Do More With Less, Or The Strange Arrogance of Covering The Pulitzers

Or: Of the Big-Name Papers, Only The New York Times Knows How to Write a Lede

It’s a mark of how far I’ve strayed from my first (professional) love, that I didn’t know the Pulitzers were being announced today until the New York Times breaking news notification came across my phone. A few years ago, sitting in a newsroom, my colleagues and I were making (mostly correct) predictions about who would win what.*

It’s a mark of how my love for  journalism–and for people I did it with–has shaped me, that I got up almost immediately to call another journalist friend to discuss. She too no longer works in journalism.

But even more notable as a sign of the changes that have come were the prizes themselves, and the message the New York Times lede appropriately conveyed:

The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., with a staff of about 80 and a daily circulation of 85,000, won the most prestigious of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism awarded on Monday, for a series on the high number of deaths resulting from domestic abuse in the state.

Pulitzer coverage is a funny thing: Would these prizes be news worthy of breaking news alerts,  prime web-page real estate, and multiple articles if they weren’t news stories about the newspapers? Do the papers even find the right stories within the prize announcements?

Screenshot from the Wall Street Journal's coverage of the Pulitzers

Screenshot from the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the Pulitzers

The Wall Street Journal‘s home page headline is “Wall Street Journal Wins Investigative Pulitzer Prize” and doesn’t mention the Post and Courier in the subhead or the first two grafs.  Reuters–which does not have its own prize to highlight--led with the New York Timeswin, even though the Public Service award is the most prestigious.

I can almost forgive all this eye-roll-inducing self-congratulation because the print news industry has so little to celebrate these days.

But there IS news in this year’s awards:  that a newspaper so tiny could win an award so big ( a paper that size has not won in five years, and the Post-Courrier has not won since 1925); that public service was defined as reporting on  domestic violence, a topic notoriously under-discussed;  that  a newspaper did  work which was data driven and focused on taking previous years’ reporting to the next level despite a staff of 80.

http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150420/PC1002/150429905/1506/a-pulitzer-honor-x2014-and-a-continuing-challenge

By the time I got to the Post Courier page, the only coverage on the home page was an editorial urging legislative action for restrictions on gun ownership by domestic abusers.

That Times’ lede is a lede written by a journalist for journalists. For people who can read that sentence and understand all  the implied history of heartbreaking layoffs and fear about the Buzzfeed-ification of journalism. For people who know what it’s like to pray that data analysis will be the panacea of journalism as a whole while also hoping that crunching the numbers will lead to a compelling story about the humans journalists truly want to serve.

This year’s prizes offer a second, related story about the state of journalism today. The Daily Breeze won the prize for local reporting  “for their inquiry into widespread corruption in a small, cash-strapped school district, including impressive use of the paper’s website.” The paper has seven local reporters.* One of the journalists who won the prize has already left to become a publicist “for economic reasons.” The reality of the business, especially for local journalists, is so brutal that even a shiny prize can’t hide it.

Screenshot from The Daily Breeze's website

Screenshot from The Daily Breeze’s website

But  to the small papers everywhere–including the college papers such as my very own–that a small, over-worked staff can still produce great journalism, and perhaps has an obligation to do so (my heart broke a little when I noticed that on a non-print day Spec had fewer news articles than we did on the days we were most ashamed of the product we put out. I get it, but it’s sad).

The message “do more with less” is cynical and short-cited when it comes from the business side, but it sounds more like a defense of the value of what journalists do when it comes from the Pulitzer committee  and is highlighted by THE newspaper of record and its peers. The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and company should have had the heart to recognize that the Pulitzer Prizes are about more than the big names. They are about the potential journalism still holds, staff and circulation numbers be damned.

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A Word of Advice For Those Who Google

I’m not really an advice type of person, but my back-end stats, tell me that someone found this blog because she (I assume given the school) had googled “making friends at Barnard.” I hope it was someone who is in the position I was in five years ago. Five years ago, right around this time, I was struggling to write my senior column for the Columbia Daily SpectatorI had no idea how to write about the importance of the moments I had experienced, the lessons I had learned, and the friends I had made at the paper, at Barnard, and at Columbia University. I am sure I googled all sorts of things in an attempt to find inspiration.

But, I am a realist, so I figure the woman who googled “making friends at Barnard” is looking for tips or is a prospective student wondering how hard it is to make friends at college. To those women, I say: join a club. Any club or activity that you think might interest you. Try out a few and stick with only the ones that make you feel happy and whose mission you believe in. Dive into it, even if if means letting your grades drop a bit. You will find camaraderie in the commitment.  Join for the activity, stick it out for the experiences, and eventually, you’ll stay for the friends.

When my senior column was finally written and was published, a friend who was not on the paper came up to me and said “I read your column; it made me jealous. I wish I had found a place like that.” I was taken aback because this is a kid I generally considered popular and outgoing with no shortage of community. In college–perhaps especially in New York City–commitment can look like obsession and can feel like sleep deprivation, but in the end it manifests itself as a community of friends.

The Crystal Ball is Really Murky

I want to believe that news has a future. I don’t mean that things will continue to blow up, countries will continue to go to war, celebrities will continue to stumble, and people will continue to invent and discover.

That news of course, does have a future in that their will always be things people want to know about. I also have faith that those kind of things–the war, and crime, and inventions–will get passed on from the newsmakers to everyone else without much trouble. That’s the kind of news that can be passed on with a release or a tweet. Community boards can start their own newsletters or blogs. Even some of the really big news can come straight from the source through the Internet. And, if we see newspapers as the way that people found out what was going on in the world, then newspapers probably are obsolete.

But newspapers are more than that. It’s not enough to know war broke out; people should know what happens in that war, what leads to things going terribly wrong as well as what is going right. Cold cases should come back in the public eye. Industry deception and hidden dangers should be revealed. The news from the mouth of the source should be weighed against opposing views. That’s the kind of stuff that journalism provides, and that can’t always be replaced with the mess of ways to communicate that the Internet provides.

Of course, those stories are generally expensive, and, as Nick Carr points out, were previously funded by bundling. Carr’s article did an excellent job laying out the problems with the industry’s over-reliance on bundling. But he ends his post by saying that quality journalism might just die. He offers no solution to the very real problem.

I was heartened, however, by the underlying message in Jeff Jarvis‘ post, even though I remain skeptical of it’s most obvious point:

I’ll say it again: Distribution is not king. Content is not king. Conversation is the kingdom. It’s about relationships.

I believe that it’s somehow about relationships, but I’m still not sure how the community interaction part plays in. The Boston Globe is betting on the True Fans model: people who just need their Red Sox fix can get it for free, but people who love the Globe–for it’s reporting on non-sports, or for other, more emotional reasons–will pay for it at BostonGlobe.com. Not coincidentally, BostonGlobe.com is also where they intend to have their most vibrant commenting system. But, I think that relationships and conversation are two different things.

I have a relationship with the Globe. My very first byline was on a book review for the Globe‘s long-gone Student Page. I was nine years old. The Globe is My Hometown Newspaper, so when they told me I’d have to pay for access, I did. But I don’t have a conversation with the Globe. I rarely comment on newspaper articles; I can’t imagine my Globe subscription will change that.

When I asked the publisher of the Globe, Christopher Mayer, what value he foresaw getting from a BostonGlobe.com commenting system, he talked about community, and feedback and solid reader contributions, driven by the fact that readers would not be able to hide under full anonymity (at least the subscription sale people know who you are no matter how strange your commenting handle is). Maybe that can all be monetized, and maybe he didn’t want to tell me how that would be monetized (the answer might be offline–the Globe will be offering that same commenting community in-person events), but right now I don’t see how communication leads to money, or certainly not to the money needed to make up for the unbundling. That being said, I’m not sure the True Fans model will make enough money for that either. I don’t think shorting stocks or “”scooping the muck from the sewer and holding it up in your hand and saying, ‘Look at this. Smell this””  is the answer either.

I’m skeptical of conversation as kingdom–though I recognize that might be because so many sites add commenting as a tack-on rather than a thought-through part of their site and business model–but what really struck me about the Jarvis was that he pushed the idea that newspapers need to figure out what their value is. He argues that it’s community or conversation. I’d say it’s providing information beyond the basics.

But, I do think that newspapers don’t often enough step outside of the journalism bubble and ask what their value can and should be in the Internet age. It might be some sort of smart aggregation. It might be letting computers write the breaking news so that staff can only focus on investigation. It might be becoming the virtual town square. I think that that answer needs to be found first before the solution to the money problem can really be found.

Storming The Newsroom

This is a bonus post, because what I am really interested in is newsroom dynamics, but I had to cut this from the original blog post in hopes of only having a  very long post rather than a ridiculously long post. The class assignment post is below this one (and linked here.)

Letting The Public Into The Newsroom

In his book Clay Shirky notes that “journalist” has become harder to define when the scarcity of the resources that defined it — people who wrote with access to publishers– disappeared with the advent of self publishing on the Internet.

The debate rages on; I am particularly tickled by the straightforward, rolling-my-eyes-because-it’s-so-obvious answer offered at Scripting.com compared to  hand wringing over at Buzz Machine where  Jeff Jarvis  writes “I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner.”

But for me, the issue is not “what is a journalist?” because I haven’t run up against any libel suits or need for a shield law. For me the question is, “if I consider myself a journalist, how has my responsibility changed in light of an expectation that communication on the Internet can go in more than one direction and that group-formation and personal blogging is changing the definition of news.

Shirky offers the example of Trent Lott revealing his segregationist sympathies at a Birthday party speech that was at first ignored by the mainstream media and picked up by that media only after Lott responded to what was blog-driven outcry. In the intervening years, I would tentatively offer John Edward’s affair (it was ignored by the mainstream media, but was broken by the Enquirer not by blogs though blogs fueled the flames).

To me, the biggest change is that newspapers can no longer say with bravado that they know what is news.

When I was working at the Columbia Spectator, there was a quote hanging on the wall  that I believed in full-heartedly. I incorporated it into cover letters and quoted it righteously as justification for writing another story about the flaws in the New York City Gifted and Talented program.

“Give the public what it wants to have and part of what it ought to have whether it wants it or not.” ~ Herbert Bayard Swope, editor of the New York World

To the college-aged version of me, this quote from a dead  editor of a shuttered newspaper was the epitome of doing journalism right. Journalists were the arbiters of news, and readers were going to learn something whether they expected to or not. The Internet not only gives readers a way to ignore news journalists think they ought to have, but it also provides newspaper editors with a clear way to find out what the public (or at least a vocal online section of the public) actually wants. When Swope made that statement, he was presumably making arbitrary decisions about both what the public ought to know and what it  wanted to know (well, blood and sex sell newspapers, so that could have been a rubric, but not a very precise one). Now, the first is harder to provide and the second is harder to fudge.

How does that change the way newspapers are run? It would make them a lot more reactionary to the Internet than they are now; and a lot less self righteous. The question is if newspapers really need to go down that road and if they risk losing out on an important part of their mission by catering to voices and the groups rising up from the Internet. I don’t know the answer.