Navigating the bedlam

CJR's new way forward

(Illustration by WeBuyYourKids)

It came as a jolt. After 25 years at The Washington Post, where I’d spent my early days as a reporter and my later years as the managing editor, I was ready for a break. And I was taking one, on my back porch, listening to music and enjoying the still life of a freelance book editor. But nine months in, I suddenly found myself contemplating the idea of moving to New York, to become the editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. The idea seemed as ill-timed as it did tempting.

So I did what anyone might. I asked my friends what they’d do. Most of them are journalists, the ideal test lab, and I thought I had a pretty good handle on what they’d say: Why upend your life to work for a publication that has so many other competitors out there? How many outlets do we really need drenching us in criticism and advice?

Their answers were not what I expected. Most all of them urged me to go for it. They said journalists need a serious publication that covers their profession vigilantly and produces reasoned, reported pieces on what they do. They want stories that help them navigate the bedlam, feel smarter, and think differently about their chaotic industry. They want some kind of pilot.

I realized walking out of a restaurant after listening to one particularly passionate appeal from a friend and former colleague that I was fired up, and two feet in.

Writing from New York in my first month on the job, I’m still fired up, and determined to see that CJR lives up to the aspirations of its readers, in print and online.

That starts with thorough, authoritative examinations of important stories, of broad coverage areas, of newsroom practices, and of individuals in those newsrooms. It does not mean simply reading other people’s stories and then settling in for a keyboard rant. CJR should be flying at a higher altitude, or that is my hope.

I want CJR to be an intelligent, reliable venue for ideas, analysis, and discovery of the fast-evolving forces in journalism. These pieces should feel urgent and revelatory. They should be pieces that reach the front edge of a topic, that are unique, and not just chiming in.

This can’t be achieved unless CJR becomes a true forum for the great writers and thinkers in journalism now, and including some outside the field who have a light to shine. For CJR to have maximum impact, its site and its magazine need to be filled with the insights and contributions of journalists in the field.

This is my first issue, and it is more the beginning of a process than an end to one. Our website and other digital products will be evolving and so will the magazine. In this issue, our cover story is by Marc Fisher, one of the most influential writers at The Washington Post and a former colleague of mine. Marc takes us on an exploration of how newsrooms are re-examining one of their most core values—how much to worry about whether what we write is actually true. Not long ago it was common practice to run stories through a gauntlet of editors who would assess the accuracy of the author’s work. Now, accuracy is often considered more of an iterative process, to be reached through audience input.

We also have a reported essay by staff writer Michael Meyer on the power of photography to alter the course of war, and a smart look by assistant editor Alexis Sobel Fitts on the boisterous ranks of liberal commentators joining Fox News.

My relationship with journalism is passionate and deep. It took root at the age of 10, when I first joined its professional ranks as the editor, publisher, and sole writer of the yarn-bound “Spayd Sentinel.” I am grateful now to be a part of the talented team here at the Columbia Journalism Review, and as we aspire to sharpen our mission, it is hard to imagine a more worthy public service.

—Elizabeth Spayd

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Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR.