A Thousand Cuts

As long as the monopoly money rolled in, who noticed?
January 21, 2010

Spencer Ackerman, who reports on national security issues for The Washington Independent and blogs about the same—and does both at a consistently high level of quality, which is not a simple task—last year posted an item on his blog, Attackerman, explaining how to deconstruct a typical piece by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. He said Hersh was ill-served by the conventional journalistic habit of shaping reporting into stories that needed to signify their importance. Lots of Hersh’s reporting, Ackerman argued, would be better understood as pure reporting and read simply because it was what Hersh had learned, whatever it portended. Shaping it into traditional journalism structures warped it.

One day, journalistic convention will decide that placing reporters like Hersh within the box of a lede (the intentional misspelling of “lead” is yet another journalistic convention that makes little sense) for a piece that needs no lede is a silly idea. Then, my friends, we will finally have the free play of notebook material. But until then, we have to read Hersh with a bit of a knowing eye. You can hate all you like, but god’s son is across the belly and he’ll prove you lost already. [Parenthesis mine, italics and capitalization his.]

I have no idea what that last sentence about God’s son and the belly means, but it’s a blog post so I don’t have to understand it and Ackerman doesn’t have to care that I don’t. This is part of the nature of blogging. The writer can assume I know exactly what he means, or not care that I don’t. Somebody else will get it. This kind of writing is directed at a very particular, almost personal, audience. It’s like writing in dialect and as far from a mass medium as you can get. While it happens to be available via the Internet to millions of people, it is certainly not aimed at them.

What Ackerman is advocating is that Hersh be liberated from the formal conventions of journalism, and the constraints that accompany them. Then he can simply say, “Here, look what I found.” Ackerman is asking, implicitly, that Hersh be regarded as a blogger. I think he’s right. I think blogging would suit Hersh. I also think blogging is saving journalism.

I worked at newspapers for thirty years and loved every day of it. Wait. It’s more complicated than that. Much more. In fact, to say I loved newspapering wholeheartedly is a bald-faced lie. I hated at least half of those three decades worth of days and swore at the end of many that it would be the last. I carried out these vows to quit several times, never for very promising prospects. I left to write speeches, to write fiction, to pound nails—none of which was I as good at as pounding a beat. So what was I fighting for or against? Sometimes, those who knew me would suggest that it was nothing more than myself. Sometimes, though, I actually had a point.

I hated the conventions that bound daily journalism, the stilted, odd language in which it was written as well as the contrived structures into which that odd language was shaped. The common newspaper style is so heavily codified you need a Berlitz course to interpret it. More than formal, the style is abstract and artificial. I once (on the very first day at a new job) got into a frighteningly intense argument with a city editor who had objected to my use of the word “slumbered” to describe the behavior of two political candidates during a debate. They didn’t really sleep through it, did they? he asked. Of course not, I said. I meant it figuratively, not literally. We don’t use figurative language here, he told me. Then he changed the word to “lumbered.”

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That was one benighted guy, but the problem was nearly universal. Until recently, you couldn’t escape it. Now you can. The advent of the Web and the proliferation of smart, aggressive bloggers around the globe have torn journalism loose from its hinges. The hounds have been unleashed.

While disliking it intensely, it is easy to forget there was a reason for the soporific style of newspaper writing. Newspapers were actually trying to do something good. They recognized that they held powerful, uncontested positions as conveyors of news to their communities. After much coaxing, they took it upon themselves to shed their partisan pasts and don a cloak of social responsibility—a practice that they called objectivity. They did it in part to sell papers—they thought if they made fewer people angry they would have more readers—but mainly they did it because they thought it was the right thing to do.

I never worked in a newsroom where these responsibilities were seriously questioned. I also never worked in one where they were seriously honored. I don’t mean that people didn’t think they were being honored. And they were, but only in the most formulaic way imaginable. A balanced story about a political debate, for example, would carefully include the points of view on both sides of whatever issue was being examined. Never mind that there might actually be three-dozen points of view, not two. The bigger problem was that this removed the newspaper from its function as a seeker of truth. That’s not our job, we said. Instead, we wrote what we were told.

The net result was that even the best newspapers became predictable and stultifying. Color and flourish in the writing were banished. Curiosity was discouraged. At one job, there was a respected senior reporter who routinely wrote his stories before doing much if any reporting. Then he would go out to find people to tell him what he had already written. He was an extreme case—almost literally filling in the blanks—but hardly alone. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked what a particular story would say before I had done a lick of reporting on it.

Stories were edited with the idea that every reader was going to read every word and therefore the words and, more damagingly, the ideas had to be of a certain simplicity. This is such a crackpot notion it barely seems fair to critique it. No one reads the entire paper; few read most of it.

The point is that newspapers have been killing themselves slowly for a long time. So long as the monopoly profits rolled in, the death by a thousand cuts wasn’t paid any attention. When the Internet arrived to eliminate the advertising monopolies, the newspapers already had a foot in the grave.

That said, it wouldn’t hurt the Web triumphalists to acknowledge that there is something more than jobs being lost in the process of newspapers dying. Whether you liked the way they did it or not, monopoly newspapers often performed civic functions.

The real power of a big paper is most apparent in a couple of specific circumstances. The first is when something really big happens, usually a disaster, causing huge portions of the paper’s resources to be thrown at the story. This is a sort of a reserve power, there when you need it but invisible when you don’t. I often was assigned to rewrite on these stories. It was a frustrating, exhilarating job. I could sit at my desk for the whole day, watching the inanity of cable news and waiting for reporters in the field to file. Then, as deadline for the day’s first edition approached, I would suddenly be overwhelmed with more great reporting than I could possibly use. Reporters I’d never heard of were giving me incredible stuff.

The second circumstance is when breathtaking stories you knew nothing about, but that people had been working on for months or years, suddenly appear in the paper. The depth of the newspaper’s staff allows for this relative luxury.

These two quite different kinds of reporting power are both threatened as newspapers decline. Because of their irregular, episodic nature, readers will not necessarily know they are gone, but their absence will make a community’s news culture considerably poorer.

I once gave a talk to a group of business executives about coverage of 9/11. My assignment back then was to profile the hijackers. My editor’s instructions were to go wherever I needed to go and stay as long as I needed to stay. Neither of us imagined the reporting would take three years and require travel to twenty countries on four continents. But it did. In the middle of my talk one of the executives interrupted. “This is fascinating,” he said, “but I can’t help asking: How does it cost out?” It doesn’t, of course. There isn’t much a newspaper does that pays for itself. I suppose you could think about this sort of reporting as brand management, reminding your readers you’re a serious organization. But without the subsidy of the monopoly profits, there will be less and less of this kind of coverage, if any at all.

Ours is a newspaper family. My wife and I met in a newsroom. She takes her BlackBerry to bed so she can read the next day’s New York Times the night before. We have three papers delivered every morning. I read them in thirty minutes, thirty-five if there are box scores to scrutinize. Clearly, there’s much more looking than reading going on.

Which isn’t to say I don’t read. I read a lot, but selectively. When I’m working on an extended reporting project, I tend to read exclusively on that subject. This does not a well-rounded person make. Or a well-rounded news consumer. In truth, though, I’ve never much liked reading news, even when I was reporting it. I’ve written a couple, but haven’t read a murder story in years, or a campaign-trail dispatch in many more. I’m a big sports fan but almost never read newspaper sports stories. Here’s why:

Cliff Lee looked like Neo on top of the building at the end of the Matrix. Like the game slowed down just for him and he could see everything in ten different ways while the Yankees were stuck in their little three dimension [sic] world.

This was Craig Calcaterra, a lawyer with too much time on his hands, blogging on The Hardball Times about the first game of last year’s World Series. This is almost the perfect beginning for a blog post. It assumed you knew what had happened. It cast its subject into pop culture and it was dead-on smart. Compare it to any newspaper game story and tell me which you would rather read. Yeah, me too.

Even when I still worked for a newspaper, I was already spending more time reading things that were connected to the news, driven by it, but that weren’t newspapers. This has only been exacerbated since I left the newsroom. I used to argue that newspapers ought to return to their mass-medium roots—the high-voltage days of the penny press. That now seems silly. Newspapers have a product that is mismatched to their audience, but becoming more of a mass medium is no longer possible. There is increasingly no mass to be mediated. Everything’s been blown apart. It’s as if somebody set off a bomb in a crystal museum; there are shards of audience scattered from here to kingdom come.

The shards, though, are empowered to reassemble outside the museum. I and thousands of others have built our own newspapers out of rss feeds. I subscribe to about a hundred different Web sites and have organized them in Google Reader. The material is automatically fed into a system of folders that I designate. Think of the folders as newspaper sections. My A section is science news. My B section is sports, baseball and professional basketball only. The C section is politics. D is books and movies.

After I spend my half hour reading the three newspapers, I spend a solid two hours reading through my subscription list. It’s customizable, specific, highly organized, idiosyncratic, and immediate. How can a newspaper compete with that?

Terry McDermott spent thirty years at eight newspapers, most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where he reported from more than twenty countries. He is the author of the upcoming The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.