The Joys of Journalism, part II

Oh Cindy ain’t you noticed
That several of your friends have moved on
And the street outside is just a little too quiet
And your local papers run out of news
I’m not persuading you or disengaging you
But Cindy you and me we gotta move

Cindy Incidentally by Ian McLagan, Ron Wood, Rod Stewart

Having announced my lay off from Brandweek on the blog, it is only now fitting that I announce my new job on the blog — because the blog got me the job. Starting July 30th, I will be the person responsible for social media at Spoke.com. Another title: blogmeister.

Except for a brief stint as a bartender, this is my first non-journalism job since graduating from college and I couldn’t be happier. Not only do I like the job I’m going to (it’s a really neat company) but it’s a relief to be out of journalism.

Being a journalist these days is like playing baseball for the Cubs. Sure sometimes you get a hot streak but you know that no matter how well you do your job you’re playing for an organization that really doesn’t know what the fuck it’s doing. I am tired of working at places that are still trying to adjust to the internet era. I’m tired of telling people that paper isn’t the primary means of exchanging information anymore. Print is still an essential and important medium — it’s just not the most important one. You’d think, given the amount of ink and electrons spilled on the topic, that this message would have gotten through. Yet this basic issue is still being debated in many, many corners of my for-now-former profession.

While this by itself is troubling, even more troubling is the difficulty journalism as a whole is having adjusting to the fact that they don’t get to dictate the story any more. By and large the management of journalism and the way journalists think about what they do is still mired in the top-down mentality and utter lack of transparency of the print era. Journalism — as in what you produce — hasn’t changed. A good, well-reported story is still a good, well-reported story.

But journalists want that story to come out of a magic black box that no one else gets to look into.

This isn’t an irrational behavior. It stems from the fact that a journalist’s job is frequently to listen to people tell them that bullshit is beautiful. If the journalist then runs a story saying that, “Oh, actually bullshit is just bullshit,” then someone is going to get mad at them for saying that. That person, company or organization is going to want to explain why the story is all wrong. Sometimes that person or whatever will know less about the story than the reporter does. Or he/she/it will have a very specific reason for wanting another take on the story to be aired.

A good reporter gathers as much and as many facts as possible before deadline, takes a deep breath, steps back from all the facts he/she has gathered and then tries to make sense of them. Do this long enough and you start to be able to spot patterns of behavior that you then apply to other stories. These are the priceless instincts it takes years to develop. That is what separates a professional journalist from a citizen/reporter. It is easier to fool the latter. All reporters and editors sometimes follow those instincts too closely. They fail to apply the same skepticism to their own beliefs and actions that they apply to others. Do that too long and you become a cynic. Cynicism is the inability to remember that there’s a chance you might be wrong, that you’re judgment is not and never will be 100% accurate. Unfortunately cynicism is as endemic to journalism as black-lung is to miners.

The solution to cynicism is sun light. When it comes to other people’s businesses, journalists are that sun light. They let the public in on how and why decisions are being made. Reporting may curtail cynicism on the part of the public — who didn’t understand why something was done — and it may curtail the cynical actions of the people being reported on who now know someone is looking at what they’re doing. When it comes to journalism itself, though, we’re still closing the doors and pulling down the shades.

We don’t want to talk about how the assumptions and decisions that go into reporting, writing, editing and publishing a story. That is no longer acceptable to our audience. Our audience, a.k.a. the Whole World, wants to have a conversation. Marketers are just beginning to figure this out. The smart ones are realizing that they no longer can control what is said about their products/brands. (The really smart ones know they never did.) So they are starting to have conversations with consumers. They are listening to what consumers like and dislike. That, more than anything else, is what consumers want: to know that they are being listened to and to have their questions answered. Even when the answer is “No, we’re not going to do that.” The vast majority of people will understand that they are not always going to get their way, if you are able to explain (not tell) why they are not going to get it. This conversation helps you understand what the public expects of you that you were not aware of and it is a great source of insights that you would otherwise have remained ignorant of.

The fundamental difference between journalists and marketers is that journalists have a professional responsibility to tell people things that they don’t want to know. Journalism cannot tailor its product to what the audience thinks it wants. When it does it fails spectacularly (See George Bush Desert Classic, Run up to the) and we all suffer for it. Merely confirming what the audience already believes means losing the audience’s trust. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted is still the best description of journalism’s brand value that I’ve ever come across. This is a great brand value to have. Problem is that no one except some journalists are aware that that’s what it is.

For years my standard comment about the profession I was seemingly born into has been, “We’re in the communication business, therefore we don’t do it very well.” We think everyone else knows what journalism is and how it operates. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a reporter (sometimes me) say, “He asked me why I wrote that headline for the story.” This is followed by a snort of derisive laughter as in, “How dumb can you be?” Well the reason people don’t know that reporters don’t write headlines is because we don’t tell them. We as a profession have made the classic mistake of forgetting that others don’t know the story as well as we do. Reporters and editors know that a wall exists (or should exist) between the business side of a news organization and the news side. That’s one of the reasons we laugh when people suggest otherwise. But the fault is ours, not theirs. If we don’t tell people they’re not going to know. That basic fact applies to journalism itself just as much as it does to the things we cover.

Some places address this by having an ombudsman or some such. While this is a good thing, the idea that one person is the sole liaison between an organization and all its customers is absurd. All reporters, editors, etc., need to do that. Even if they do not answer every question about a specific story they have to regularly discuss (on the interweb via blogs, podcasts, vcasts, wikis, message boards, etc.) how and why they come to the conclusions they come to. Why was this person quoted and not that one? Why was this the first story in the broadcast? When are you going to run that funny picture of Aunt Thelma and the cow that I sent you? Doing this helps to breakdown the wall between “us” and “them.” It is another way of getting out of the newsroom or of letting other people in to it.

The more journalists do this the more non-journalists will understand and appreciate what journalism is and why it matters. That doesn’t mean they will like us. The only times people really like journalism is in the wake of a major, major shit storm like Watergate. Fortunately those don’t come along that often. To paraphrase the great social activist Saul Alinsky, “Don’t worry boys, we’ll weather this storm of approval and come out hated in the end.” That’s the way it should be.

3 thoughts on “The Joys of Journalism, part II

  1. Pingback: The Constantine Spoke « Changing Way

  2. Congratulations and good luck.

    I’m concerned about the shrinking ranks of those people who call themselves reporters. At some point, we’re going to realize that these people want to make a salary and that news isn’t free. I just hope it’s not too late when that happens.

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