Of Hamsters and Values

Reply to Felix Salmon

“The Hamster Wheel,” my argument against news organizations’ cranked-up productivity requirements for reporters, generated some nice discussion, including a post by Felix Salmon over at Reuters, who pushed back against some of its main points. I would have responded earlier, but I was meditating in the CJR yurt.

Felix’s post was gleaned from a compelling talk he gave at one of our Audit Breakfasts that got us all thinking about the idea of “reading” as a key function of this brave new journalistic world.

But his post (up 90 minutes after the breakfast ended!) mostly talks past my argument, which he frames as a defense of an old-top down model and a knock on the new journalism-as-conversation between and among people who may or may not identify themselves as journalists.

Where Dean sees vast amounts of “completely unimportant” dross, I see journalists simply engaging more with their readers, which is a good thing.

Actually, my piece is about the news organizations’ unthinking bureaucratic response to a harrowing new media climate—to squeeze more words per day—stories, blog posts, video, what have you—from their reporters. This is not “engagement.” This is panic. To put it in Felix’s terms, it is the opposite of reading. It’s writing, or, as I argue in the piece, motion for its own sake. Oh, and the quote he uses isn’t from me, but a WSJ staffer, one of many working journalists I cite who say the same thing. Their word should count for something.

Felix leaps to defend the examples of dubious resource-allocation decisions I cite, including the WSJ bright idea to have seven staffers live-blog the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies:

But these were WSJ reporters in Canada to cover the Olympics. There’s only one Olympic event going on during the opening ceremony, and such ceremonies always have lots of reporters at them. The only difference now is that the reporters are transparent about being there, and are trying to provide at least a little bit of value for their readers at the same time. Does Dean really think that if they weren’t live-blogging the ceremonies, they would instead be shouting into their cellphones over the noise, trying to track down some securities fraudster?

Here’s a question back: Does Felix really think there is zero cost to this exercise? Even if five (four, three, two) of the reporters were just resting, I would argue, that would be better use of their time. But if we really must all work 24/7, which is an implied tenet of a lot of current journalism discourse, they might instead of writing be, in Felix’s terms, reading. Or, yes, having a drink with a source or talking to them on the phone (or not covering the Winter Olympics at all). You can’t live-blog and do something else at the same time. It’s not complicated.

Felix also defends the poor Kokomo Tribune, which I picked on for its “Sheriff plans no car purchases in 2011”:

But the internal problems with the story aside—the department will save “$185,000,” it says, but without context—the point is that while the piece does add a scrap of new information, the reporter could have been doing something deeper and better about the sheriff’s department, or about anything else instead of a piece emanated from, and of course flattering to, local officials (“The county recently approved the purchase of a flush-and-fill machine that changes the transmission fluid.”). This isn’t about whether to cover the sheriff, but how.

I see no one has yet stepped up to defend “Ben Marter’s Home-Cooked Weekend” in Politico.

He also misses the point here:

Dean has a very old-fashioned view of what journalism is and should be: “the corest of core” values, he says, at any news organization, are investigations. Now I have nothing against good investigative journalism, but it’s hardly a defining feature of most journalism, and in fact Dean’s attitude is extremely elitist, germane only for a handful of big daily newspapers. Most copy in all newspapers, and all copy in most newspapers, is simple stuff, and always has been. People read it because it’s relevant to them, because they can talk about it, and because they might as well read the stories after they’ve bought the paper for the supermarket coupons.

Actually, it’s quite a different thing to say that investigations (and public-interest reporting) are a “core value,” than it is to say they are the “defining feature of most journalism,” which is what he says I said. A core value is something on which a news culture can be built. It doesn’t mean everything is an investigation.

Also, investigative and public interesting reporting is not at all an “elite” (an easy word to throw around) function. Small papers do investigations all the time, and God bless them for it. And the journalism values that inspire them aren’t old-fashioned, but eternal, deeply embedded in American journalism culture. Trust me, they aren’t going anywhere.

Our disagreements aside, Felix’s central point about reading as an underappreciated and poorly taught skill is insightful. It is also entirely timely, given that, as he says, there is now, as never before, so many incredibly useful things speedily available to read and discuss. This is a new day. I don’t quite agree that the dichotomy between fact-gathering and comment (a la Nick Lemann’s memorable lemon meringue pie analogy, cited in Felix’s post, with the facts being the lemon and comment being the meringue!) is old hat, but I’m open to the idea that many do both quite well. But then that’s not new, either.

Felix told the breakfast this is a “golden age” of journalism, and I can see why, from his point of view, he might think so.

But I’d add one caution: we all face the danger of being a bit too in love with our own shtick. My background is in investigations, so I love them. Felix is a highly skilled blogger and user of digital media, and so he loves that. I was on a panel last year with a personal finance reporter, who told the crowd if only there had been more personal finance writers, we might not have had a financial crisis. He’s a personal finance writer; he loves that.

Legacy news organizations still dominate news Web traffic and provide much of the grist that is milled online. Whatever the form or media, they need to remember who they are.

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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.