Monday, March 22, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Joanna Newsom on Jimmy Fallon

A couple weeks old I guess, but new to me. I am loving "Have One On Me."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Journalists are not priests, and other observations about opinions and the news

I keep having some variation of this conversation with people, mostly but not exclusively journalism people, and I thought it might be worthwhile to get my basic argument on paper. To clarify my own thinking if nothing else. I am obviously not the first person to think through this stuff, but I should say that my views seem to be at odds with much of the newspaper industry, and specifically with my own bosses. So just so you know, this is just me talking.


I don't know what it is like at other newspapers, but editors and reporters at the newspaper where I work spend a lot of time thinking about impartiality, and making sure to keep opinion separate from news, and fretting about what reporters might be posting on Twitter or Facebook, and generally worrying about whether, at some point, newspaper people might slip up and say something that betrays the fact that they're human beings with human thoughts and feelings.

I understand this, and I don't totally disagree with it. It's very important that the newspaper, especially a small local newspaper like where I work, be seen as an honest broker. But my basic position is that journalism is not a priesthood. Isn't and shouldn't be. Newspaper writing should allow for much more space for personal observations, for independent judgment and, yes, for a certain amount of opinion.

Let's start out with a couple things that I am not advocating. I do not think local newspapers should turn into partisan media outlets, or that newspaper reporters should double as political pundits like Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh. That's not what audiences want, and it's not a good goal for journalism. At it happens, I am a fan of partisan media -- TPM, Hot Air, Daily Kos, Redstate -- but they obviously have a distinct niche and are practicing a different sort of journalism than the daily newspaper is practicing. I do like English newspapers, which slant one way or the other, but that is really not it, either. That model might make sense for some of the big national newspapers -- NYT and WSJ, mainly -- but I doubt it would work for smaller papers.

What I would like, instead, is for newspaper writers to be allowed to be something more like human beings. Very often, reporters have completely interesting and insightful opinions about news stories they've covered in detail. You gather the information, you talk to the principals -- you're human, and you're going to form some sort of judgment about the topic. And in newspaper writing, readers aren't allowed access to any of that. I don't see how that serves readers or the overall cause of journalism.

Because judgments of any sort are considered verboten within the conventions of newspaper writing, what usually happens is that reporters are forced to adopt a sort of phony cluelessness about the topic they're writing about. This is typified by the much-scorned he said/she said style, which everyone seems to hate and with good reasons. Party A says the earth is warming, Party B says it isn't, who knows, whatever, the end. That's a very frustrating sort of story for readers, who are naturally seeking not only what the opposing sides are saying but also which claims are actually true. In many cases it's frustrating for reporters, too.

I'd say that a certain amount of he-said-she-saidism is inevitable, especially when you're talking about complicated topics that people disagree about. That's not a disaster. The disaster is that journalistic conventions can make it very hard to provide the reader with important context. This can be: What are the political angles here? What is the mood in the room? Which people really seem to hate each other? Who is a known self-promoter and who is a humble, behind-the-scenes kind of guy?

None of these things are impossible to provide within the accepted conventions of a news story. But they're hard, and they tend to go through a sort of institutional linguistic wringer that drains them of meaning. In a story about Joe the Plumber's visit to Wausau, I wrote flatly that he'd made some claims that were "untrue." They were. The sentence was changed by an editor to read that JtP "glosses over facts." To me that reads like he just sort of innocently left some things out. Not the same thing! By sanding the edges off the judgment made by the reporter, the newspaper also removed some of the story's bite, and I would say made it less true.

The problem of the priesthood is that there are a lot of reporters and editors who have internalized this belief system so thoroughly that they self-censor and prune their own opinions even from themselves in the pursuit of journalistic purity. Some of them are incredibly good reporters and editors! My friend Brian Reisinger, now writing for the Nashville Business Journal, is one of these who believes in trying to a achieve a kind of blank-slate approach to news. Longtime Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie, who once spoke to my j-school class in Washington, D.C., said he didn't even read the Post's opinion page. Some reporters don't even vote. The idea is to live a sort of monastic existence free from opinion -- the better to honestly report the news.

This impulse definitely grows out of a desire to be honest and even-handed. Still, I say it is a pose. It's a vanity. Judgment is not independent of perception; it's part of perception. There is never a time when there are "pure" facts and no judgments. Facts always, always come in context. The shape of that context is what judgment is.

That is a fairly abstract formulation, so let's get concrete. What would newspaper reporting look like shorn of its pretensions to total purity and impartiality?
  • It would take a much, much looser approach to storytelling. The first and biggest change would be a lot more first-person, especially in non-hard-news stories. Sometimes the best way to describe what someone or some experience is like is to describe your own reaction to it. That doesn't mean the story is all about you or that it should be some kind of journal entry. But there are some newspaper stories that ought to be a little bit more like magazine profiles, which allow for a certain amount of participation. I'd think a lot of cultural coverage could go this way, or a lot of profiles. Some news coverage would be closer to some column-writing.
  • More ability to weigh the relative strength of various claims on the news pages. Not, like, "By the way, my name's Rob, and here's what I think about that thing I just reported." I am thinking of sentences more like, "Person A's strongest argument is _____ because _____." and "Person' B's weakest argument is _____ because _____." If readers disagree, that's fine. It's great! They can write letters, they can blog, whatever. In 2010, readers have plenty of ways to make their voices heard, and that is a good thing. So let 100 flowers bloom!
  • Understand that newspaper writing is just another literary form, like a magazine story or a short story or a blog or a tweet. The conventions of newspaper writing aren't set in stone or handed down from on high; they're just conventions. The journalism industry now knows that it needs to be reporting across many different platforms. That's not good enough. You can't just chop up news stories into 140-character intervals. You need to understand different forms and their own internal conventions, and you actually need to be able to think within those forms. That's also going to mean that sometimes different conventions spill across the forms.
  • Stop trying to be all things to all people. It's excessively defensive. All this stuff, picking at people's personal Twitter feeds or worrying about who we are befriending on Facebook, it is unnecessary. Reporters are human beings. If their stories are written in good faith, that will show up in the work and readers will respond to it. Period.
One of the things I find consistently weird is how many daily-journalism types believe that admitting any form of opinion into journalism necessarily means operating in bad faith. There are contrary examples all over the place -- in magazines, in weekly newspapers, on the Web, on the opinion page of the newspaper. But for some reason, what applies in other places can never apply -- even a little -- to the news pages of a daily. I find that a little frustrating, and actually a little arrogant -- like these pages are sacrosanct and have nothing to learn from other forms. Not true. Let's have the newspaper be a place that hosts all sorts of different pieces of writing, from straight-down-the-middle coverage to personal stories to straight-up polemics -- and let's have them be lively, interesting, diverse.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The End of Influence by Brad DeLong and Stephen Cohen

The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money by J. Bradford DeLong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Super-good narrative of recent history of international economics, including how the financial crisis is going to matter going forward. Very readable, very interesting, and you don't have the feeling that it's mainly about scoring political points or pushing an ideological agenda. You will be smarter when you finish it. Really good book.

View all my reviews >>

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Insophisticate

The podcast I do with two other guys just gets better and better. Check it out here at

This latest one is about the new Windows phone operating system, and also sort ofabout phones in general. We've done recent episodes about shoes, Lady Gaga and a freestyle of different topics.

Or, subscribe to us on iTunes.