Journalism ca. 1940

Headlines and Deadlines recently posted this wonderfully quaint video about newspaper journalism in the 1940s (“You Life Work Series”), probably taken from the Prelinger Archives. I posted the same video in the past and wrote about women in journalism — now and then but it is worth reposting.

Aside from the fact that the newspaper business was a man’s business, what struck me as the biggest difference between then and now was that the hierarchies were much less defined. In this video, the managing editor sits with his staff in the same newsroom, no special treatment here. I wish today’s executive editors would be less self-centered and as humble.

The video also shows footage of manual typesetting and layout, printing and the process of creating matrix molds for syndication, skills that are all but lost.

As are the jobs for journalists…

 [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHgwFYbSF6E]

Toby Young on Journalism

“[The media have] gradually become more respectable, which is a bad thing. Luckily, the Internet is making it less respectable again. To paraphrase Ben Hecht, journalists should occupy a rung on the status ladder somewhere between whores and bartenders.” […]

“I’m sure journalist/activists will become more common. It’s something that goes hand in hand with blogging. It’s a combination of roles that seems to be more and more popular with young journalists just entering the profession.” Read more (via The Browser).

Quickshots: October

A great example why print still works: The Occupy Wall Street Journal is a 4-page broadsheet that is widely distributed among protesters downtown.

“Forgive an old newspaper hack a moment of sentimentality, but it is somehow reassuring that a newspaper still has traction in an environment preoccupied by social media. It makes sense when you think about it: Newspapers convey a sense of place, of actually being there, that digital media can’t. When is the last time somebody handed you a Web site?” (David Carr, “A Protest’s Ink-Stained Fingers“, New York Times).

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In Is Journalism As We Know It Becoming Obsolete?”, Mathew Ingram debates the question that Dave Winer (Scripting) raised in his blog post, where he argued that it is obsolete “because everyone can do it”. Winer writes, “Now we can hear directly from the sources and build our own news networks. It’s still early days for this, and it wasn’t that long ago that we depended on journalists for the news. But in a generation or two we won’t be employing people to gather news for us. It’ll work differently.”

You should know my point of view by now. And if you agree with the notion that journalism is an old hat, why are you reading this blog? Ingram (and I happen to agree with him) argues that everyone has their own definition what journalism is, “but I think it’s fundamentally about a spirit of inquiry, of curiosity, of wanting to make sense of things. It’s something like the spirit of scientific inquiry, as Matt Thompson noted recently in a post at the Poynter Institute. It has very little to do with specific tools or specific methods of publishing.”

Yes, anybody can access sources and write. But we still need those of us who can curate the flow of information, put it in historic and political perspective and digest the findings. We are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Journalism, says Ingram, “is a state of mind.” Yes, indeed.

“A new generation of web entrepreneurs has discovered the joys of charging users cold, hard cash. […] If we’re lucky, this trend will save the Internet from one of the most corrosive forces affecting it — the bloodless logic of advertising,” writes Clive Thompson on Online Ads in Wired Magazine. “I predict that in 2050, we’ll look back at the first 20 years of the web and shake our heads. The craptacular design! The hallucinogenic business models! The privacy nightmares! All because entrepreneurs convinced themselves that they couldn’t do what inventors have done for centuries: Charge people a fair price for things they want.”

I agree! Thanks, Clive. But what took you so long to discover this? And do you pay for what you read online?

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Very sound advice:

“Online publishing has made it deceptively easy to become a publisher. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Back when editors and publishers were gatekeepers, there was someone who was reviewing your writing. Content creation, like any other art form, generally improves with practice. If you haven’t ever written for the web or you’re just a bit rusty, you should consider practicing more in private. Working out your routine in private is far less damaging to your brand than producing sub-par content.” (Buddy Scalera, “Content Strategy Tip: Write Awful Content”) 

World press trends: Newspapers still reach more than internet. “Circulation is like the sun. It continues to rise in the East and decline in the West,” said Christoph Riess, CEO of WAN-IFRA, who presented an annual survey at the World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum in Vienna, Austria. Nicely put.

Quickshots: June

NYTimes’ Bill Keller in “The Twitter Trap“: “… [B]efore we succumb to digital idolatry, we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. […] I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves. […] Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud.”

At left, my own rant.

And here is more on Twitter: “Twitter is building a machine to convert 140 characters on Barack Obama, Ashton Kutcher, narcissism, the struggle for human freedom and Starbucks into cash — and quick, before its moment passes. Is this asking too much of even the world’s best technologists?” asks Joe Hagan in New York Magazine under the headline “Tweet Science”.

No, it is not.

This PBS story, “Children and Facebook: The Promise and Pitfalls for Social Media,” reminded me of another quote by Keller: “Last week, my wife and I told our 13-year-old daughter she could join Facebook. Within a few hours she had accumulated 171 friends, and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.”

Bill Moyers on the Daily Show: “I try to figure out the difference between the important and the immediate […] News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity. […] We amuse ourselves to death.”

 

David Carr of the New York Times says: “I don’t believe in the sort of bifurcation of old and new. The whole ‘we’re old world media, we make phone calls and we put them in the newspaper’ and ‘we’re new media and we grab whatever’s in the ether and put it up.’ There’s been this steady march toward each other and what you’re doing is no different from what I do.” More here.

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Very interesting article in the NYTimes “In Praise of Not Knowing” (June 18). “It’s fun being In the Know, but once everyone’s in it, there’s nothing to know anymore. […] I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill.” 

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There is so much wrong with this blogger’s assumption that journalism is dead and its market value is zero in the digital age, but he argues his point well and that is what good communication is all about. Judge for yourself.

And here is a counter argument in the discussion whether the value of journalism is zero, posted by Newsosaur, a blogger whom I respect a lot: “The Value of Journalism, Sir, Is Not Zero”. 

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Are the 700 Gannett layoffs “a vote of no confidence in the future of print by America’s largest newspaper company?” According to Poynter, they are indeed. Humph.

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You’ve got to be kidding me: “Women Still Don’t ‘Get’ LinkedIn” (via The Atlantic). Nonsense. According to TechCrunch, “Women rule the Internet. [They’re] the routers and amplifiers of the social Web. They are the rocket fuel of e-commerce. If you figure out how to harness the power of female customers, you rock the world.”

Do you have a LinkedIn profile yet? No? Get going. Here’s mine.

The Royal Show

Tina, Tina, you just couldn’t resist, could you? You are trying to revamp Newsweek (see my previous post) and are slowly turning it into a British tabloid, a real royal treat. The latest issue features, who else, Kate the princess-what’s-her-name. And you give that story eight (!) pages, in a world, as you so adequately put it on the cover, which has “gone to hell.”

You managed, after just a few weeks, to turn this venerable news magazine into a skimpier version of Vanity Fair and Talk Magazine combined. And the royal wedding hasn’t even happened yet. God help us at the end of the month, when you will be covering it all. Will you write another royal biography, say, The Kate Chronicles as well?

But maybe your approach will get Newsweek more ad pages. After all, your magazine has lost the most ad pages among the major magazines, and the meager the content, the better the ads.

I, for one, won’t be reading Newsweek any longer: After 15 years, I have grudgingly canceled my subscription. I am reading Time Magazine now. Their latest cover is about the Civil War. Hmm.

Newsweek’s Peppy News Speak

Long before the first issue of Tina Brown’s revamped Newsweek hit newsstands, critics already questioned its future. Regardless, the new editor promised in her inaugural column “to re-create a great institution after its journey through tough times. What a magazine can offer readers is a path to understanding, a filter to sift out what’s important, a pause to learn things that the Web has no time to explain, a tool to go back over the things we think we know but can’t make sense of.

And?

I don’t want Newsweek stubbornly clinging to its past, but I resent the empty notion that a few new fonts and colors make an old magazine more “hip” and thus more relevant in today’s media quick sand. Don’t insult my intelligence while trying. Print magazines will never compete with interactive media hipness, whatever that means. Why should they? They need to provide the content and context that gets lost in the immediacy of the newsy, noisy Web. In that she’s right. Magazines need to offer enough value that I’ll keep them around for a while, even reread them or use them as a resource. Every article should have a quote to remember and make me think. I don’t believe that is too much to ask, but Ms. Brown doesn’t deliver.

The second issue of this new “filter” has entered the superfluous space of fluffy magazines and is anything but. The readers have not become part of the discourse, nor are their voices heard. I am sure that they are evenly divided between those who like the new look and feel and those who don’t. Brown, however, is not interested in a dialogue with her audience. All three letters and tweets to the editor about the new design that were published in the second issue praise its “oomph,” and its “sharp and engaging” look. How is that, to quote Tina Brown again, “making sense of it all”?

Content

But to be fair, I can’t evaluate the content beyond the two issues that have been published so far (I will revisit the topic here in a few weeks). For now, I will just say this: I was baffled that the first two issues managed to give a combined 5 pages to the Charlie Sheen story (as I am sure Talk Magazine would have eagerly done). Sheen even manages to get his headshot on the cover, a pathetic little thumbnail of a pathetic little man, squeezed to the outer lower edge, right beneath a burning house floating in a sea of debris in Japan. Quite a “path to understanding,” Ms. Brown! Cheers for that! But if this is the extent of your “filter to sift out what’s important,” as you promised, at a time of economic hardship, turmoil in the Middle East and Japan on the brink of nuclear meltdown, I’ll pass. Oh, and we also get introduced to the future British princess or whatever her title will be pouting in her underwear. Awesome.

Design

The magazine looks cheap with an unpleasant ‘70s feel. The headlines state the obvious and could appear in any British tabloid or the New York Post (“Nightmare in Japan”). Its myriad of font types, sizes and weights, and an overall confusing black-red and blue color scheme with tiny visual elements are dizzying. The new section names — NewsBeast (yes, we get the connection), Omnivore, The Big Fat Story, XTRA INSIGHT — come straight out of Highlights for Children. Many of the black & white pictures should have been color, while some color pictures would have been more expressive if left in black & white (including Charlie Sheen and the British royal what-ever-her-name-is in her nickers).

The graphics, logos and headshots that accompany the columns are flimsy, sort of Wall Street Journal-ish but out of ink (or too much of it) and less graceful. Some articles use so many blog heads, subheads, bylines, decks, intros and haphazardly positioned oddly rounded drop caps and horizontal and vertical lines in various thickness (in, you guessed it, red, black and blue) as well as bold lead ins and pull-quotes that I am exhausted before I even get to read the rest of the copy. Oddly enough, there is also a lot of white space in all the wrong places and that is equally distracting. I initially merely skimmed the articles because I was so puzzled by the style elements that were supposed to draw me in. Brown seems to be strongly opposed to “less is more”. Black is her color. Bauhaus be damned (but I doubt that many of her copy editors know what that even is). Whatever! We prefer to be, like, bloody hip.

The problem is not the busy layout; the problem is that the layout is unimaginative and uninteresting; nothing innovative happens here. Nothing like the layout of Wired Magazine that uses every thinkable and unthinkable element of text and graphic style to give each page and section its unique modern feel. But they use old-school elements (think Bauhaus again): geometry, straight clear lines and optical illusions; color schemes that provide depth. Graphics that are sleek. They use the various fonts as artistic tools. With them, more is really more. In comparison, Newsweek’s “hip new look and feel” is overzealous and amateurish. You want peppy? Try again.

Verdict

“Having read the [first] issue front-to-back,” writes Jack Shafer in Slate, “I can report that the gaps remain, the agenda has not shifted, and the crackling, confusing digital dots are still scattered at random on the floor.”

I agree. If Tina Brown’s goal is to reincarnate the serious, in-depth newsmagazine with analysis and good writing, I believe she drives on the wrong side of the road. Most of the content as it stands now could easily find its place on the Daily Beast website or in O Magazine and People. Nothing wrong with that, but don’t pretend to reinvent the newswheel. I expect from an engaging, relevant print newsmagazine to provide me with challenging long-term analysis, investigative reporting, a focus on the bigger picture and an in-depth look at what has disappeared under the screaming fluffy radar of new media. I want brilliant writing, a way with words that sets the bar high for the reader. Long-narratives written by seasoned, sharp writers who bring with them the broadest and widest outlook possible. Writers who have seen the world and can provide context to the news. Writers who challenge me and my views.

None of the content in this magazine comes even close to that yet. For now, it is just one more outlet for an editor with a big ego.

WikiLeaks to Old Media’s Rescue!

The implications for journalism could be immense. After WikiLeaks unveiled yet another batch of secret and not so secret documents — this time revealing the State Department’s pretty tame musings about foreign dignitaries — the public led out a collective cyber-gasp (at left, the cover of the German news-magazine Der Spiegel with its headline “Revealed: How America Sees the World”).

Was this just a tempest in the usually rather tepid teapot or a poisonous arrow in the quiver of new media enthusiasts aimed at top-down journalism? It may have been both.

The fact that we can upload everything, anytime and anywhere onto the web has stark repercussions for all media, old and new: Now, more than ever, we need old-time editors and investigative journalists, who can weed through the vast amount of data and hunt for the relevant among the irrelevant, filter the important scraps from the noise and the fluff. The ability to find any type of data, classified or not, on the internet and to dump every piece of information into cyberspace still doesn’t make it factual. That’s why the New York Times, the only U.S. newspaper, and four other foreign print publications, among them the British Guardian, were given first-access to the more than 250,000 documents, maybe in an attempt to give the data credibility. Not the blogs, or the ever-present Huffington Post, but old-fashioned print media were the first to have a go at the information. How ironic.

The New York Times explained why it decided to publish the secret diplomatic documents (under the headline State’s Secrets), saying that they represent “a mammoth cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the last three years [that] provides an unprecedented look at bargaining by embassies, candid views of foreign leaders and assessments of threats”. The Times also devoted a page on its website to answering readers’ questions about the publication. And it went on:

“The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.”

Investigative journalism is back with a vengeance, and sites like WikiLeaks are a new, cheap and increasingly important tool in its tool box. Seems the watchdogs that were asleep at the wheel are barking again. The Genie is out of its classified bottle, and as long as no lives are endangered or people are put at risk, I believe that is a good thing. But what does that mean for the free flow of information?

The limitless dumping of information and data will make old-school journalists and old-time journalism ethics relevant again. We still need someone who is trained to dissect the truth from the lies, the substantiated from the irrelevant. Nothing can stay secret, yes, but at what price? Is info-dumping good for a democracy and a society or could it backfire? Will soon all news stem from hearsay and gossip, from pieces of documents that someone secretly scanned, faxed or uploaded? Someone who may have a hidden agenda? How will that affect the exchange of information in the future and people’s willingness to be named a source or to give an eye-witness account? How do you assess what is true and what is manipulation in this free-for-all? How do you verify sources? And should we care, as long as it is entertaining?

I am all for revealing the truth. But I want to cut through the hype and the sensation and be sure that what I read is authentic. I don’t like to be manipulated. As a journalist, I like to do the editing and fact-checking myself. But others may not be able or willing to do so. Should they be protected from the information overload? By whom? And when does censorship really begin? With a government’s calculated release of data to the press corps — or with an editor’s decision to run a story or not? Too many readers or bloggers still don’t see the difference. Many are indifferent, but established journalists and many bloggers and pundits are not. Let’s use their knowledge and skills and get to the point.

That said, I think the following viewpoint given by Huffington Post contributor Derrick Ashong has merit:

“The saddest thing to me about this latest WikiLeaks disclosure is that it diminishes the value of “whistle-blowing” itself. As I tweeted yesterday “you blow the whistle to spread the truth, not to hear the sound.” By publishing these emails not only has WikiLeaks compromised the privacy of state department officials and the trust within important diplomatic networks, it has also undermined its own credibility as a resource for people who have genuinely important information to share with the global community. There is a distinction between truth tellers and high-tech gossip-peddlers. Unfortunately, it looks like this time WikiLeaks has crossed that line too.”

Good point. I agree. WikiLeaks will have to learn that crying “wolf” each time someone somewhere spills something is getting us nowhere.

In July 2010, when WikiLeaks published classified military data on the Afghanistan war, Mashable.com gathered the opinions of journalists under the headline The WikiLeaks Debate: Journalists Weigh In:

“We need people to leak and people to dig and people to consume and explain, and people who care enough to find the documents and bring them to light,” Mike Sager, a respected writer for Esquire, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post was quoted. “WikiLeaks, like most other Internet “news” organizations, doesn’t provide the perspective and understanding the public actually needs,” according to author and University of Chicago and Northwestern University writer-in-residence Alex Kotlowitz. “We need to be careful that we don’t confuse platform with content,” Kotlowitz said.

A bit condescending, but basically I agree.

Mashable also published another article that same month with a similar topic: Why WikiLeaks and the Mainstream Media Still Need Each Other. The gist:

“These leaks signal a seminal change for investigative journalism. The new collaboration model between prominent publications and WikiLeaks is a tactical marriage. WikiLeaks needs the press so that its leaks can rise to the top of public conversation. The press can use WikiLeaks for its unparalleled scoops. Furthermore, because WikiLeaks isn’t entirely understood or trusted by the public, a partnership with established news sources like The New York Times gives its leaks legitimacy. This “asymmetrical journalism,” as David Carr calls it, is a natural evolution for WikiLeaks. […] [A]ssuming there is news to be broken — it’s best if WikiLeaks and the press are on good terms.”

The German writer Rudolf Arnheim wrote in the 1930s: “Human beings will come to confuse the world perceived by their senses and the world interpreted by thought. They will believe that seeing is understanding.”

It seems like his predictions were right. WikiLeaks as media’s wake-up call? You bet.

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The Guardian has a very informative infographic, showing where the diplomatic cables were sent from (click picture to enlarge).