What is the value of news judgment as a job skill today?
That was the question that arrived by email from someone I have never met (I think; we might have crossed paths at a conference or seminar), but have interacted with on Twitter and in comments on my blog. The email is below, edited slightly. I have changed the name of a person he mentioned, out of respect for that person’s privacy. In place of the name of my correspondent’s friend, I have used Jimmy Larson, the longtime, legendary (and deceased) news editor of the Des Moines Register. I think my correspondent is asking whether editors like Jimmy would have value in the journalism that lies ahead.
Here is the email:
For most of my career (which dates to 1974 if you count my work on my college paper), newspaper reporters and editors were walled off from readers, other than publishing letters to the editor and trying to respond to folks who called the City Desk at midnight. This was exceedingly comfortable, and it allowed me to develop a sense that my colleagues and I were the best people to decide what to cover, how to cover it and (perhaps most tellingly) whose voices should be heard in our pages. In retrospect I can see the arrogance and plain foolishness in this. I’m trying to adapt.
At the same time, I think a guy like Jimmy Larson, one of the senior editors here who decides what goes on A1 most days, has skills that are extraordinarily important but are being devalued in the evolving new models of journalism. “News judgment” really does mean something, I think, and I see it every day when Jimmy asks me and other editors the tough questions that ensure that our stories – particularly the big, important ones – have been rigorously vetted. This is not a skill possessed by everyone with a broadband connection and some blogging software, yet the distinctions between the two are continually being blurred.
So how do we embrace engagement – a term that covers thoughtful comments on blogs like yours as well as the hateful drivel in the unmonitored comments posted to many of the stories on newspaper Websites – while retaining the best of the standards that were drilled into me in the first two decades of my career? Of course the decline of editing standards that I see every day is attributable in large part to the cutbacks forced by the collapse of the traditional newspaper business model. But it’s that business imperative, surely, that’s fueling the changes that are giving rise to my concerns, however ill-conceived they may be.
If this is coherent enough to elicit a response, that would be great. If not, just know that I appreciate what journalists like you are doing and I am sincerely trying to understand it and adapt it to my vision of what journalism should be.
Jimmy Larson taught me a lot about journalism, certainly more than anyone I encountered in the first couple decades of my career. I do believe that his lessons in news judgment, editing and headline writing continue to serve me well 30-plus later in a news business Jimmy would have difficulty recognizing.
But clearly news judgment is different today. We were a “newspaper of record” back then, unrivaled as the leading news source in Iowa. While much of the day’s news had already been on radio and television the day before, the play of a story in the Register said something about how important it was (or wasn’t) to Iowa and Des Moines. And we were frequently breaking enterprise news on our front page as well, dictating the agenda for much of Iowa. In many ways, Jimmy decided what Iowans would be talking about in coffee shops the next day. His calls on where and how to play a story and whether it was ready to publish carried weight that no newspaper editor has today.
I’m pretty sure the Register’s front page doesn’t reach even half the audience today that it had when Jimmy was in charge of it. So on that basis alone, news judgment isn’t worth what it used to be. People today in Iowa and everywhere set their own agendas. Their front pages are determined by Twitter lists, Facebook updates, RSS feeds and soon if not already Google+ Sparks.
But I think news judgment remains important, even if it has changed. We need editors who understand the best channels, times and ways to share stories on social platforms. We need strong home pages and we still need strong print front pages. We need strong editors to make sure that newspapers are not just recounting what readers already saw yesterday.
Jimmy had to approve every headline we published on the front page on the days he worked. I worked for him a few months before he approved one of my headlines. That was one of my greatest achievements of my career — writing a single headline that met Jimmy’s high standards, and eventually meeting them nearly every day. We needed headlines that accurately reflected the news of the story and that made readers want to read the story. And we often had to do so in one column, all in capital letters.
Writing headlines is no less important in digital journalism. We still need to invite readers into stories, but we also need to attract the attention of search engines. Just as news judgment in Jimmy’s day worked together with the ability to write for tight spaces, news judgment today combines with search-engine optimization for effective headline writing.
And the vetting of information has actually grown in importance. I might argue that Andy Carvin is the best news editor in the business today, sifting, vetting and sharing reports from Arab Spring revolutions. And at the community level, vetting of social media reports is an important exercise of news judgment today, as my former TBD colleagues Daniel Victor and Jeff Sonderman noted in blog posts this week.
Clearly, an old-school journalist with excellent news judgment has diminished value if he or she has not updated skills. But news judgment remains important in digital journalism.