Rethinking Journalism

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Forgive the diversion from my normal comments on money in politics, but a couple of recent stories in the Washington Post – and the reaction so far to the Dennis Hastert story that Bill Allison dug up – are worthy of comment.

The story that really got me thinking was Jay Rosen’s op-ed in Monday’s Post, Web Users Open the Gates. Rosen teaches journalism at NYU and runs a blog called PressThink. His piece points out many ways that the web – and especially the emergence of bloggers – has revolutionized the way mainstream media does its job. Uncomfortable as this has been for many journalists, Rosen concludes the shakeup will do them good.

His op-ed was a sidebar to an interesting story by Patricia Sullivan on the impact of the web in the 10 years since the Post first put up its own website. First, the facts:

Newsrooms shrunk by layoffs and battered by bloggers, are seeing their traditional audiences shrink. Daily newspapers lost 1.2 million readers in the six months that ended in March, down to 45.5 million. Online newspaper readership grew to 56 million.

Sullivan’s story goes on to talk about how the media has reacted, and often stumbled, during this revolution in news coverage and reader habits. Then she delivered a sentence that stopped me cold:

Newspapers, the biggest and oldest segment of the mainstream media, are built on the work of creative, contentious and quick-witted people, but also of curmudgeons who resist change.

As an old reporter, I reflexively read this as a statement of the essential difference between reporters (creative, contentious and quick-witted) and editors (curmudgeons who resist change).

But then I realized no, that’s not the split. It’s a new line between people who can adapt to this rapidly-shifting environment and people who can’t. That’s when I realized with a shock that even after 10 years of working in the medium of the internet, I’m a curmudgeon! At the very least I’m feeling like one, since I’m having a devil of a time trying to write this blog.

It’s a different format than the one I grew up on, different in ways much deeper than I’d realized at first. The format calls for writing that looks a lot more like an email than a newspaper column – something I’m finding it very hard to adjust to. It’s especially daunting thinking that something spun off without a second’s reflection may survive on the web for years to come. Ah the double edge sword of Google.

So that’s why there’s been a several-day hiatus in postings and while there’ll be several more before this blog resumes. I feel like I’m stuck between two paradigms, both of which are still moving beneath my feet.

Anyway, one who is definitely not a curmudgeon is my colleague Bill Allison. It was Bill’s story about Dennis Hastert’s profitable land dealings that first appeared in his blog last week and has since continued to percolate around the country.

It hasn’t been picked up yet by the Washington Post or New York Times, so by one measure of influence in Washington it doesn’t yet exist. But it’s bubbling elsewhere – both in newspapers and in the blogosphere – and it’s clear the story is far from running its course. [UPDATE: It’s finally hit the Post.]

That online gestation period is one side of the new journalism, but an even more important side is the effort that

Bill is trying to mount recruiting “citizen muckrakers” to give some real scrutiny to the financial disclosure reports of every member of Congress, just as he scrutinized Denny Hastert’s.

 

And why not? It’s the sort of thing that news organizations ought to deliver, but they rarely do. You’ll see a one-day story the day the reports are filed, and that’s usually it until the new ones come out a year later.

In the old world, the newspapers were the gatekeepers, so the story died. The personal financial disclosure reports may as well have been locked in a filing cabinet. Frankly, every reporter in Washington knows of stories that nobody’s digging into – usually because there’s no time. Good stories take time to develop, and time is one of the most precious commodities in Washington. Nobody has enough.

But people outside the Beltway do. Just as people outside newsrooms can dig things up even if they’re not professional reporters. Why not put people’s energies to use? If that’s the new journalism and we’ll see more of it in the future, sign me up.

But not till next week. I need some time to enjoy the Oregon coast, where – at long last – the sun is shining.

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