates. For one of my own blogs, I wrote an extensive piece on the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandal, complete with updates.

    the updates also add credibility to what I'm saying--yes, I have my opinion on the matter, but here are some other sources to check out. It brings a simple opinion into the realm of basic journalism.

    Wasserman's dilemma, though, is not exclusive to him. Far too many people are overwhelmed by what's happening with the convergence of technology and journalism and seem to be wanting just a breather so that they can understand it better before embracing what's being touted as The Next Big Thing. In a time period when the Next Big Thing could easily be the Next Big Bubble, a little caution isn't bad...the thing is not to slip into Luddite Land.

  4. oops! forgot the permalink to the K.V. story:

  5. Paul, thanks for mentioning me. You wrote: "What I find infuriating about Wasserman are his pompous calls to have those questions asked by "professional journalists" as part of an "independent assessment."

    Pompous? Yes. I've long thought that one of the worst aspects of professionalized journalism (which is, after all, only a bit over a century old) is the tendency for mainstream journalists to view themselves as a kind of priesthood. The anointed voices who get to set the agenda and define which information is worth considering.

    ...Which is, of course, pompous and annoying -- but mainly it's shortsighted, and it often leads to self-referential or just plain bad journalism.

    I tend to think that this kind of pomposity will wane with the ongoing generational shift in media -- and in news audiences. So I usually don't get too riled up about it, personally. I just view it in the same context I view wide lapels.

    Just my opinion,

    - Amy Gahran

    Editor, Poynter's E-Media Tidbits

  6. AnonymousMay 19, 2006


    Thanks for mentioning us in your list of people who are trying to change the shape of journalism. In February, I compared the task of moving college media into this brave new world to "moving an iceberg."

    I think my point is made. I don't know Dr. (Mr.?) Wasserman, but I think the arguments he makes are all too common in a generation of reporters. Hopefully, we'll all help change that.

    There is also this sort of pessimism attached to the sentiments that I find particularly depressing. Why does the Internet have to "dumb down" reporting? Rather, one could look at it as providing extra context, more meaningful information for the reader/viewer. Yes, it will take more time and effort. But is the argument really that reporters don't want to be bothered? What does that say about journalism's attitude toward the story? Toward the audience? Toward truth?

    Bryan Murley
    Reinventing College Media