Deborah Howell, WaPo’s outgoing ombudsman, laments the downside of her profession becoming more professionalized.
Journalism is better than it was in my early days, and changes in technology have opened up a new world. My worry is that journalists aren’t as connected to readers as they were in the days of my youth, when the city’s newspaper was the equivalent of the public square. Then, reporters tended to be folks who often hadn’t graduated from, or even attended, college, and they weren’t looking to move to bigger papers. They knew the community well, didn’t make much money and lived like everyone else, except for chasing fires and crooks.
Now journalists are highly trained, mobile and, especially in Washington, more elite. We make a lot more money, drive better cars and have nicer homes. Some of us think we’re just a little more special than some of the folks we want to buy the paper or read us online.
That’s a mistake. Readers want us to be smart and tough and for the newspaper to read that way, but they don’t want us to think we’re better than they are. We need to be worried sick when people drop their subscriptions. We need to think of ways to prevent that.
An unpleasant fact about journalists is that we can be way too defensive. We dish it out a lot better than we take it. It’s not that we have thin skin; we often act as though we have no skin and bleed at the slightest touch.
Journalists need to find ways to be more a part of their communities and their interests — without crossing the line to partisanship — and to engage with readers in improving the newspaper and its Web site to be sources readers can’t do without. If something drives readers nuts, what can we do to help them?
Journalists need to be tough enough to face down a mayor, a police chief or the president of the United States, but we also should be tough enough to respond to honest criticism. The worst part of my job as official internal critic hasn’t been dealing with readers, though that has been both daunting and rewarding. Taking those complaints to reporters and editors has been the biggest challenge. I’m grateful to those here who took them seriously. Some readers had complaints that I just couldn’t get to; I regret that. Some journalists think I have been unfair to them. If I have, then they know how people who believe The Post has treated them unfairly feel.
Politico’s Michael Calderone takes her point but observes, “Howell must run in more well-heeled circles than I do, since a good many journalists I know are barely scraping by or getting laid off — ‘better cars’ and ‘nicer homes’ aren’t the first things on every scribe’s mind these days.” That’s a fair point: young reporters make meager salaries because the supply of quality applicants far outstrips demand. That said, though, those who are successful do quite well, indeed.
When I was teaching Media and Politics courses years ago, I showed an old program I had taped (perhaps an episode of “Frontline,” but I may be mistaken) that featured an interview with former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, once widely regarded as The Most Trusted Man in America. He lamented that reporters once had lifestyles and attitudes similar to police officers and firefighters and tended to live in the same neighborhoods and drink at the same bars as they did. That’s not the case for the mid-career journalist at major newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets.
But that’s not really surprising. Elite journalists are, at a minimum, college graduates — often from elite schools — and many go on to graduate or professional school. Outside of FBI agents and other federal agents, that’s just about unheard of for cops and firefighters.
UPDATE: A Mark Bowden piece in the July/August edition of The Atlantic illustrates Howell’s point wonderfully.
In those fat and happy days, the glory days of “serious” American journalism, the concepts of objectivity and editorial independence grew into a kind of public religion. The old yellow era of Hearst and Pulitzer, publishers who threw their weight around vigorously and would even instigate a shooting war if it boosted circulation, had given way to a time of more-genteel ownership, often the Ivy League—educated sons and daughters of the press barons. Even the name Pulitzer was expropriated; it became an annual award given to the best examples of serious journalism, and in most newsrooms became a far more coveted goal than increased circulation. There was a high wall, we were assured, between the business side of the newspaper and its editorial staff, and newsrooms were increasingly peopled by a new generation of white-collar journalists, gentlemen (and ladies) of the Fourth Estate, arbiters of style, taste, and decency, who took upon themselves the tasks of keeping government honest and educating the public. (In my 20-plus years as a newspaper reporter, I was always amused when skeptics suggested that I wrote just what the newspaper’s owner told me to write. If only they knew how mightily the newsroom looked down its nose at the business side of the operation.)
This vision of a newspaper, one that prevailed at the highest levels of the craft for decades, ensured that the paper was not just a propaganda mill, the house organ of some rich man or political party, but a community of street-smart shoe-leather scholars who worked as the eyes, ears, and conscience of their city. This was the world of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, of David Halberstam’s and Neil Sheehan’s courageous reporting from Vietnam, and of countless other public-spirited examples of a responsible, serious journalism.
Even literary ambition began to creep into the pages of the great newspapers. At the best ones, when the material justified it, reporters were encouraged to write creatively and at length. A certain kind of reporter—and I was one—competed against others not so much for scoops, but for recognition, prizes, and tenured positions at papers where the rarefied work of “serious” journalism was underwritten. Mine was The Philadelphia Inquirer, where my byline read not “staff reporter” or “staff correspondent” but “staff writer,” and which we writers called, in its heyday, “the greatest care-and-feeding system for journalism ever invented.”
But while the Web is rapidly destroying the business model that sustained all of the above, it has yet to develop institutions capable of replacing print newspapers as vehicles for great in-depth journalism, or conscious of themselves as upholding a public trust. Instead, the Web gives voice to opinionated, unedited millions. In the digital world, ignorance and crudity share the platform with rigor and taste; the independent journalist shares the platform with spinmeisters and con artists.