Meanderings between ‘old’ and ‘new’ journalism

I’ve been keeping in touch this week with former colleagues who are about to leave my old newspaper, and some who remain under what can politely be termed as extremely trying circumstances. For most of the time since I took a buyout nine months ago, I’ve been focused on the many opportunities that have kept me busy and happy as I carve out a new career in journalism.

This week, however, it’s been difficult to do that. When you’re at a place for so long (in my case, nearly 19 years) it’s hard not to feel another part of yourself dying along with a rapidly hollowing-out institution. In less than three years, the size of that newsroom will have been cut in half. While this is not new in the industry, that was my newsroom, and it absolutely breaks my heart. It’s beyond devastating; it makes me angry in ways I haven’t felt in a while. But I won’t fulminate here because that’s not the point of this post.

I write this not just because I worked there, but also because I grew up wanting to work nowhere else. I idolized the big names and the big issues that the paper took on in a part of the world that didn’t always welcome them. Local media commentators are deploring the loss of much more than 70 or so journalists, as bad as that is. The voice of an institution is on the wane.

Not long ago a former journalist blogged about what he’ll miss the most about newspapers. I agree that what’s diminishing, if not vanishing, is that one place where many voices could be found, read and absorbed, unhurried and undistracted, in my case by nothing more than the quiet din of baseball play-by-play on the TV. As bullish as I am about journalism on the Web, the most conveniently arranged RSS feeds and aggregated collections of links cannot replace the comfort of pulling apart the Sunday paper to read the best of what these voices had to display in a typical week.

As these voices continue to disperse out of newsrooms, the collective heft they represented will be lost forever. We can start blogs, get on Twitter and sharpen our voices — I’m enjoying discovering one I didn’t have in my newsroom — and try to create new communities around them. (I’ve been writing for a Georgia online news startup and other ex-AJC writers have begun a site devoted to Southern life and culture.)

I’m thinking in particular of the Atlanta arts community that must be reeling to see the names of the art, music, theater and entertainment critics, as well as some extremely talented and versatile takeout writers, taking the latest AJC buyout. The film critics, whose faces the paper once had plastered on city buses to promote their work, are long gone.

I’m not trying to sound sentimental or nostalgic. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge what we’ll be losing and missing before we can create something viable and enduring on the Web. Without understanding what’s been left behind, it’s impossible to move forward.

That’s why I was encouraged to read Syracuse Post-Standard reporter and blogger Gina Chen’s recent post about “old” journalism standards that should not die. She’s a working journalist fighting the great fight inside a newsroom and one of the strongest voices for blending old and new media:

“The Web is a free-flowing place in many ways, and it’s a place where people can experiment with video and podcasts and telling stories different ways. That’s all good, but to last journalism still needs quality. What does that mean? To me, that means whatever medium you’re using, you should strive to do the best work. Readers initially might be attracted to a new feature — videos, podcasts, slide shows,  etc. But as these proliferate, readers won’t gravitate to the ones poorly done.”

Her blog is filled with how-tos and concepts for journalists new to the practice of new media. Unlike some others in the journosphere, she doesn’t shake her finger at “printies” and tell them how clueless they are. She understands the importance of updating the profession for the digital world and believes seasoned journalists have a big stake in this immensely important transition.

So does Kara Swisher, who’s been a Wall Street reporter and is one of the most influential technology writers in Silicon Valley and beyond. Early last year she bade farewell to the Dead Tree Society, and this week renewed her tough-minded advice to print journalists to quit kvetching about the Internet:

“Some day we won’t be arguing about it. We won’t be discussing the system. You didn’t get up this morning and say ‘I just signed onto the electrical grid today’ — you don’t care! Journalists have to embrace what’s happening, instead of griping about it.

“We’re a very low-cost way of delivering news. The idea that old media can’t participate in this? They’re giving up way too early.”


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