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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    “Can someone who thinks social conservatives and Tea Partiers are loathsome morons ”

    I am not a regular reader of his, but my sense is that he he thinks that SOME are morons. The pieces I have read on the Tea Party always emphasize that there are a number of bright, normal people at the events also.


  2. TangoMan says:

    absolutely agree with Conor Friedersdorf‘s argument that journalists should be judged on the quality of their work.

    Ref, I need a rule clarification here. When the work of a journalist is judged the adjudicator is looking at an end result. If one is inclined to judge the work by the omissions that were made in order to slant it in one direction or another then one is not looking at the quality of work but factors that stand outside of the finished product. In other words, if there are no lies of commission then the work is judged as adequate but if there are lies of omission then the work must also be judged as adequate because the work is all that is available for judging.

    I’m not buying into that standard.

  3. Dantheman says:

    From your tease: “Magazines routinely run great pieces by highly biased writers. Why can’t newspapers do the same?”

    Umm, they do. The one Weigel formerly worked for includes both Krauthammer and
    Dionne, both of whom have strong biases in opposing directions, but both of whom are insightful most of the time. Even if you restrict this to the Post’s political beat reporters, by having them take questions on a regular basis, one is able to pigeonhole them. They have quite a range of biases, from Paul Kane’s rightwards one to Lois Romano’s leftwards one.

  4. sookie says:

    Yes he can but only if he’s honest about his views of conservatives. That stuff shoudn’t have come out from leaked emails.