Bringing Magazine Ethos to Newspapers
Magazines routinely run great pieces by highly biased writers. Why can't newspapers do the same?
Jim Henley makes a provocative point about the Dave Weigel kerfuffle that’s not only managed to embroil the blogosphere the last 24 hours but even made it into the opening minutes of NPR’s “Weekend Edition.”
If you were a magazine editor and knew Paul Theroux hated the English because he wrote an entire book about how much the English suck, you might still send him to write a big piece on England for your monthly because you expected it to be interesting, and because the ethos of magazine journalism would make it “fair.” If you knew that William Greider hated economic conservatives, or Tom Wolfe hated social liberals, you would still buy factual pieces touching economics from the one and cultural folkways from the other: their very names constitute warning labels; their strong viewpoints sharpen their writing; and because they’re professionals, they’ll put in the work.
What blogging does is enable the magazine-journalism ethos to meet a frequent publication schedule – even more frequent than the newspaper’s traditional daily schedule. That’s probably why magazine journalists like James Fallows and Marc Ambinder understand best what the Post didn’t get about Dave Weigel; but it’s also why so many at the Post don’t get Dave Weigel, (and to a lesser extent, Ezra Klein). The newspapers aren’t merely confounded by a new thing in journalism. They’re confounded by a new form of the thing they consciously set themselves in opposition to decades ago: the standards of magazine writing. The magazine ethos turns out to be better suited to the internet age than the newspaper ethos, provided you add pet pictures and music videos and push new content hourly rather than monthly. This is newspaper standards losing out to a very old rival as much as to a new one.
This is right in general but wrong in the specific case.
I’m fully on board with Jay Rosen’s contempt for the “view from nowhere” and absolutely agree with Conor Friedersdorf‘s argument that journalists should be judged on the quality of their work. Expository writing with a sharp point of view is not only more interesting to read but more honest than faux-objective pabulum with “balanced” quotes. Ezra Klein’s blogging and writing for WaPo is a fine example of this new-old ethos at its best.
Weigel’s, alas, was not because it was mispositioned. He had been doing reported commentary on the conservative moment for years at Reason and TWI before getting his big break at WaPo. But he wasn’t cast as an objective beat reporter providing a big picture view of a movement, much less the only reporter on said beat for a major newspaper. In that role, he had a responsibility that he couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet and, indeed, wasn’t meeting. He was generating enough traffic and buzz that the charade was maintainable until his postings to Journolist ended it.
Can someone who thinks social conservatives and Tea Partiers are loathsome morons nonetheless write interesting, insightful commentary about them? Sure! Indeed, Weigel has done so routinely. But he can’t report on them for a newspaper.