Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Pen Warmed Up In Hell

Mark Twain had it right - there are few better justices than a fiery missive written by a scorching hand.

My favorite class in high school was Mr. Heifetz's honors English class my junior year. Heif was a passionate man who metaphorically shouted from atop his desk a love for Hawthorne, Fitzgerald and Miller - a joy infecting his students and inspiring them to seek out their own tastes in literature.

That's about the time I developed an interest in a Twain piece underscoring the importance of journalism and its close relationship with accountability.

It's only appropriate that he'd champion such a thought, especially considering his many years of service in the newspaper business.

Members of the press have the unique privilege and responsibility of taking the political machine, big business, societal pariahs and other miscreants to task. The media has the resources to craft a pointedly critical front page spread condemning the wrongs of the government and others, and usually their reports are respected by the community and in some cases a great tool for influencing public opinion.

If you or I tried writing an editorial crucifying a politician, we'd get a few inches of column space (if we're lucky; if on the front page - then we've hit the jackpot) that would register with but a few dozen pairs of eyes.

It certainly wouldn't be a catalyst for great change.

Some television stations try to aspire to these same ideals, what with their forays in investigative reporting and careful cultivation of an I-team brand du jour. I just don't think TV news has the potency to really deliver solid, consistent investigation pieces. Reporters are held to 1:20 Total Running Times and pushed to create stand-ups with a purpose and memorable moments and a laundry list of other garbage that gets in the way of crafting a solid testimonial for journalistic integrity.

This thought reminds me of a news director I once worked for in Lexington. He wanted reporters to "hold official feet to the fire," include an action shot stand-up and snappy "nat sound pops" to punctuate the reporter track.

And therein lies the rub with television news - sometimes the story delivers more sizzle than substance when it's caught up in the flash of smoke and mirrors.

Some of my former TV newsroom colleagues may disagree with me on this point - but mine is an argument borne from a wordsmith's idealism, not a visionary chained to the task of marrying phrases to moving pictures.

Truth is, I think newspapers are still the best medium for The People.

Not only do papers do Big J journalism better than most TV and radio outlets, they are more easily accessible to the less fortunate. No technology needed, any man or woman can take a short walk to the nearest newspaper stand or vendor and hand over a quarter or two to read the day's exchanges. Alternately, people can usually find a neglected newspaper in any bus station or waiting room.

It's pretty difficult to argue against a newspaper's accessibility.

The town fish wrap doesn't just have the potential to do Big J better - I think any local newspaper could write circles around other media forms where human interest is concerned. Sure, carefully shot video is pretty, but I'd take some well crafted imagery any day over a few close ups, pans and light kit gels.

C'mon, I already admitted I had a thing for words - can you fault me for wanting to indulge in a well written story?

I've been mulling on this diatribe (with apologies to Mr. Twain, for I don't know if you could call it fire and brimstone) for a while and decided to put pen to paper, er, type to screen after yesterday's death knell in Denver. This nation is losing a deeply rooted tradition at record pace - our newspapers are folding from coast to coast, and I don't think we'll fully understand the fallout for years to come.

By now, some of you are probably calling me a hypocrite. She's a blogger, right? Why doesn't she support her own kind?

Yes, I love blogging. I look forward to celebrating five years at this shtick in a few months. This format is a great way for so many people to showcase what they love - whether that be food or fashion or tech talk or current events, or anything else random and lovely.

Blogging is easy - and that's why it appeals to so many people. The catch is, many bloggers out there don't have the skills or access to truly take the (insert institution here) machine to task. Lots of bedroom bloggers don't have the education, expertise or understand the ethics behind news reporting.

Additionally, citizen journalism through blogging is a splintered movement that has yet to develop a streamlined aggregate for content.

Journalism through blogging isn't there yet - the medium is still developing itself, and newspapers are still essential to the societal system of checks and balances in place.

And so for now, I'm committing to buying one newspaper a week - a worthy contribution from someone who up until now has exclusively pointed and clicked her way to the headlines.

I hope Sam Clemens would be proud.


WestEnder said...

Get a subscription to Harper's instead. You will love it, I promise.

5chw4r7z said...

I love to read the paper, online is one thing, but there is something to be said, a ritual even of reading a paper.
Sunday mornings are all about a nice homecooked breakfast, coffee, newspaper and weather permitting a mild breakfast cigar.
That said, I'm not splashing money on just anything after a quality breakfast I want a good read.
Newspaper people listen up, you have to work towards a quality product, theres no cutting your way to it.
I know in today's world that's a tough nut to crack, but I'm not here to support an inferior product.

John Gumm said...

TV news consultants have ruined TV news. The research is seriously flawed. Stations which are not influenced by consultants continue to do long-form packages and meaningful investigative pieces. Yes, this type of journalism still exists, although it is becoming rare. But I believe it will come back. Your defense of the fishwrap is surprising to say the least. But certainly warranted. If you want every little detail on a story, the newspaper is the way to go. But if you just want the general idea quickly, TV is your choice.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting posting! Me, I tend to assume that TV is more accessible than papers are to "the less fortunate"--The Drop Inn Center's lounges come to mind--due to the cost of buying papers, the omnipresence of TVs, and the modicum of calm/privacy necessary to read a paper. (Though that's from an ADD-addled perspective.)

Your point about investigative skills lagging behind the reach of the bloggosphere, is so true, and so interesting.

As a very green investigative journalist, I've been wondering: could crowd-sourcing come to function as a kind of built-in fact-check system?? A recent experiment with disseminating early drafts of an article I'm writing, have yielded all kinds of useful corrections!

Lastly: don't you think NPR does some great, in-depth investigative audio-reporting?