March 31, 2013

David Rohde: Anthony Lewis and the need for journalism that inspires

His work clarified complex issues in a way online journalists today are rarely given the time to do.

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A recently released Pew Charitable Trust report on the state of the news media in 2013 contained an alarming finding. The long-awaited surge in digital revenues for news organizations appears unlikely to materialize, particularly for newspapers.

Since 2003, total newspaper print ad revenues have fallen from $45 billion to $19 billion. At the same time, online ads grew from $1.2 to $3.3 billion.

"Stop and think about that," Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic. "The total 10-year increase in digital advertising isn't even enough to overcome the average single-year decline in print ads since 2003. Ugh."

Given the comparatively small amount of revenue being produced by news websites, there is a danger of them becoming digital sweatshops. Young journalists will be expected to simultaneously write their own pieces, edit others' work, make complex news judgments and update web pages.

A handful of slots will exist for well-paid older journalists, but media executives struggling to make ends meet will cherish youth for a simple reason: low cost per post.

Andrew Beaujon, a media reporter for Poynter, wrote last week about a Washington Post job posting for a Style section blogger who would be required to post at least 12 times a day. Last year, Patrick Pexton, then the paper's ombudsman, warned against "high volume, low oversight" blogging after Elizabeth Flock resigned from her blogging postition after failing to credit another news source in aggregated pieces.

When Pexton interviewed the paper's young bloggers, he found deep discontent.

"They said that they felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing," Pexton wrote. "Guidelines for aggregating stories are almost nonexistent, they said. And they believe that, even if they do a good job, there is no path forward. Will they one day graduate to a beat, covering a crime scene, a city council or a school board? They didn't know. So some left; others are thinking of quitting."

Twelve posts a day is unfair to young journalists and a business practice that is unlikely to produce the next Lewis. Even a young Lewis, I suspect, would have struggled to produce a dozen meaningful posts a day.

Many disagree with me. In a column last week, Matthew Yglesias of Slate questioned the sky-is-falling tone of the Pew report and declared that the "American news media has never been in better shape."

"Pew's overview makes no mention of the Web's speed, range and depth," he wrote, "or indeed any mention at all of audience access to information as an important indicator of the health of journalism."

In some ways, Yglesias is right. More information than ever is at the fingertips of news consumers. But the problem is that many Americans simply don't have the time to search the Web for story after story, as Yglesias did, about the banking crisis in Cyprus. They have time for one clear piece that quickly and accurately tells them why Cyprus matters.

The digital age has enormous advantages, as Yglesias argues. Journalism is more democratic than ever. Anyone anywhere can report any time. Twitter can be a fantastic news source -- a running wire of stories and tips from people who share my interests. Skilled bloggers possess an extraordinary ability to review vast amounts of news coverage, instantly discern its importance and immediately offer an original take.

But the tyranny of speed and volume can limit a journalist's ability to do such basic tasks as conducting phone interviews with those they are writing about, or traveling to the community impacted by an event, or slowly gaining the trust of a source or whistleblower in face-to-face meetings. Those steps are not always necessary for quality journalism, but they certainly help.

Maybe editors should formally declare blogging and traditional reporting equally valuable but different jobs. Or news organizations should become nonprofits.

Lewis' masterful legal writing was the product of time. Over many years, he developed a sophisticated understanding of the law, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Supreme Court and close personal relationships with justices. Felix Frankfurter famously said that Lewis knew the cases before the Supreme Court better than most of its judges.

In the end, I'll take Lewis-like context and depth over high volume and speed. I thank Lewis for championing journalism.

 

David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.

 

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