Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Saturday, July 4, 2009

What Is the News and Do Reporters Matter?

There have been a couple of blog entries -- Dave Winer on whether something is news if it's not reported, and Jeff Jarvis on journalistic narcisism -- that got me typing. Although I first started this as a comment on BuzzMachine, given the quickly burgeoning length, I thought it made more sense to post here. (I also skipped BNET Media for this post because it's a bit long and possibly theoretical for there.)

I've certainly disagreed with Jeff Jarvis in the past, but I do agree that there is too much self-importance in much of the press. Perhaps my view comes from never having formally studied journalism. My educational background was in math and engineering, and other than a brief exposure when I was much younger, I didn't get into journalism until my late 30s. So I'm something of an outsider and see the business and craft differently than someone who didn't spend time in corporations, in management, in consulting -- and also doing grunt work in restaurants, in construction, and in trucking.

When journalists feel that they are needed, I think they are reaching toward something, but making the mistake of seeing themselves as center of the issue, rather than serving the topic. (That mistaking the importance of self-expression and voice in comparison with story is one of the biggest problems I see in much writing.) News doesn't happen: events do. Circumstances do. News is a relative importance that people place on the events. But the problem is that it takes effort to put the events, people, actions, and so on into a context, so you're not just the mouthpiece for one aspect or another. That's where reporting becomes important, if you think that trying to get at least a half-way balanced view of the world is important. Someone has to be interested enough to do investigative reporting, to get views from more than one camp, to question the answers they get. That's reporting and I think that it's necessary to society that someone do it. That someone doesn't have to be a "professional" journalist. The person simply has to undertake the necessary skepticism, curiosity, open-mindedness, research, and patience ... and develop enough skills in writing to be able to coherently present something.

Unfortunately, I see journalists focusing more on enjoying vicarious power, building and maintaining careers, and congratulating themselves. Too many talk only among themselves and not to enough other people. Too many don't understand the topics they cover, although they begin to think that proximity is the same as understanding. There's been more than once when I've had to talk editors into a story that were for a given audience. All you had to do is know enough about the topic, the logical implications, and the interests and needs of the audience to see the connection. I saw it because I had been part of the audience at one time. The editors took convincing because they never had been, although they regularly wrote about the topic.

Of course something can be news if it's not reported. How else could you have journalists complaining about being pushed into doing too much celebrity coverage, say, and not being allowed to do "real" stories. But, again, they begin to mistakenly think that they are in the middle of it all. It's not that journalists decide what is news. They are supposed to recognize news, which is completely different. That implies being tied in to the readership well enough that you begin to understand their concerns, and that you then seek out information accordingly. Here's what Jarvis wrote:
I was trained to accept that myth: that journalists decide what’s important, that it’s a skill with which they are imbued: news judgment.
The problem there is the word "judgment." According to Merriam-Webster, it can mean "a formal utterance or opinion." But I think the intended meaning of the word is actually "the process of forming an opinion by discerning and comparing." Ultimately, it ain't news if the audience doesn't care. News judgment is the ability to correctly guess more often than not when they would care and when they wouldn't. It comes down to knowing your customers.

That shift from recognition to declaration is what makes much of the public so angry with journalists. They don't want to be told what to think and what they should find important or not. Look at what Winer wrote:
At least for me, the reporters are as irrelevant as paper delivery of the NYT, WSJ and SJM had become in 1994. I know what they're going to say before they say it. I also don't feel their ability to set an agenda anymore.
Ultimately, I think he's saying that journalists can't tell him what is important. Exactly. All they can do is present information that they think he might find interesting.

The positive thing about having more sources for various types of news is that you have more people looking and, hopefully, fewer things falling through the cracks. But ultimately, the audience decides what is news, not the reporters. Otherwise they could get paid for writing about any old thing, and anyone in the business knows that would last no longer than the end of the first pay period.

That said, I find that there is actually a mirroring of the same fault. (Remember the old saying that what bothers you most in another person may well be something in you as well.) It's also important for individuals like Winer, and for journalists, to remember that the country is big, including many individuals with different tastes, interests, and backgrounds, and just because something doesn't interest you, meaning you don't think it's news, doesn't mean that no one else finds it important. As Winer wrote:
The only reason Palin has any viability is that the press remembers who she is. For me, and I'd bet a huge chunk of the electorate, she's a fading memory of an election we've put way behind us as we've turned to face our futures. For me the last election was only important in that it got Bush and the Republicans out.
That may be true for him. It might even be true for a "huge chunk" of the country. But it certainly isn't true for everyone. It would help if individuals, as well as journalists, began to ask themselves, "Am I trying to decide what others should be interested in?" Perhaps the real problem the news faces is not the hubris of journalists, but the hubris of our culture.

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Blogger David Weir said...

It's funny, I majored in journalism but I didn't learn the lesson that it was up to me to determine the news. That may be because I had good professors at the University of Michigan, or because I was a bad student, or both. In any event, I share your feeling of being an outsider to mainstream journalism, and have spent my entire "career" practicing alternative journalism. So the sense of entitlement MSM journalists develop really mystifies me. You are dead-right that it is a major factor in the public's lack of trust in media.

July 5, 2009 12:20 PM  

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