Tag Archives: Journalism

The struggles of a news civilian, cont’d: Three views on politics and tech news

My struggles as a news civilian largely fit into two categories:

First, as a civilian who lacks salary-supported info-consumption time, I struggle to get through the never-ending queue of smart/worthwhile/interesting news. And it feels like news soldiers, who do have that time and are otherwise consumed by info consumption, don’t understand that people outside the industry might be like me.

Second, there is also a never-ending queue of pointless/time-suck news, but many news organizations and journalists don’t distinguish worthwhile news from pointless news. (Or industry economics don’t allow them to distinguish the two.)

I’m not talking about TMZ and celebrity gossip. I’m talking about the extremely high percentage of “news” — from the AP, NPR’s daily news shows, tech news orgs, almost every news org that covers politics, etc. — that to the average person is literally trivia, as useful (and useless) to their everyday lives and thoughts as a game of Trivial Pursuit. As a news civilian, I don’t know why I’m supposed to care.

Because news orgs continue to shovel this trivia toward me without explaining why it’s important or rethinking whether they should be producing it, I grow to suspect and resent them and feel less bad about my lack of info-consumption time. Or I continue to waste time on this news  and grow to resent myself. Down that road lies some combination of info-numbness, self-hatred, and a (further) tuned-out citizenry.

Three recent blog posts illustrate my second struggle.

Here’s Brian Lam, in his awesome post about reducing “the overage of technology and noise” in our lives to increase happiness:

I stopped reading the stupid hyped up news stories that are press releases or rants about things that will get fixed in a week. I stopped reading the junk and about the junk that was new, but not good. I stopped reading blogs that write stories like “top 17 photos of awesome clouds by iphone” and “EXCLUSIVE ANGRY BIRDS COMING TO FACEBOOK ON VALENTINES DAY.” And corporate news that only affects the 1%. Most days, I feel like most internet writers and editors are engaging in the kind of vapid conversation you find at parties that is neither enlightening or entertaining, and where everyone is shouting and no one is saying anything. I don’t have time for this.

Ezra Klein, on the “tornado of idiocy that is American politics“:

“Most people don’t care about politics,” [UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck] said. “They’re not running around with these preformed opinions in their head. They worry about what they’ll make for dinner and how to get their kids to bed. And that hasn’t changed. For us, that’s an alien world. We think about politics all the time. But we’re not normal. The 24-hour news cycle has not really affected the average American who isn’t into politics. And that’s really important to remember.”

I think most people in Washington believe voters would make better decisions if they spent more time following politics. But I spend a lot of time following politics, and quite often, I couldn’t be happier that voters are tuning out the inanities that obsess this town.

And Om Malik, reflecting on recent news about tech executives changing jobs (via Alexis Madrigal’s awesome essay on app/tech stagnation):

Sure, these are some great people and everyone including me is happy for their new gigs and future success. But when I read these posts and often wonder to myself that have we run out of things to say and write that actually are about technology and the companies behind them? Or do we feel compelled to fill the white space between what matters? Sort of like talk radio?

Something’s percolating here. Can anything be done about it on more than an individual level?

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Confessions of a news civilian

I used to be a news soldier.

By day, I read dozens of news stories for my job as an editor. By night, I read dozens more for my then-current or assumed-future writing gigs, and for my perpetual gig as deputy assistant knowledge dilettante.

I read 90 percent of the Atlantic, New Republic, and New Yorker issues (front- and middle-of-the-book sections, at least) from 2002 to 2009. I religiously followed Talking Points Memo during the Bush years. Slate, video game blogs, why-am-I-still-reading-this runs of Rolling Stone — anything to fill my professionally and dopaminically mandated info quotas.

But I’m out of the game now. Been out for a couple of years1. I’m a news civilian. And I am lost.

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Why the ‘bloggers aren’t journalists’ Oregon court ruling isn’t so bad

The journosphere is taking note of a U.S. District Court ruling in Oregon that “has drawn a line in the sand between ‘journalist’ and blogger,'” as Seattle Weekly’s Curtis Cartier put it in a post that (I think) broke the story.

“Now … we see why ‘who’s a journalist?’ is so wrong-headed,” tweets Jay Rosen in response to the news. Clay Shirky chimes in: “Bloggers have no right to speech unless they’re part of the ‘official media establishment’? Ethiopia,Belarus &…Oregon.”

I can’t tell from those tweets if they read the actual ruling, but I did — and it actually doesn’t seem that bad. Rather than representing a luddite judge’s ignorant dismissal of a new medium, the ruling seems to lay the groundwork for a fairly expansive legal definition of journalism.

In the ruling, Judge Marco A. Hernandez upholds a defamation claim against blogger Crystal Cox, rejecting Cox’s seven defense arguments. The initial journosphere reactions have focused on Hernandez’s rejection of two of those arguments: that Cox shouldn’t have to reveal the source of this column because she is protected by Oregon’s media shield law; and that Cox should be protected from damages claims because she is “media.” In both cases, Hernandez rejects the arguments on the grounds that Cox is not “media.”

Hernandez’s rejection of Cox’s shield law defense seems to rest on a literal reading of Oregon’s shield law, which applies to people affiliated with a “newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system.”

Hernandez says, correctly, that Cox is not affiliated with any of the above; therefore she is not “media” according to Oregon’s law. It seems reasonable that the judge applied the law as written rather than expanding the interpretation of the law to include online media. If Oregon had updated its shield law to cover the Internet, as Washington state has done, perhaps Hernandez would have ruled differently.

But it’s Hernandez’s rejection of Cox’s second media defense that, to my mind, actually gives hope for future expanded legal definitions of “media” and “journalist”:

Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

If Hernandez believed that you need to have a Columbia J-school degree or work at the New York Times to be considered a journalist, he would have stopped at No. 2. But he doesn’t stop there — instead, he offers five additional criteria that could define someone as a journalist. These criteria aren’t based on a credential or business card — or a particular medium — but on practices, values, and standards.

By doing this, the ruling smartly avoids saying “bloggers aren’t journalists.” It merely says “this blogger is not a journalist.” By listing criteria 3-7 and avoiding any mention of specific media, Hernandez is basically saying: “Bloggers may be journalists — but to be considered as such, they have to do something that could fit a standards/practices-based, medium-agnostic definition of journalism.”

It’s easy to quibble with Hernandez’s choice of canonized practices and standards (I can see some in the journosphere taking issue with No. 6 in particular) or say his criteria aren’t expansive enough. But to the extent that “journalist” and “media” need to be defined in the law, Hernandez’s approach seems like the right one. And his criteria seem as hopeful a starting point* as any.

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* Note: I’m not up to speed on other definition-of-journalist case law. I’m sure there have been other rulings that offer their own criteria for such definitions.

Groupon Stores is another big blow to local news organizations’ revenue hopes

Figuring out how to better serve local businesses and connect those businesses to readers is a big part of local news organizations’ hopes and ideas for making money online.

Facebook’s Deals platform, announced in November, was a blow to these hopes. Now Groupon has piled on with its Groupon Stores platform.

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Why substance-free campaigns and journalism are bad for America

I’ve written before about annoyingly substance-free political journalism (and the substance-free politics on which it’s based). Here are two perfect articulations of why this kind of journalism and politics isn’t just annoying — it’s bad for America. First, from Andrew Sullivan:

We have war criminals as president and vice-president, and a constitution staggering after one serious terror attack. But the campaign is about whether Obama is like Paris Hilton.

The threat of Rove and his ilk is not that their petty, deceptive and irresistibly subjective tactics are evil in a petty, deceptive, childish kind of way. It’s that their venial sins distract from their mortal ones. It’s the mortal ones we have to be worried about. And the mortal ones that they are getting away with.

And from Ta-Nehisi Coates:

The housing market is collapsing, Iran is pursuing the bomb, climate change is peeking over the horizon–and we are discussing power-bars and Honest Tea. Look, all campaigns do their share of unfair attacks. And at the end of the day, it’s Obama’s job to come back with a devastating counter. He’s excelled at that all year. I expect him to do no less here. But–and I this will sound totally syrupy and naive–I really thought John McCain was a little better than this.

Jonathan Chait explains the political side of this state of affairs in his latest New Republic column:

In the late 1980s, the popular revolt against government that had bubbled up in the mid-’60s began to peter out, sapping the power of straightforward anti-government appeals. And, starting in 1992, Democrats ruthlessly purged nearly all their political liabilities by embracing anti-crime measures, welfare reform, and middle-class tax cuts, and, more recently, by abandoning gun control. What’s left is a political terrain generally favorable to Democrats, which has, in turn, forced Republicans to emphasize the personal virtue of their nominees.

And so, every four years, we have a Democratic candidate campaigning on health care, the minimum wage, education, Medicare, or Social Security, and a Republican candidate campaigning on themes like Trust, Courage, and so forth.

Why journalists play along with this game is another matter.

UPDATE: Michael Grunwald pushed back against this nonsense in a good Time column Monday, and Obama himself had a pretty good rejoinder at a town hall meeting (hat tip: The Plank):

The problem with journalism, in one sentence

Amy Gahran has a good column at Poynter Online (via Craig Stoltz) about how closed-mindedness is keeping newsrooms from plunging headlong into the future — and leaching all the fun out of journalism, to boot.

Gahran identifies a number of attitudes that “directly cut off options [for change] from consideration” and can lead to a “toxic” newsroom culture. She also articulates what, to my mind, is turning out to be the central problem with objectivity-era mainstream journalism:

Journalists (more so than most other professions) are supposed to be fundamentally curious and profoundly interested in what’s happening around them.

An apparent lack of curiosity shows up in today’s newspapers in the form of ignorant political journalism, stories written straight from press releases and PR pitches, stories that treat technology and consumer electronics as alien subjects. It shows up inside newsrooms in the form of old-timers who still aren’t comfortable with computers, new-timers who’ve heard of RSS but haven’t tried it out, higher-ups who rarely read journalism/new media blogs.

Institutional strictures are probably the main culprit here. Why bother being well-versed in policy if objectivity conventions forbid you from betraying your expertise in print? Why bother learning how to use new technology if the paper is (until recently) making boatloads of cash doing things the way they’ve always been done? Why explore things like RSS if nobody in the newsroom has articulated why you should do so?

Still, just as newspapers as institutions will have to change, individual journalists will have to ask themselves if they’re curious and interested enough to pro-actively face the coming shakeout. Because in three to five years, it’s likely that the only people to still have journalism jobs will be those who view journalism as more than just that job they’ve always had.

Ignorant political journalism in full effect

In light of this post, it seems appropriate to mention that Wednesday’s Democratic debate turned out to be the apotheosis of mindless, ignorant political journalism. I only caught the last 45 minutes, so I didn’t see the really egregious stuff at the beginning. But even some of the policy questions were bad — i.e. Charlie Gibson channeling Grover Norquist and trying to get the candidates to agree to a no-tax pledge — and from all accounts the rest was a joke as well. (Update: Crooks and Liars has video of the more inane questions.)

There’s been a ton of response to the debate around the blogosphere. Andrew Sullivan has roundups here and here, and a good post of his own. James Fallows weighs in from China with an important post that includes an excerpt from his 1996 article, “Why Americans Hate the Media”:

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about.

In the same vein, anyone interested in this topic should read Matthew Yglesias’ December Washington Monthly piece on how NBC’s Tim Russert is the driving force behind this kind of political coverage.

The one good thing about the debate is that it was such a monumental debacle — even Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s TV critic, called it “shoddy” and “despicable,” — that the backlash might finally be strong enough to keep this conversation going and (one can dream) eventually spark some changes.