Further Specimens of Old Journalism

I’m gratified (and relieved) by the reaction to my profession of partisanship in this election and sorry conclusions about the state of journalism, receiving a surprising number of approving tweets from news folk I respect.

Of course, I also got some disapproving tweets, including this from Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi.

“We informed plenty,” he says. “Your beef is with voters.”

In a prior post about specimens of old-journalism thinking (inspired by friend Jay Rosen’s considerable collection of such bugs in jars), I noted what I called the Wernher von Braun rule: It’s not our fault what people do with what we report. We report and if they’re not informed — or if they use what we report to bad ends — it’s not our responsibility. We see that view here from Farhi.

A discussion ensued with others about whether the public trusts journalists in any case, to which Farhi replied:

To which I issued this defense of the public:

And later:

Seal that bug in a specimen jar.

A variation on this species emerged soon thereafter from Farhi’s Washington Post colleague Chris Cillizza, who tweeted out of spontaneous and apparent disgust:

I don’t mean to pick on Farhi or Cillizza because they work for what I think is becoming America’s best newspaper. And I can empathize with what I hear them saying: We are doing what journalists have long done and we’re doing that better than anybody. Indeed, I help teach their successors to do the same. The problem is that we have it in our heads that we make a set product: The News. Everybody knows what The News is because it has been the same for generations.

The lesson of this election is that it is time to do something different because what we’ve always done is failing. Trump’s nomination is evidence of that failure.

If we recognize that it is our job to inform the public — and we know we are failing — then we need to look for new and better ways to do our job. If our aspirin doesn’t fix what ails you, then it would be up to us, your news doctors, to rethink our diagnosis and treatment.

That adjustment is possible only if we see The News as a changeable process rather than as a set product and only if we judge our success not by mediacentric measures (how much traffic and attention our content gets) but instead by our impact.

What’s impact? That leads us to another specimen of journalistic thinking from the Twitter.

This says what I often hear: If people are reading, talking about, and reacting to The News I’ve made then I am having an impact.

No, the only measure of impact that matters is progress: helping inform people so they an improve their lives and communities. That is why journalism exists, isn’t it? If the journalism we know is failing to do what it’s supposed to do, then we must reinvent it.

In another post I’m working on, I’ll propose an example of how I think we can do this.

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