Dear Newsroom Curmudgeon,
I sometimes share your anxiety and occasionally share your concerns about some of the changes in journalism. I learned journalism in the old school, same as you. I am steeped in the same values of accuracy, fairness, dogged reporting and good writing that you cherish. But I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had in more than 40 years in journalism, I have as high regard for my colleagues’ work as ever and I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been about the future of journalism and the news business. If you would like work to be fun again, if you’d like to be optimistic again (or, if you never were, to finally be optimistic), I’m writing to tell you about the fun and optimism that I find in journalism.
I wrote about you last fall, but you probably didn’t read that blog post. You’re probably not a regular reader of my blog or a regular user of Twitter, where a lot of journalists learned about that post. Maybe you’re reading this because a colleague emailed you a link or printed it out for you. That’s OK. I’m writing this because an editor asked me recently how to deal with curmudgeons who resist learning the skills, tools, techniques and principles of digital journalism. I gave him an answer off the cuff and sent him a link to that earlier blog post. But upon reflection, I think the best way to deal with a curmudgeon is to talk candidly and directly with him or her. So I’m doing that.
I’m going to speculate on some possible reasons for your resistance and address them (it’s informed speculation, because I’ve heard from lots of curmudgeons as I’ve evangelized for digital journalism, and some of your peers don’t hold much back):
Reason #1: Quality. You may be resisting digital journalism because you think journalism was so great back in the day and today’s journalism just doesn’t measure up.
I share your pride in journalism’s glorious past. I cut my teeth in this business in the heyday of Woodward & Bernstein (loved the ASNE panel with them earlier this week), Seymour Hersh, Neil Sheehan, Edna Buchanan, Robert Maynard, Jim Risser and Don Bolles. I’ve always reveled in stories from days gone by of giants such as Ida Tarbell, Grantland Rice, Nellie Bly and H.L. Mencken. Journalism has served our nation in a lot of ways we can and should be proud of. But our past isn’t all glorious. Most newspapers in the South (the exceptions stand out) were shamefully silent during the civil rights movement (or vocal in protecting the status quo). And most never followed the example of the Lexington Herald-Leader, acknowledging the error decades later. Hearst and Pulitzer are distinguished names in journalism, but not all of their history was distinguished. “Citizen Kane,” based in part on William Randolph Hearst, may be the best newspaper movie of all time, but remember, it’s not exactly a flattering portrayal.
And you don’t have to dig back that far into the past to find embarrassing chapters. Less than a decade ago, most major news organizations parroted lies from unnamed sources about weapons of mass destruction, helping drive our nation into a war that cost us thousands of lives and will burden our economy for generations. Do you really want to exalt journalism’s past, to the detriment of your own professional future?
Digital journalists value investigative journalism and high standards as much as traditional journalists, even if the tools and standards may be different. Blogger Josh Marshall did outstanding investigative reporting as a digital journalist, bringing down a U.S. attorney general. Andy Carvin is using Twitter to be the best foreign correspondent in the world today, often from his desk in Washington, but from anywhere he has his smartphone. You probably are scornful of Twitter, but read how he used Twitter to debunk speculation that the Israelis were arming Libyan insurgents and to expose the Gay Girl in Damascus as a fraud. He was living the first tenet of the SPJ Code of Ethics: Seek truth and report it.
Update: I don’t mean by this to disrespect the outstanding and courageous work of foreign correspondents, especially war correspondents, who do reporting on the ground, only to note how industriously and ingeniously Andy is using Twitter to elevate journalism. I don’t want to detour this piece further with a discussion of foreign correspondence, but I encourage you to read the discussion in the comments below.
Reason #2: You love writing. Maybe what you enjoy most is finding the right words, crafting the perfect lead, telling the story. Maybe you think tweets and blogs and other digital formats aren’t as pure forms of writing as newspaper stories.
I’ve been a writer and storyteller all my life. I loved writing before I started first grade, being tutored by a wonderful retired English teacher, Mrs. Shaw, back in the 1950s. My grandmother, Francena H. Arnold, was a novelist and a great oral storyteller, and some of my earliest and fondest memories are listening to her stories and dreaming of being a writer someday. Throughout my career, I have loved writing more than all the other fascinating things I have done. I wrote a 200-inch newspaper story, for crying out loud, back in 1997, when columns were wider than they are now. (Actually, I wrote 250 inches, but the bastards made me cut it.)
Before I started using Twitter, I made thousands of dollars a year on the side as a writing coach, visiting newsrooms to lead writing workshops and coach writers. People thought – and I thought – that I was an accomplished writer. And then Twitter helped me improve. Twitter forced me to get to the point in 140 characters (if newspaper writers had mastered that skill, you might have more readers and newsrooms might have more jobs). My blog forced me to be a better self-editor, because I’m writing without a net. For me, my love of good writing has been a primary reason I have embraced digital journalism.
Reason #3: Confidence. Maybe you’ve been confident in what you do for years, or even decades, and you’re reluctant to make rookie mistakes as you learn something new.
Here’s something you may not know about digital journalists: We’re very understanding as others learn the skills we’ve mastered (or, more likely, are still trying to master). We’ve all been there. We’re still there. Even the digital natives constantly have to learn something new. Get past that fear of looking like a novice. I won’t say you won’t ever encounter criticism or ridicule as you learn, but it’s nothing like the criticism and ridicule you face for refusing to learn. You earn respect (and build confidence and competence) as you update your outlook and your skills.
Reason #4: You don’t have the time. You’re busy and you may think you can’t squeeze digital tools into your busy routine.
Digital journalists don’t just add new tasks to the work you’re already doing. We work differently. Liveblogging during an event you are covering doesn’t take more time than taking notes during the same event. It just uses the time differently (and may provide notes you can actually
need use). (Update: Thanks to Elana Zak for the Facebook post where I noticed the error I just fixed. And I guess that error is proof that I’m still working on that self-editing part I mentioned above.) Twitter’s advanced search function saves you time in looking for sources who witnessed or experienced a breaking news event you’re covering. You can tweet in seconds and scan your tweets quickly, using tools such as TweetDeck, HootSuite or Twitter lists to organize what appears to be the chaos of Twitter. Adding links to stories doesn’t take that long; just save the URLs of the sites you visit in your reporting.
Some of the tasks of digital journalism do require extra time. Editing video can be time-consuming (though with training, you will get faster and learn to decide which videos need heavy editing and which need limited shooting and light editing). Data acquisition, cleaning and analysis can be time-consuming (though it also can save you time, providing answers in seconds). With some experience in digital tools and techniques, you will learn to manage your new multi-tasking job as effectively as you have managed varied workloads throughout your career.
Reason #5: You don’t like Twitter (or some other digital task). Maybe you’ve tried your hand at Twitter, blogging, video or some other tasks of digital journalism and you just don’t like them.
Tough. Did you like every task of old-school journalism? Did you ever sit through a boring meeting or cover a blowout ballgame? Did you ever feel like a vulture after talking to grieving relatives who lost a loved one in the breaking news story you were covering? Do you like filling out expense accounts? Journalism remains a fun profession, but that doesn’t mean every task is fun or every day is fun. We do a good job (sometimes a great job) covering boring events and talking to grieving relatives and we fill out accurate expense accounts. We do this because we love the job most of the time and every great job includes some tasks we don’t relish. And professional pride drives us to do those unpleasant tasks well. So tweet. Blog. Shoot video. Or whatever. It’s part of the job. And it’s still a damn good job.
Reason #6: Ethics. You may think the 24/7 world of breaking news and social media doesn’t uphold the ethical standards you believe in.
Digital journalists discuss ethics all the time. We are re-examining ethical standards in areas such as independence and opinion, but we are not casting aside ethical principles. We aren’t anywhere near full agreement on these issues. But join the discussion and you’ll find this the kind of honest, lively debate among colleagues you’ve enjoyed in newsrooms for decades. On the most important ethical matters, digital journalists’ values are as rock-solid as yours. We stress getting the facts right (and correcting them quickly when we’re wrong). We stress fairness. We won’t tolerate plagiarism or fabrication. I believe we are actually elevating the ethics of journalism. I believe our pursuit of transparency and our commitment to attribution and linking will actually upgrade the ethics of our profession.
Reason #7: Too old. Maybe you think you’re too old a dog to learn new tricks.
Bullshit. I am 57, probably older than you but certainly a contemporary unless you’re past the normal retirement age. We are nostalgic about the same movies and music. I also stumble and fumble in learning new digital tools and techniques. But learning new tricks helps me feel young again. It energizes me and it can you, too. Ask one of those young journalists who intimidate you to show you how to tweet or live-tweet or blog or shoot and edit video (a trick I still need to learn).
Or ask me. Here’s an open offer to any Digital First journalist: I’ll take whatever time you need – on the phone or by email or by some other digital connection such as Skype or Hangout – to help you work through any skill I know. If too many of you take me up (or if you’d just rather work with one of my colleagues or if you need help in an area where I still need to learn), I’ll connect you with others on our engagement team, and we’ll coach you through the tough parts. Too many curmudgeons asking for help would be a great problem and we’ll handle it. For topics where lots of you need help, we’ll lead a webinar and/or livestream a workshop from one of our newsrooms. We’ll provide links to tip sheets, tutorials and other helps. If you’re in Connecticut, our Digital Ninja School is designed to help you master important digital skills and reward you for mastering them. (And if you’re not in Connecticut, the links will help you anyway.) Contact me at sbuttry (at) DigitalFirstMedia (dot) com, and we’ll discuss how my colleagues and I can help you.
If you don’t work in a Digital First newsroom, email me anyway – use my private email: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. I can’t take the time that I’m promising my colleagues, but I’ll at least send you some helpful links.
Digital journalism is the future. I value your journalism experience and your knowledge of the community and how it works. I’d like that experience and knowledge to be part of our digital future. If you’re willing to learn and adapt, you can share in a future that can be as exciting and fulfilling as our past.
Your admiring colleague,
P.S. When you start your blog, you should include links in posts, which I did not do above, except for the Digital Ninja School link (wanted you to be able to click that one right away if you were reading this online). Links are good journalism, but I didn’t include them here, because I knew you wouldn’t be likely to click them, and you might be reading a printout anyway. Email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll send you some links to help you learn some digital tools and techniques. Below are links I mentioned in the piece (I hope you’ll go online and read them):
Twitter time management (these tips are two years old and in need of updating, but still should be helpful)
I’ve added these links in response to a comment from Andrea Gillhooley, raising valid questions about the workloads on staff members. While these are valid questions, we need to change how we work to recognize the importance of our digital future. Here are my blog posts about the digital first workflow: