Letting Go

It's time to rethink journalistic competition

In 1995, as newspapers were beginning to grapple with the seismic structural shift of digital technology, the late James Carey noted that modern American journalism is the product of a particular set of circumstances and a particular moment in history. “What is changing is not some preternatural form of journalism,” he wrote. “All terms of the political equation—democracy, public opinion, public discourse, the press—are all up for grabs.”

Carey’s essay seems prescient when one considers the vague ways that members of the mainstream press and its observers talk about journalism undergoing a “transition.” This conversation mostly concerns the frantic search for an online business model—one that will support the expensive habit of serious reporting—and a scattershot effort to leverage blogs and other forms of digital media. A reconsideration of some of the fundamental assumptions that shape the way we practice journalism, however, is lagging. The transition story is mostly one of adaptation instead of reinvention or rejuvenation.

At the heart of Josh Marshall’s pioneering Web journalism operation is a principle that newspapers in particular should digest. As David Glenn writes in his profile (page 22) of the man behind Talking Points Media, “Marshall believes his role is to bring his readers the best journalistic efforts on a particular topic, even when those efforts have appeared in other publications.”

Marshall appreciates the scoop, but understands that its value has diminished. Getting most stories first is, on most days, meaningless beyond bragging rights. Most scoops are quickly matched. That is not to say that the competition to be first is necessarily a bad thing, and this is especially true for stories that can’t or won’t be easily replicated. But the scoop mentality can produce sloppy or inaccurate stories—and readers don’t care who had it first anyway.

Byron Calame, the former New York Times public editor, chided the Times in a column last year for its reluctance to follow The Washington Post’s scoop on deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, urging the Times to “swallow a bit of its pride” in the interest of better serving its readers.

He’s right. Why couldn’t the Times have linked immediately to the Post article (and the excellent work done on the story by The Army Times) even as it set about expanding the coverage, online and in print, adding new reporting, reaction, analysis, and context? Instead, it waited six days to weigh in with its own start-from-scratch story. Why not embrace the competition’s good work and then take it further?

All aggregation is not created equal, of course. It’s one thing for some dentist in New Jersey with a passion for politics to select the pertinent links on a given story, add his analysis, and post it on his blog (something we’re all for, by the way); it’s quite another for the editors of The New York Times to pull together those links and shepherd the conversation.

More broadly, imagine what is possible if journalism itself could swallow a bit of pride on the collaborative front. As newsroom resources continue to contract—foreign bureaus close, staffs shrink, travel budgets evaporate—producing a broad, deep, and authoritative news report day in and day out may in some cases require that news operations join forces. Foreign coverage, especially, which is dangerously thin in the U.S., is a place where formal cooperation, both at home and abroad, could strengthen all the operations involved.

A rather pessimistic article on the future of newspapers published last year by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business entitled, “All the News That’s Fit to…Aggregate, Download, Blog: Are Newspapers Yesterday’s News?” urges newsrooms to, among other things, “accept cultural change.” Rethinking the scoop and the overall relationship between rivals would be a good place to start. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.