I don’t hate newspapers, really, I don’t

Dog Reads Newspaper?
Photo credit at bottom of post

The arrival of a new year and a new decade has prompted many “where was I ten years ago?” posts from people far smarter and more talented than this humble scribe. For me, though, this retrospective meandering was nothing new. I find myself gazing back to the turn of the millennium every time I hear about another newspaper axing staff or closing up shop altogether.

Back in 2000 I was a cocky kid slogging my way through journalism school. I had all the arrogance that comes with someone meeting with success at one of the best j-skools in the country (or so it sells itself – that’s a debate for another post, however). Yet despite being pretty good at journalism – at the student level at least – I was also coming quickly to the realization that I wasn’t meant to be a journalist.

It was hard to articulate at the time but I just felt like mainstream journalism wasn’t going to suit me. Even then, before the emergence of easy-to-use self-publishing tools and ‘citizen journalism,’ I sensed a disconnect between the noble craft we were studying and the reality on the ground. Sure, there was (and continues to be) phenomenal journalism being done out there. But more often than not, the finished product is anything but. News is produced to meet artificial deadlines; it’s published to feed a seemingly insatiable desire for news first instead of news best.

So as I grew closer and closer to graduation, while many of my classmates were fighting it out for internships and summer reporting jobs, I grew my hair out, dyed it blue and continued gigging with my band. I took a job as a morning media analyst largely because:

a) it paid the bills that being a musician didn’t

b) they offered me the job

But a funny thing happened

Working as a media analyst rekindled my love of journalism but in a way that I never really expected. I rediscovered my passion for the craft largely because, rather than simply ignoring it, I was being forced to see how far it had fallen every day.

Morning after morning I’d drag myself out of bed well before the crack of dawn and I’d pour through pages and pages of hastily-assembled pieces of reportage. I found myself increasingly angry. Not at the reporters, many of whom I knew and most of whom I had incredible respect for, but at the industry that had grown up around them.

It was like watching Monet paint houses.

Artists. Professionals. Genuinely talented story tellers reduced to filing incomplete articles based on sanitized quotes from scripted and prepped spokespeople. The sources of the stories knew full well that the reporters had deadlines to meet. They needed a quote – any quote – to fill their column inches. There wasn’t time to dig deep.

It became a mutually destructive symbiotic relationship. Reporters didn’t have the time to ask real questions and spokespeople lost the ability (perhaps willingly) to speak off the cuff and give genuine answers. They each got what they needed from one another and the audience was poorer for it.

I allowed myself one last journalistic indulgence, spending a year at the helm of my beloved campus rag, then I bid adieu forever to journalism and embarked on a career on the dark side.

You can take the boy out of storytelling…

Oddly, this is where my current passions and my older one collided. While working largely as a communications generalist I quickly gravitated towards web strategy and, eventually, social media strategy. Here, finally, was an arena where the pressures that destroyed journalism didn’t apply. There were no deadlines, no bottom lines to feed with hastily-crafted stories.

Citizen journalism. Average folks doing what they’re doing because they’re passionate, not because they’re paid.

But just as these new storytellers were free from the constraints of corporate journalism, so too were they free (for lack of better word) from the standards and expectations of a professional press. Rather than improve upon the ragged journalism that fills the daily papers, blogs and amateur media often ended up sloppier. Without the training, resources and editing process that (theoretically) serve as the backbone of quality reportage, these publications did little or nothing to advance the craft.

The new era of journalism (?)

Many advocates for new media technologies trumpet social media as the foundation of a new era of journalism. There’s a tendency in these circles to view the demise of traditional news gathering organizations with a sense of pride that verges on hubris. Journalism itself has been democratized; we no longer rely on arbitrary gatekeeping by so-called professionals.

But time after time – breaking story after breaking story – the free-for-all that is citizen journalism leaves me wanting. Rather than be free from artificial deadlines, “reporters” see the easy access to publication as a deadline in and of itself. News ‘breaks’ on Twitter and there’s a rush to see who actually broke it. Nuance, context and (far too often) basic fact checking go out the window in the name of immediacy.

Sadly, in an effort to stop the bleeding, most modern professional news organizations have opted to fight their battles on their opponents’ turf. Rather than rely on the very skills and traditions that should define the craft, they’re pressured to go toe-to-toe in the race to break news.

So long as the goal is speed, professional news organizations will be fighting a losing battle. It’s a numbers battle. There are more amateurs out there than professionals. That’s why they’re losing. They’re fighting the wrong fight.

I left journalism because I didn’t like what I saw when I started stepping outside the theoretical and into the actual world of modern, for-profit reporting. I’ve been critical whenever anyone has given me a platform. But my criticisms and frustrations are based on a passion for what journalism could be.

I feel like journalism was dying long before blogs and tweets were the reporting medium of choice. Back then the enemies of journalism were deadlines and news cycles defined by business interests and conventions that had little to do with the art of story telling. Rather than free the craft from the constraints, social media have exacerbated the problem.

This is why I don’t celebrate the death of the industry I turned my back on 10 years ago. I don’t feel like I picked the winner. Truth be told, I think we’re all losing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: seng1011

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