Journalists follow their voices, vote with their feet

As the beleaguring of traditional news organizations continues, newsrooms are actually growing elsewhere. You may have noticed that places like Yahoo, AOL and the Huffington Post are all hiring these days — and they’re hiring, um, actual journalists.

Yesterday we learned that New York Times economics correspondent Peter Goodman was decamping for HuffPo. “For me it’s a chance to write with a point of view,” Goodman told Howard Kurtz. He described fitting into the Times voice as “almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.”

Jay Rosen commented on Twitter:

You get what this means, right? The View from Nowhere has become a liability in keeping newsroom talent

And again:

It’s not so much that @petersgoodman wants to be a pundit. He wants to report what’s really going on. In his own voice.

Yahoo has been building a bloggy news organization, too. But today we learned from Andrew Golis that one of his high-profile hires, former Gawker writer John Cook, was leaving Yahoo and returning to Gawker. Golis explained: “He decided that he prefers the license Gawker gave him to add his opinions into his reporting to the scale and credibility Yahoo! News could offer.”

So Yahoo, theoretically a “new” news organization, also finds itself losing talent because of its house rules about mixing “opinion” and reporting. The story isn’t as simple as “journalists flee old media for new so they can write in their own voices.”

Consider that the most consistently and determinedly enforced code of neutrality in today’s media world can be found not in an old-school newsroom but on Wikipedia, where “neutral point of view” is a sacred first principle. We need a better framework for talking about these issues than the crude formula of “Traditionalists prefer objectivity, new media goes for personal voice.”

I’m sympathetic to Rosen’s “View from Nowhere” argument, which neatly inverts the “fair and balanced” rhetoric of traditional objectivity to underscore its downside, and proposes “where I’m coming from” as a more tenable basis for trust in media. I think the “sacred cloak of objectivity,” to use the term recently invoked by the Times’ new public editor, is tattered beyond repair. But I also sympathize with the folks at the Times and Yahoo who just lost some talented employees by policing institutional boundaries for individual writers’ voices.

To understand today’s newsroom musical-chairs moves, I’d point you back to my post on the blog-broadcast barrier and the reach-reliability ratio. The stewards of a Yahoo News, with its phenomenal-sized audience, or a New York Times, with its blue-chip reputation, need to perform a balancing act: They can’t pretend that the world isn’t changing around them, and that their readers really do expect and demand less faux objectivity and more transparency and interpretive honesty today. But they also understand that their reach and influence demand extra protocols of responsibility and care. I think they’re right to do so, even if it means that they move a little more cautiously into the future.

The challenge for their managers is a subtle one: How to infuse their coverage with the distinctive human voices of journalistic observers who no longer wish to suppress their personal perspectives, while also insuring that the big megaphones they own do not turn into amplifiers of treacherous rumors, personal vendettas, or partisan lies. (Fox News provides a handy negative exemplar here.)

I think the answer will turn out to have a lot to do with really smart editors who are willing to experiment with new forms — editors who actively encourage writers who show “where I’m coming from” but guide them away from the worst excesses of unfiltered personal journalism.

Editing is a behind-the-scenes role, and it’s threatened by both the bruising economics of the current media biz and by the publish-first-ask-questions-later logic of the digital age. But editorial entrepreneurship is how the most creative institutions will begin to square the circle they face — finding a home for writers who expect to have strong voices while also responsibly serving their mass audiences.

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  1. Good points, all. But is it possible that lost among all this hoopla of old media vs. new is that “the view from nowhere” may be a construct worth fighting for? Just because journalists have been seduced by the siren song of writing their opinions and -inevitably- forming a brand around themselves doesn’t mean it’s necessarily for the greater good. Is this just another manifestation of the “me generation” not looking out for the collective? Food for thought. (?)

  2. This was extremely well put Scott. I’ve rarely seen this argument for editors as actually enhancing opportunities for journalists to write in their own voice. Maybe it’s because not all editors are created equal. I think what it also takes is a news organization that is willing to take risks and try new things. There should be a constant lab of experimentation going on within every news organization. Unfortunately many are too risk averse or fear diverting scant resources.

  3. I heard somewhere re newsrooms: “fairness has had to give way to objectivity.”

    Ex: in my state’s legislature, there is only one lobby org. actively fighting for stricter immigration laws. The “org” is one guy running on $20k a year.

    Every session, there’s some bill that would hamper undocumented people — like for example, having to prove citizenship to get in-state college tuition.

    In order to be “objective”, reporters talk to the legislator involved, but s/he’ll only talk bland generalities. To get a concrete POV, they have to talk to the only state .org working on the issue.

    Result: this guy ends up in the paper all the time with his ideas that not much of anyone else will own up to.

    (And many reporters, out of ignorance or laziness, fail to note the .org’s tininess or seek out national orgs. There’s not, say, a Society of Friends, lobbyist hanging around the press room door.)

  4. Scott Rosenberg

    Howard’s post reminds us that the “evidence-based journalism” approach is itself one answer to “where I come from” — and a good one, to be sure. Jake, my answer is the “view from nowhere” isn’t worth fighting for: it’s discredited, it’s become a shield for lazy journalism that fails to serve the public. I don’t think the choice is between “the view from nowhere” and “the siren song of writing your opinions.” The problem with the view from nowhere is that it gives many journalists, particularly those writing about hot public controversies, the opportunity to abdicate their responsibility to report the truth as they find it. This split-the-difference journalism has hurt us, I think. So the answer isn’t to “write your opinions,” but it’s also not to pretend you don’t have opinions.

    Howard writes about a process that “starts by searching fearlessly for all the evidence and then comes to a conclusion, or sets out with a conclusion and gathers selected facts to advance it.” I think that’s a useful template but maybe oversimplified. Because it’s a dynamic process, it’s like science — you search fearlessly for evidence, but your time is limited, so you do have to hunt where you think there’s important evidence, draw tentative hypotheses, look for evidence that might contradict the hypotheses, present the hypotheses to other knowledgeable parties, and at some point present your conclusion to the public.

    And as you do all this you are inevitably influenced by “where you’re coming from,” so the more up front you are about that, the better.

  5. I would add “show your work” to Howard’s “evidence-based” journalism:

    Fleshing Out Meta-Reporting

    How Writing for the Web Is Different, and How It Isn’t

    2. Show Your Work. Online you have two jobs – to entertain the reader, and to be a guide pointing the reader to other good stuff they ought to read. If you’re writing a column in response to someone else’s argument, you owe it to the reader (and your adversary) to link to that argument. If you’re writing about a player’s rant that was caught on video, embed the video or link to it. If you’ve found a great sabermetrics primer, point the way.

    Linking to something is not a sign of approval, though the reader should never feel blindsided or misled by what they find when they follow a link. If there’s profanity or something worse on the other side of that link, warn the reader but trust them to make an adult decision. And you should absolutely link to your rivals’ good stuff if it’s helping drive the news or debate – you’ll build trust for yourself and your organization by acknowledging their work.

  6. R.S.S.

    Opinion journalism is not the problem. It’s the possibility of believing that that opinion is the absolute truth, to the exclusion of all other opinion, that is.

    For example, I can usually tell within the second or third paragraph if a writer is British, especially if the subject is the US, I don’t exactly know how but I haven’t been wrong too many times. When I am wrong, the writer is someone who has been influenced by the British media or – worse – is trying to show he is.

    I kind of agree with the general drift of this article but I would add that the history of prior opinion or the predisposition to adopt a certain opinion is much more important than a single opinion alone. It’s the “grain of salt” that editors should somehow include in every “opinionated” article. But that kind of information is never readily available to the casual reader.

  7. Makes tons of sense. Before we need journalists to tell us what was going on, now we need curators to sort through everything we have access to.

    It would be nice if bias could be eliminated, but with trust and transparency we’ll be okay.

    Providing people stop editing video to make people say things they really didn’t.

  8. Point-of-view journalism has its place. But the reporting part of journalism is harder when your biases are known.

    Anyone who disputes this hasn’t been on the ground much.


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