Journalism and glimmers of hope
Aaron Wherry, fellow blogger and neighbour here on the 4th floor of the National Press Building, delivered the following speech over the weekend to a Canadian University Press gathering. I liked it so much I thought it deserved reprinting here.
Before I'd settled on what I was going to speak about tonight, I, of course, posted a message on Twitter asking what those reading thought I should say. The first response came from a young man in Kitchener, who wrote, quote "How to get a journalism job in today's world, and then how to stand above the pack once the job is attained," unquote.
I appreciate that young man's directness and his ability to grasp the central concern of young journalists in 140 characters or less. I remember what a central preoccupation it was eight years ago when I was in university and I remember too going to talks such as this desperately seeking the magic answer.
The complicating phrase, in this case, is "today's world" and all that entails. There's no sense avoiding the obvious troubles of the industry as it currently is. Things have obviously been better. But it's also important that we understand what exactly is wrong with today's journalism.
There is, by now, a fairly standard set of explanations: the recession, the advertising market, the Internet and so forth. No doubt all of these have contributed to the current situation. But, in each scenario, the problems are said to be elsewhere. Journalism is portrayed as the unwitting victim of external forces and happenstance, a broken business model and bad luck.
The truth might be both more worrisome and more reassuring.
It is impossible, for sure, to ignore the business decisions that put many newspaper owners in precarious positions before last fall's economic downturn. But it is foolish to dismiss the very real failings of the actual journalism we have been asking readers and viewers to pay for, put their trust in, and follow.
Now, as an English major who owns not a single stock or bond and has not read a business section cover to cover in perhaps years, I am entirely unqualified to comment at any length on the first issue. As such, I will demure from heaping scorn on multi-billion-dollar business transactions I barely understand.
But, as a writer who has worked now in three newsrooms, I am just arrogant enough to believe I can comment at some length on the second issue. So here goes.
Before I made the move to Ottawa I sought counsel from a colleague who had some experience on the Hill. The worst thing about the press gallery, he said, was that it was lazy. The best thing about the press gallery, he said, was that it was lazy and since it was lazy, anyone putting forth even a modest bit of effort quickly seemed a star.
I would like to say that two years here has shown me how wrong and cynical my colleague was.
It is not that reporters here don't work hard. I'm sure that in terms of hours and words, many journalists on the Hill rank among the hardest working in the country. The trouble has more to do with how we approach the work we do and what we understand our purpose to be, what we think provides our readers with value.
Much—perhaps even the vast majority—of journalism out of Ottawa right now takes its basis from the latest public opinion polls. In the absence of quantitative data to analyze what we see and hear here everyday, we take refuge in the latest surveys. Daunted by the complicated issues that arise when governing a country is the subject, we retreat into discussion of strategy and tactics.
For all the words spent discussing polls, it's unclear how much attention we pay to what the polls are telling us. In 2006, Stephen Harper's Conservatives took 36.3% of the vote, the Liberals claiming 30.2%. Two years later, the Conservatives won 37.7%, the Liberals 26.3%. An aggregate of the recent polling puts the Conservatives at 34.8%, the Liberals at 30.7%. In other words, over the last three years, almost nothing has changed. And the press gallery has spent the majority of its time analyzing all of the ways in which nothing much has happened.
Suffice it to say, I'm not convinced that, in the process, we are regularly providing our readers with value and quality.
In recent American political journalism, there are perhaps two unique success stories.
The first is Politico, a website and Washington, D.C. newspaper that specializes in exhaustive coverage of the capitol and website that borders on the obsessive, including an hour-by-hour live diary of Barack Obama's presidency. It is the personification, in a way, of what the web, at its best, has brought to the American discussion.
The second is The Daily Show. Setting aside whatever else The Daily Show does well, it’s primary contribution to American political discourse, especially in recent years, is very straightforward: It calls people on their shit. Each night, Jon Stewart spends at least ten minutes exploring contradictions, half-truths, overstatements, lies and diversions. The worst behaviours are called out and mocked, simply and glaringly. All involved are called to account for the words that come out of their mouths in the most blunt and straightforward way.
Note that none of this is particularly innovative. Lively, comprehensive coverage. Holding people to account. Demanding better. Striving for clarity. These are precisely, it seems to me, the sorts of qualities and ideals for which newspapers are supposed to exist. And yet, if modern American newspapers were meeting those standards, Politico and Jon Stewart wouldn't seem like such revelations.
Here, in this country, we do not necessarily need our own Daily Show, or even our own Politico. But we need somehow to fulfill those purposes. As my colleague noted to me two years ago, what's lacking is effort. What the Daily Show and Politico represent is simply that—commitment to this endeavour. It is the same thing you'll find in the work that is done here that can be considered exemplary. Work like Daniel LeBlanc's unravelling of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. Work like Kady O'Malley's obsessive coverage of Parliamentary committees. Work like much of what is produced each day by the Ottawa bureau of Canadian Press.
Now, obviously, not all of you—perhaps even few of you—are going to end up covering politics. If you value even a moderate level of belief in humanity, you'll likely find something less maddening to dwell upon. But we could just as easily have this same conversation with similar laments for almost any other area of modern newspaper journalism. The most intriguing new voice to emerge in sports journalism these last few years, for instance, is Deadspin, a website that spends a good deal of its time mocking how silly and boring mainstream sports coverage has become.
All of which brings me, in an admittedly roundabout way, to that young man's request. Whatever form newspaper journalism takes on over the next few years, however we learn to balance print and online, whatever the exact business model, I am among those who believe that quality will ultimately separate success from failure. Those outlets that survive and thrive will be those that demonstrate true value to the reader, that are clear in their purpose and committed to competing for the reader's attention. If a media outlet's survival is no longer to be taken for granted, it will be forced to think seriously about what it is doing, how well it is doing what it does, and whether it sufficiently serves its audience.
Which is, hopefully, where that young man from Kitchener and many of you come in. There is not yet a magic answer to the future of the industry and there has probably never been a magic answer to finding gainful employment—aside from the usual platitudes about working hard, dressing well and sucking up to the right individuals. But what we, as a collective industry, need right now is actually quite simple: we need to be refreshed. We need new and excited minds who are enthused about this business and committed to the craft.
I understand that these may sound like simple platitudes. And I recognize the irony of lamenting the emptiness of current journalism then falling back on what must sound like very earnest declarations. But I'm genuinely not convinced it's much more complicated than that.
Shortly after Barack Obama's election, his chief of staff let slip the administration's unapologetic ethos. “Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” he told the New York Times.“They are opportunities to do big things.” It is the same for journalism now.
This is not a time for pessimism or panic, it is a chance to break from the complacency that has put us here. It is a time for enthusiasm for the work. You, as new voices, untainted by the cynicism carried by those of us already in the business, must be part of that. And no matter the larger state of the industry, I truly believe that those who care, those who want to do better, will find a place and succeed once there.