Tales from the Hamster Wheel

Tell us yours (or share examples of the Wheel has wrought)

That plump rodent on the cover of the current CJR spinning his wheel as fast as his burdened little feet allow: Maybe you can relate? Are you, as the sub-hed to Dean Starkman’s cover story, “The Hamster Wheel,” has it, running as fast as you can and getting nowhere? We want to hear your experiences with, as Starkman puts it, “the do-more-with-less meme that is sweeping the news business,” a.k.a., “The Hamster Wheel.”

Writes Starkman:

The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics (Bloomberg!). It is “Sheriff plans no car purchases in 2011,” (Kokomo Tribune, 7/5/10). It is “Ben Marter’s Home-Cooked Weekend,” (Politico, 6/28/10): “Saturday morning, he took some of the leftover broccoli, onions, and mushrooms, added jalapenos, and made omeletes for a zingy breakfast.” Ben Marter is communications director for a congresswoman. It’s live-blogging the opening ceremonies, matching stories that don’t matter, and fifty-five seconds of video of a movie theater screen being built: “Wallingford cinema adding 3 screens (video),” (New Haven Register, 6/1/10)… …

None of this is written down anywhere, but it’s real. The Hamster Wheel, then, is investigations you will never see, good work left undone, public service not performed. It is the perceived imperative to churn out every story that might have been nice to have had, at some point, maybe, given unlimited resources, but that, given highly constrained news budgets, should be allowed to recede into history unrecorded—or unrecorded by you, even if it is recorded by a thousand others. How many readers really ask themselves, “I wonder why my site didn’t have that Lugar-urges-‘common sense’-in-new-farm-dust-trials story?” (AP, 8/9/10).

You say, “Why not have it?” I say, “Because it isn’t free.” The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.

So come on, vent. Tell us your tales from The Hamster Wheel. Tell us, for example, about being assigned to (or being confronted with) a story that should’ve been “allowed to recede into history unrecorded.” Describe that time you were asked to do “three easier things” rather than “fly to Chicago to talk to that guy” or “read[ing] that bankruptcy examiner’s report.” How and where have you, working journalists and news consumers alike, seen the Wheel at work? We want firsthand input on The Hamster Wheel’s output.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.