Sunday, August 9, 2009

Will Good Writing Outlive Old School Journalists?

From a cushy spot on my blogging chair, I've been able to act as an interested observer in the unfolding dynamic between old-school newspaper and magazine scribes - the George Will/Maureen Dowd/Bill Kristol crowd - and the newer breed of writers - hilzoy/Taibbi/atrios, et al.

One point has distilled in crystal clarity: The newer writers are doing a much better job of working at their writing and delivering a product both robust in its content and approachable in its presentation.

To put it bluntly, new media writes the way that I read.

I've plowed through tens of thousands of articles, print and online, and in too many instances the onus has been on me to parse though the journalistic conventions, reporter-speak, and conventional wisdom in the hopes of squirting out the other side with a better understanding of the topic than when I jumped in. I've not always been successful.

I readily accept the blame for a percentage (20%?) that I had neither the energy nor the inclination to hang in there. Call it "brain of clay", whatever. The train left the station and I bailed before things really started rolling.

One-fifth of the time, it clicked. I got whatever it was they were saying. I was engaged, interested, and fully caught up in the topic, regardless of the writer's point of view. It was less about whether I agreed with the analysis and explanation than it was whether it was put forth logically and coherently.

The other 60% I assigned equally between two buckets - the writer wasn't getting through to me and successfully transferring the knowledge from their head to mine, or there was really no new information to pass along. The writer was phoning it in, or never intended to educate in the first place. Column space is a difficult thing to fill, and a writer can only rephrase the same stale talking points a finite number of times before beginning to sputter and stall.

What brought me to thinking about this was a digby post concerning the reaction to Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone article on Goldman Sachs and his related blog postings on the subject. Here's digby's take:

The reason so many people read Taibbi's work on the banking crisis is not simply because he calls a spade a spade, but because he does it by writing (and speaking) in such a way that makes the issue itself comprehensible. His conclusions about motives and guilt are obviously open for criticism. Anyone's are. But his explanations of what happened, how these financial instruments worked, what precipitated the crisis and how the industry is constructed are clear, informative and comprehensive. Unlike so many others who write on this topic, he has fulfilled his duty as a journalist without making it "homework," as Ezra says, or effectively helping to obfuscate the issue on behalf of those who seek to keep people in the dark.

As bloggers and non-mainstream writers have pushed their way into the game, there has been scorn, derision, and ridicule heaped their way by old-school journalists and the monolithic organizations that employ them. We're repeatedly lectured about how the newcomers lack the reporting stones to deliver a valuable product, so while it's ok if they continue to practice their particular flavor of high school newspaper journalism, we would be wise to dance with the folks that brought us, as they know the music, and by extension, what's good for us.

The problem is that new generations of readers put far less stock in credentials than they do relevant, accurate information. Peabody awards might look good on a shelf somewhere, but they don't help us collect and digest the information we want. And therein lies the core issue: Readers are gravitating toward writers who provide what the readers want, while abandoning those with a history of only providing what they think readers are entitled to know.

This divergence will accelerate if large, institutional journalistic entities follow through on their threats to hide what they consider to be their "valuable" content behind paywalls. The reward needs to be sufficiently worthy for a rat to expend the energy to overcome new obstacles placed within the maze. Otherwise, they'll abandon the same old cheese and go in search of something better that doesn't require them to jump through hoops to savor.

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