Getting Over Ourselves

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

In late January, over the course of a week, a lousy journalism job market became truly awful. About 1,000 journalists learned they were being laid off, at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett, marking a grim record for an industry that has traded in bad news for a decade. By habit, reporters turned to Twitter, mourning for friends who had been cut, venting about their bosses, and desperately beginning a search for work.

It was at that point that the jeers began. A chorus of online trolls began mocking the misfortune of laid-off reporters, saying, basically, that they had it coming. That escalated into increasingly vicious and personal attacks, racist and anti-Semitic, including a meme calling for reporters to be killed. Finally and inevitably, President Trump joined the fray, predicting more bad news for the press—and, he said, rightly so.

Journalism’s response was largely to lock arms and turn inward. People blamed the Twitter trolling on a far-right cabal. They filtered the backlash through partisan politics. A few editors hit back at Trump for going after journalists, who have the same medical bills and rent payments and student loan debt as everyone else. They knew he wouldn’t listen.

This sort of back-and-forth has become routine over these past two long years. Since that first wave in January, others followed in February, doubling the number of lost jobs. Attacked by the “other side,” reporters recede among their own kind, seeking solidarity (it’s a reason newsroom unionization is growing). On social media and in conversations over beers, the bunker is fortified, as journalists begin to dismiss, and tune out, people who dislike them. Then they continue on as they were, filing hot takes at a rapid pace, chasing the next scoop (always following Trump’s lead), and loudly broadcasting their stories in frantic hyperbole. More and more, everyone accepts a world that is cleft in two—us and them, facts versus fantasy, the enlightened few against an angry mob.

This can’t be good. Journalism, after all, is supposed to be about the airing of ideas, about empathy, about listening to what other people think, even, and especially, if they’re not like you. That’s where the best stories live. But because of our natural instinct to huddle together and protect our pack, we fail to do what we desperately must: step away and start reporting on people in realms outside our own. What’s essential to storytelling isn’t any of us in the press—it almost never is—it’s the subjects. In better understanding who they are (they happen to be our readers), we can, perhaps, begin the necessary process of rebuilding journalism.

 

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We’ve all at one time or another said to a friend, usually someone not in journalism, “Oh, you have a life!” It’s a bit of an insult, but just as much a point of fascination: you have a way of being that takes place outside of this. For those trapped in the news churn, there is an intense—often oddly superior—feeling of remove from “other people.” The ones with lives. But writing about people as they live their lives is a luxury journalists can’t afford to miss. If you can’t get past news pegs, how can you perceive anyone as they really are?

We have to be willing to try something new. Journalism’s next great project has to be not looking in the mirror (which we’ve become quite good at over the past two years, first obsessing over every flaw and blemish, then staring in awe at our own self-importance) but honestly assessing how others see us, and how we can see them better.

That’s going to be painful. A big swath of the public doesn’t like us or trust us, polls show; many Americans even question the value of the press as an institution. Faith in journalists has never been high, but we’ve reached a dangerous new drop in the relationship. We know some reasons: the financial crisis of 2008 occasioned profound misgivings about institutional power, and media organizations were swept up in that discontent. Journalism, in the general public’s view, had grown both self-absorbed and uncritical of the establishment. The economy recovered but trust in media did not.

The press was seen as part of the power structure—part of the problem—and indeed it was. Starting in the 1980s, as profit margins for newspapers and magazines soared, journalism grew increasingly corporatized. Media companies catered more to advertisers than to readers; subscription numbers were secondary to success. The stories we told reflected that shift in approach. 

It was a detour from which we never returned—and one that bypassed the vital work being done by writers like Studs Terkel and Joseph Mitchell and Raymond Carver, who we largely ignored as models for professional practice. Today you can go back and marvel at their work, be it fiction or journalism: I’ve personally been on a Carver tear, and am now convinced that I’ve learned more about fear and alienation in 2019 America from his short stories—dating to the 1980s—than I have from any number of more recent features in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

Consider this brief moment from Carver’s short story “Want to See Something?,” first published in 1981:

I went back to the front of the house and down the sidewalk. I stopped for a minute with my hand on our gate and looked around the still neighborhood. I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt a long way away from everybody I had known and loved when I was a girl. I missed people. . . .it came to me then that my life did not remotely resemble the life I thought I’d have when I had been young and looking ahead to things. 

Perhaps this has always been the case, that journalism has had its nose too close to the glass to get at bigger truths. You need art, or fiction or movies, to do that.

But the scale of the story we are living through today demands a higher level of journalistic thinking. And we are nowhere near where we should be.

 

Journalists, of course, are just people. They are beset as never before—by a failing business model, by a public that doesn’t want them, by a political climate that calls into question how they see the world, and by a national leader who has declared them, literally, “the enemy.” Yet one of the ironies of life under Trump is that, as his attacks on the media have become the mainstay of his withering presidency, the fortunes of the press outlets most critical of him have vastly improved. Paid readership of the Post and the Times is growing impressively, as is viewership of MSNBC and CNN. You would think that this represents journalism binding to its audience.

That has not happened. For one thing, even as readers have become the crucial source of media companies’ revenue, newsrooms haven’t been covering their communities much differently. This is now an existential problem. At the very moment that readers are rallying behind the Times, for instance, its management made the decision to kill the role of public editor—the readers’ ombudsman—and replace it with an online commenting system that simply does not work. The paper’s marketing campaign, “The Truth,” is something pulled out of the vault from the days when newspapers were the voice of god, watching and ruling from on high.

We have to be willing to try something new. Journalism’s next great project has to be not looking in the mirror but honestly assessing how others see us, and how we can see them better.

Journalists have long thought that we have unique access to a greater truth, and, if others can’t see or won’t accept it, we soldier on, smugly content in the knowledge that right is on our side. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if that attitude doesn’t change, journalism as we know it may not survive. We desperately need our readers; there isn’t a viable business model that doesn’t count subscription or membership revenue as a central plank.

But it would be a mistake, and shortsighted, to frame the need to repair the relationship between the press and the general public as mainly a business problem. It is that, but journalism is also an enterprise in civic duty. If we are unwilling to engage with people about how they see us, we fail to perceive the world as it is, and we’re unable to do our jobs.

The surreal circus of the past two years has thrown up a smoke screen of fear and antagonism, convincing some of us that we need to batten down the hatches and wait it out. The outside world is a Trump rally, and members of the press are cordoned off, muttering about the losers out there lobbing insults at us.

That is not a path to securing our business, our profession, or our pride in our work. We’ll do so only by becoming immersed in the world, not staying apart from it; by imagining alternative ways to develop a picture of a community; by seeking to understand and, painful though it might be, adjusting our perspective.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.