Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jason Whitlock, Shan Shariff, Anonymous challenge crusty journalism tradition: Is it a brilliant revolution or just plain lazy?

“But YOU don’t care.”

An idea seems to be emerging among the younger generation of journalists and it’s worth exploring. It’s an idea which could have serious implications for the profession, for readers, viewers, listeners and communities. It may be brilliant and it may just be lazy.

"We're able to get away with more because the standards for what's right have dropped."

This is pretty close to what radio talker Shan Shariff said last week about a national sports writing controversy. “We” in that sentence referred to sports talkers and sports writers, and the standards of behavior in their profession. What he said next is the point. It went something like this:

Old school media people might not like it but my guess is YOU don’t give a damn. YOU don’t really care about that stuff.

“You” refers to listeners and readers. What he’s saying is simple: The rules and standards of the profession – which have always been voluntary anyway – don’t matter to you. All you want is some entertaining information. The rest is stuff for journalism professors to worry over.

Jason Whitlock said nearly the same thing in his meltdown minute. He wrote for YOU, he said. He didn’t write for awards. He certainly made clear he wrote for money, but he argued he didn’t write for awards. And he didn’t like the journalistic standards his editors tried to hold him to. Like writing every day, I suspect. . Interviewing. Developing original material. Keeping himself out of the center of the story … Just guessing here based my reading of his work across the past 16 years.

Anonymous made the same case in partial defense of Whitlock, though with more elegance than the other two. “That being said, refusing to give credit where credit is due is incredibly small-minded; most readers don't care. It's only in the insular world of journalism and sports journalism that this would be an issue…”

Most readers don’t care. It seems to me this is increasingly true. The Internet has broken down our sense of intellectual ownership. If I can click on it, I own it. Teachers are in an uphill battle against this mindset.

Readers also don’t care as much today about reputation, which is a huge problem for journalism. If readers are as willing to accept the material in an unedited blog by someone whose reputation they don’t know, why should the New York Times triple check sources? Why should the Kansas City Star pay Tony Rizzo to get the story instead of a summer intern or an Internet wired newsroom in India? Why should Jason Whitlock or Sean Shariff worry about getting things right instead of making people angry enough to read or listen? Some of the incentive to get it right is gone.

So, what Anonymous said is, I think, increasingly true.

Is this a brilliant revolution or simply lazy?

Probably some of both. It is certainly easier to do journalism without the burden of principles established across the last century by a profession which literally started being a profession from scratch. College freshmen, for example, begin the semester in Reporting 101 not seeing what’s so darn hard about journalism. Hey, you sit down and write what you think and it gets published.

"What? You have to write what somebody else thinks? Whose idea is that? You have to do interviews? Interviews? Go outside and meet people? And, you have to take notes? You’re kidding. Notes? Really? And then you can’t say what YOU think about what this guy thinks? You have to stay out of it? That’s messed up…"

And all of this incredulous angst is just for starters. All this happens in the first two weeks of the semester.

But let me slide over to the other side. Readers really don’t care about many of the things journalists and journalism professors agonize over. Anonymous has it right about journalism being an insular world. You might manage an interview with someone important who has never given an interview before. You write the story with gusto then it’s off to the break room to celebrate. Journalists, in my experience, tend to party together. You get high-fives in the break room, pats on the back and a little barely concealed envy. And, you think you might be up for an award yet again this year if only your blockhead editor plays this story right.

But back at home, your neighbor will read the story, even if it’s under the flag on page one, and probably not notice your byline. And, worse, your neighbor will find the story unremarkable. Your neighbor has no idea you have counted coup. Which, once you realize this fact, will drive you deeper into the insular world of journalism.

I became a teacher precisely because I had big problems with the traditions I found in journalism. I wanted to teach students who would go off like hand grenades in newsrooms someday: “Yes, this is a story and a good one and, dammit, we need to run it.” “No, that’s it; I’m not doing another one of these worthless stories. This is not news. The world does not need to know the 10 best ways to clean a toilet.” Well, maybe that’s a bad example.

So, I’ve spent an entire career as a teacher and a journalist chafing at the rules.

The problem here is to distinguish the traditions of journalism we should keep and the shackles we should throw off. The Internet is making that a tougher call. And the economics of the profession, which are always the driving force, are not making the choices easier. Nor, is the awards culture. (See Matt’s fine piece on this subject.)

OK, so here’s the solution. The focus has to shift from tradition, awards, editors, and even the bottom line (though I’ve always argued this will actually help the bottom line)… to YOU. These three folks kind of have it right. The focus has to shift to what YOU need. YOU have to become the north star of journalism.

But, that also means, in the case of Shan Shariff and Jason Whitlock, the focus also has to shift away from them. (I suspect Anonymous is also a writer – the cat can turn a phrase…) The focus has to shift away from the writer and the talker. It has to shift away from your byline, your career, your money, your celebrity, your ego. The story is not about you (unless you accomplish an incredibly messy public meltdown). The story is never about you.

And we have to build our reputations on being right, being fair, always getting to the bottom of the story at any cost, having courage and providing the deepest analysis rather than being louder and funnier and more outrageous than the next guy.

If we could really shift the focus to YOU, the reader, viewer and listener, we might be able to rewire this profession for the good of the communities it serves.

--Lofflin, stepping down from the soap box now… oops! Big step...

No comments:

Post a Comment