Teaching journalists to read

By Felix Salmon
September 17, 2010
club, being offered an array of ties to choose from before being allowed upstairs to take my seat between Nicholas Lemann and Victor Navasky.

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Every six months or so, The Audit, CJR’s financial-journalism blog, holds a breakfast to update interested parties on how the blog is doing. Each breakfast has an invited speaker, and so it was that I found myself at 7:45 this morning in a very posh Upper East Side club, being offered an array of ties to choose from before being allowed upstairs to take my seat between Nicholas Lemann and Victor Navasky.

The main thrust of my speech, which rapidly became a spirited and high-level discussion, was that journalistic entities — newspapers, magazines, websites, and, yes, Columbia J-school itself — have to start putting much more emphasis on reading, as opposed to writing.

The reason, fundamentally, is that journalism is becoming much more conversational. It started with the rise of the blogs, and if blogs are now slowly dying out, that’s only because the conversation has overtaken them. It’s moved to Twitter, and Facebook, and many mainstream websites, too: the web is social now. You no longer need a blog to be part of the conversation; you don’t even need a Tumblr. Everybody is a publisher now, and all these new networks have helped to create a new vibrancy in public discourse.

This thesis was a good one to bring to an Audit breakfast, I think, because it runs directly counter to the ideas of the Audit’s Dean Starkman, who has written a long piece about what he calls the “hamster wheel” of contemporary journalism. (It’s ultimately going to become part of a book he’s writing on financial journalism and the financial crisis.)

Where Dean sees vast amounts of “completely unimportant” dross, I see journalists simply engaging more with their readers, which is a good thing. Here’s Dean, turning the snark dial to 11:

Put it this way, given limited resources, not all readers would think to assign seven (!) staffers to live blog the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, as The Wall Street Journal did in February:

The preceremony starts, with instructions to the audience. As always in Canada, all explanations are in English and French.

But again, that’s just me. Perhaps there was nothing else to look into that night—in the whole world.

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?

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.

Dean, for instance, doesn’t think this is real journalism:

For the first time in many years, the Howard County Sheriff Department is planning not to purchase any new patrol cars, saving the county $185,000.

I disagree. I think people in Howard County care about this kind of thing — they talk about this kind of thing. If you were walking down the street and saw cinema screens being built, you’d stop to take a look. The New Haven Register allows you to do that from your home computer? Great!

Meanwhile, what does Dean think is being lost?

Do you fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing? Do you read that bankruptcy examiner’s report? Or do you do three things that are easier?

What if you don’t need to fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing, because he’s already put up a detailed explanation of what he thinks online? And if Dean means the bankruptcy examiner’s report I think he means, I’d point him here. Really good journalism is being written about such things every day — it’s just that a lot of it isn’t coming from old-school media outlets. Vanity Fair’s Bethany McLean was also at the breakfast, and she confirmed that the blogosphere is a goldmine for people like her who want to understand the crisis, both in hindsight and as a way of working out what people were thinking and saying contemporaneously.

And of course there are new sources of pure investigative journalism online, too.

What’s more, even in those halcyon days when investigative reporters could spend years on an investigation, the number of readers that investigation reached was tiny: you needed to fortuitously be a reader of the right newspaper on the right day when it appeared, and you needed to be interested in the subject. Today, investigations are much more likely to reach a broad and influential audience, because they are easily available, in perpetuity, no matter where you are in the world.

But Dean doesn’t see it, because he’s concentrating only on old-fashioned media. He complains (without linking) that “the news business has lost an estimated 15,000 journalists since 2000″ — but I don’t think that’s true at all. Mike Mandel is excellent on this, and in fact is a prime example of what’s going on: he might no longer be working for an old-school publication like Businessweek, but he’s still very much a journalist, and is even employing journalists as well:

Overall the number of employed journalists, based on the Current Population Survey, has increased by 19% over the past three year. Meanwhile, the number of employed college graduates has risen by only 3%, and overall employment, as measured by the CPS, has dropped by almost 5%…

Yahoo, for example, hired Jane Sasseen, BW’s very good Washington Bureau chief, to help beef up politics coverage. That job likely shows up in the industry “internet publishing and broadcasting and web search portals”, which has grown by 22% over the past three years. Or take my business, Visible Economy LLC. We’ve hired three young journalists, but it’s tough to say whether these jobs would show up in educational services or in journalism.

Financial journalists know better than most how tight the journalism job market really is: in my field, demand for good journalists vastly exceeds supply*. I get asked on a weekly basis if I can recommend someone for this or that job. And normally the answer is that no, I can’t: pretty much everybody’s taken already. The result is that journalists are getting poached on a regular basis, and salaries are rising impressively: we live in a world where Dennis Kneale has reportedly been pulling down $500,000 a year.

The fact is that a huge universe of great material is being published every day, by old media and new media alike. And increasingly, tools like Twitter are doing a good job of helping the public find the really good stuff. It might be a smaller percentage of the whole than we’re used to, and there might even be less of it on an absolute basis than there was in the past. But there’s much more great journalism available to the average member of the population than there ever used to be. In the olden days, if you didn’t get the NYT or the WaPo, you didn’t read their journalism.* Nowadays, when they publish something great, you read it. Just like when Gawker publishes something great. Or Yahoo blogs. Or some guy in Australia with a blogspot account who can move a stock 20% overnight by sheer force of argument alone.

Still, the biggest thing that’s missing in the journalistic establishment is people who are good at finding all that great material, and collating it, curating it, adding value to it, linking to it, presenting it to their readers. It’s a function which has historically been pushed into a blog ghetto, and which newspapers and old media generally have been pretty bad at. And of course old media doesn’t understand blogs in the first place, let alone have the confidence or the ability to incorporate such thinking into everything they do.

Think about it this way: reading is to writing as listening is to talking — and someone who talks without listening is both a boor and a bore. If you can’t read, I don’t want you in my newsroom. Because you aren’t taking part in the conversation which is all around you.

When journalists apply for jobs today, they’re usually given some kind of writing test. Certainly the people hiring them will look at their clips. Everybody cares about how good a writer you are. So long as you write well, it seems, that’s all that matters.

But if I were hiring, the first thing I’d look at would be the prospective employee’s Twitter feed. What are they linking to? What are they reading? If they’re linking to great stuff from a disparate range of sources, if they’re following smart people on Twitter, if they’re engaged in the conversation — that’s hugely valuable. More valuable, in fact, than being able to put together an artfully-constructed lede.

One of the best new media properties to come along in recent years is the Atlantic Wire. It’s run on a shoestring budget, and staffed by young, smart, hardworking kids with fantastic reading skills. Many of them can write, too — but they write short and punchy. Which is something else Old Media needs to learn how to do: it’s always much more fun reading a Gawker pickup of a Washington Post story than reading the original piece.

The biggest shortage in journalism right now isn’t good writers, or even enlightened proprietors willing to fund investigations. It’s critical readers – journalists who can see when they’re being snowed, who can read between the lines, who can pick up information from across the blogosphere and the twittersphere and be able to judge it on its own merits rather than simply trusting the publisher.

We need much more critical reading, and we also, desperately, need much more linking from Old Media to outside sources. Links aren’t something cute to relegate to a blog ghetto — they’re an intrinsic part of what journalism has to be in the 21st Century. And most journalists are very, very, bad at linking.

Linking and reading, of course, are close cousins: you can’t do the former unless you do the latter.

But once we achieve a world where reading and linking are taught and valued as much as writing, then suddenly the prospects for journalism start looking bright again. The best material will get found and disseminated broadly, through links, and that in turn will encourage publishers to invest in producing such material. Look, again, at Gawker Media, which gets the majority of its traffic through original reporting, much of it of extremely high quality. (And, I’d add, which pays good six-figure salaries to its top bloggers.)

We’ll have much less pointless redundancy, the idiotic syndrome whereby hundreds of journalists from loads of different publications all descend on the same press conference or event, and all file virtually-identical copy. That’s commodity news, and it’s low-hanging fruit in terms of journalistic effort which can and should be eliminated.

And we’ll have much more valuable insight, as experts become disintermediated and journalists start linking to them rather than quoting them. It’s much less work for the journalist, and it’s more valuable and transparent for the reader.

The Audit, and especially its lead writer Ryan Chittum, is a great exemplar of what good critical reading can be, and of how to take part in the debate and the conversation. They’re a harbinger of what everybody will be doing, sooner or later.

But it’s going to take a while to get there: when I expressed these thoughts at the breakfast, I got pushback from the likes of Jonathan Dahl, the editor in chief of Smart Money. He has a substantial staff dedicated to Smart Money’s website, and every day his Google Alert shows him all of the great inbound links that the website is generating. These are people who don’t just like the material so much that they read it: they like it enough to link to it, too. It’s a great validation of the work that Smart Money is doing.

Yet Dahl, for all that he’s grateful for the links, actually dislikes what he’s seeing. He reckons that all those bloggers are just parasitical on his staff’s original reporting and work, and reckons that he has the tough and thankless task of producing the original material, with everybody else outsourcing that work to him without paying him.

Lemann, too, said something similar, comparing the online journalistic ecosystem to a lemon meringue pie with a whisper-thin layer of lemon at the bottom and lots of frothy meringue layered on top. (The lemon, of course, is “reporting”, while the meringue is “commentary”.)

That kind of view says to me that most senior journalists still don’t appreciate the real value being added by the blogosphere — and nor do they appreciate just how much original reporting is done by blogs and other online outlets these days. You can’t become popular just by linking and aggregating, any more: you need good original content.

Still, Lemann’s moving in the right direction: he appreciates that Columbia’s J-school graduates often have to do a lot of critical reading and curating the minute they leave university, and therefore is looking at ways of teaching that. He and I are both optimistic that Emily Bell will be able to help on that front. I’d just love it if things could speed up a bit. Because right now a lot of old-school publications are getting left far behind. And that’s not helping their financial prospects one bit.

*Update: To clarify, the journalism jobs market in general isn’t tight. Look at Demand Media, and the way in which they seem to have no problem hiring people to write for a pittance. But the financial-journalism jobs market is very tight. And in the olden days, NYT and WaPo journalism appeared across the country, in many regional newspapers, thanks to their respective newswires. So you could find NYT journalism without buying the NYT, you just needed to buy a paper which carried NYT stories.

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