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Tuesday, 05 June 2007

Ode to print journalists

TypewriterI have been reading about the death of newspapers for sometime now and have seen the decline myself by anemic daily editions that land at my doorstep.  But it wasn't  until I read the following line in Seth Godin's book The Dip that I got nostalgic:

"If you work at a big-city newspaper, you can see that there's no light at the end of that career-choice tunnel.  Circulation is dropping, and it's going to drop ever faster.  Most papers have little chance of replacing their traditional businesses with an online alternative.  As a result, every day at most papers is going to be just a little bit worse than the day before.  Every day you stay is a bad strategic decision for your career because every day you get better at something that isn't that useful-and you are another day behind others who are learning something more useful.  The only reason to stay is the short-term pain associated with quitting." (p. 55)

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is home to the San Francisco Chronicle, or what we affectionately call "The Chron."   In its heyday, The Chron had a host of colorful columnists like Herb Caen, Charles McCabe ("Any clod can have the facts, but having opinions is an art") and Art Hoppe.  What they wrote could not be considered one-way journalism, as they were tapped into the heart and soul of their community.  Their tips and comments came from hand written letters, or, even better, by catching their ear in person at any number of local watering holes like the Washington Square Bar and Grill (otherwise known as "The Washbag").  It was considered a great honor to be quoted in Herb Caen's column, a feat accomplished by my own mother, who hand wrote a note to him during the controversy over the renaming of the Orange County Airport in 1979 ("They are not going to be able to name it the John Wayne Airport since they would have to remove all the left wings on the planes!")

Some advocates of social media celebrate the fall of traditional, "elitist" journalism, citing the open, free and democratic ways of blogging and citizen journalism.  "I can swear, dammit, and there is nothing you can do about it!"  "Watch me publish a piece with a typo and fix it 2 minutes later!"  "I can build up a readership of tens of thousands while your monolithic, dinosaur organization shrinks and shrivels."

Here is the sad part.

There is beauty, grace, grit and skill in good journalism.  I don't imagine that most bloggers have had to contend with a cantankerous editor who rips holes in first drafts of stories, nor with the intense heat to produce smart, interesting and relevant work with crushing deadlines. 

Journalists have a strong grasp of language, know why to avoid dangling participles, know the difference between complement vs. compliment (thank you Matthew Stibbe) and never confuse their active and passive voices.

Undoubtedly, some take an elitist attitude and think that they are the only people qualified to report the news.  But many, even most, have a strong spirit of pride and true love of a good story.

So while the medium of print journalism is on the decline, I like to think that the profession of journalism will be resurrected in a new and useful way.

I was tipped to the sad state of San Francisco Chronicle veteran staffers by Ben Casnocha's del.icio.us bookmark,  Rancor plagues Chronicle employee buyouts.  It says:

"One Chronicle staffer who did not want to be identified said departing workers received 'no acknowledgment, not even a sheet cake, from the managers. No thank you notes. No speeches. Everything but armed security guards. It's ugly.'"

How disappointing to think that this is how we are sending off friends who scoured the hills and back alleys of San Francisco looking for stories, who spurred lively discussions between spouses and kids over bowls of Wheaties and who spent years of their life drinking strong coffee and pulling their hair out so they wouldn't miss a deadline.

I try not to get too nostalgic when industries ripen and change, since I think it does a huge disservice to employees who remain, who, instead of preparing for the next stage of their career, become bitter and resistant.

But I can't help but feel that we are cutting off a vital appendage by dismissing all traditional journalism as "last century."

No matter how excited I get with an incoming link from Guy or Hugh or Kathy, my parents are still most impressed by a page 14 mention in The Chron.

I appreciate the smell, feel and spirit of a really good story told on newsprint.

So thank you, journalists, for slogging it out in increasingly unbearable news rooms.  There is light at the end of the tunnel as we will always need good writers to explain, shape and give context to our daily lives.

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Comments

Keith Handy

Speaking of Kathy, any idea what she's doing now? "Creating Passionate Users" was such a cool blog and I'm sad to see what happened to it.

---

I don't know Keith ... last I heard, she was going to stop blogging for awhile till she figured things out from her freaky death threat situation.

I miss her too -- what a brilliant mind she has!

Let's all encourage her to come back.

-Pam

Kevin Hillstrom

You perfectly articulated what it is like in other industries these days.

I've spent my career in the catalog industry, an craft that is now being overrun by the internet and e-commerce.

All around you circle online marketers, while folks with thirty years of sweat equity in the catalog industry see their jobs come to a slow, sad end.

Your article is well written.

Suzanne McLoone

Bravo! Is all I have to say.

Gordon

A REALLY good story.
I have seen a lot of stories, some of which are true, from the media lately but not any REALLY good stories. What happened to the good old days of just telling us a story rather than embellishing on the truth or trying to sell us the blood and guts??
I wonder why no one is reading the newspaper any more??

John Whiteside

There's more than grace and art in journalism: there's hard work and specific set of newsgathering skills in it. Journalism isn't just reading what everybody else says and adding your own thoughts: it requires looking for primary sources, talking to people, digging through documents and data, and sorting out facts.

"Citizen journalism" is mostly punditry. Which is fine, unless you start thinking that it's journalism.

It doesn't help that the big leages of pro journalism are not doing a good job; it's shocking how many stories in the NY Times and Washington Post are "he said / she said" opinion roundups without any actual fact finding in them.

I still read the newspaper. Why? It's more likely to be accurate than ten thousand bloggers opining away.

(Note that there are bloggers and other social media types doing journalism (Josh Marshall comes to mind) but they are a small minority.)

Dixon

I went out to dinner with two colegues last night and they started talking about the good old days in the USSR (one is Polish the other Russian). It's funny how predisposed people are to remember anything that is, or is soon to be, gone fondly. I'm sure when the printing press was invented, people bemoned the loss of the hand written manuscript. Let's not forget the damage that newspapers do to America. Because of William Hurst's propaganda, all paper in the US is printed on wood pulp. This has lead to massive deforestation.

That being said (or is it written?), I believe that thoughtful writers will always find an outlet. Focus on monotizing the future. The world has changed, the past is gone, and we still need great writers.

Michael Chui

It's worth recognizing that journalists were and are citizens themselves, and they knew that better than most of the citizens themselves.

Here's a business opportunity for someone looking to escape their newspaper cubicle, or an opportunity for an established newspaper:

The remaining utility of newspapers and news outlets is the press pass. The fact that they can accredit people to be admitted to press conferences and past red tape. Some bloggers have been asking for these press passes themselves, but the idea remains absurd: these passes must be reserved for the elite few who deserve them: the actual journalists. The ones who are trained, who have that art and grace, who are capable, competent, and eloquent. Some of these people are bloggers: maybe they got cut out by really bad editors, or a fight with their newspaper, or what have you. But the point is that if you can establish a business that can get accredit people as journalists, that sounds to me like a real opportunity.

Ben Casnocha

Thanks Pam - I agree it's a shame. I expect the business model behind journalism to evolve quite a bit in the next few years.....

Carla

Amen, Pam!

Tim Berry

Great post, thanks. I grew up on the Peninsula in the 60s, with the Chron. The business section was printed on green paper. Only my dad read it. But we all read McCabe and Herb Caen. Your post is a welcome reminder of how we got here.

-- Tim Berry

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