It’s About the Stories

A response to Emily Bell

I thank Emily for her critique of “Confidence Game.” Alysia Santo is pulling together other responses, and I’ll get to those later.

Emily and I agree on a lot, so I’ll get straight to the main point of disagreement.

I say:

The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things, than under the previous monopolistic regime.

Emily says:

The suggestion that the Internet has “disempowered” journalists is just not true. In a global context it is willfully wrong. But even in the narrow context of journalism in the US, to say that individual journalists are disempowered by a medium that allows for so much more individual reporting and publishing freedom is baffling. If this case is made in the newsroom context of reporters having too much to do, then maybe this is an institutional fault in misunderstanding the requirements of producing effective digital journalism. Unlike the pages and pages of newsprint and rolling twenty-four-hour news, there is no white space, no dead airtime to fill on the Internet. It responds to 140 characters as well as to five thousand words.

I don’t know, but I sense that her point about journalism being better off now in the “global context” is well-taken. As I say in the piece, there’s no proving any of this, but let’s grant the general point and hope we can hear more about how things are better around the world.

But regarding the idea that US reporters are more empowered today: Let’s just say we can both find testimonials that take opposite sides of the debate. She should see my inbox, for instance. “Everyone’s running around like rats,” is what a Wall Street Journal editor told me for my piece, “Hamster Wheel,” and I don’t think it would be hard to find that sentiment echoed in newsrooms around the country.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, for one, backs me up:

In today’s newspapers, stories tend to be gathered faster and under greater pressure by a smaller, less experienced staff of reporters, then are passed more quickly through fewer, less experienced, editing hands on their way to publication.

And I won’t cite chapter and verse, but a University of Cardiff study came to similar conclusions, and so did, if I may namedrop, the FCC, which discusses “hamsterization” at some length.

And, to stay with my old paper as a case study, no one has yet responded to the data from “Hamster Wheel” showing that 13 percent fewer unionize WSJ reporters turned out nearly twice as many stories in 2008 as compared to a decade earlier. I also think it’s relevant that, as Ryan Chittum showed, that long-form reporting in the WSJ has, quantitatively speaking, dropped through the floor.

Thomas Frank, I think, made a compelling case last year (see the aptly titled: “Bright Frenetic Mills” [$$]) in Harper’s that intra-newsroom labor/management issues are implicated. To say that these need some thought is an understatement.

Emphasizing a key passage in the quote from Emily above, as commenter CW Anderson did below the post:

If this case is made in the newsroom context of reporters having too much to do, then maybe this is an institutional fault in misunderstanding the requirements of producing effective digital journalism.

Yes, that’s exactly the case I’m making—and that the FCC et al. are making—except that it’s an industry fault, not just an institutional one. And here is where the public intellectuals come into play.

I agree with future-of-news arguments about the benefits of networked news, engagement with readers, and new storytelling forms. But productivity and quality issues should be on the table, and they haven’t been.

In the end, it all boils down to the stories. My problem with future-of-news thinkers is that they seem to want to talk about everything else.

Much of the rest of Emily’s argument I find pretty congenial with my not-entirely tongue-in-cheek notion of a Neo-Institutional-Hub-and-Spoke model. As commenter Jason Thomas, for instance, said below Emily’s post: “The argument was never made in the previous piece that twitter could not be a useful tool for sourcing new contacts or sources.”

The Guardian is indeed showing the way on many fronts, and if future-of-news thinkers helped it along, more power to them. But I was responding to their ideas as written—they are public intellectuals, after all—and obviously I took issue with many of them.

Finally, I realize I was reaching for some heavy artillery when I opened with Tarbell (and to see her invoked on all sides is one of the biggest kicks I got out the response) but I did it to make the point that in the end, for me, the public-service stories are the point.

Put another way, I, too, find inspiring the anecdote of the student who was able to network her way to great sources. But the anecdote is all about the reporter’s experience, the process, when what matters is the product.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.