Abandoning ship

Newspapers — and their readers — should be scared reading Jay Rosen’s interview with John McQuaid, an accomplished reporter — he predicted everything that would happen in Katrina years before — who has given up on working for papers. He is exactly where papers should be putting their investment: in unique reporting, real value for the community. But his investigative role was killed, before Katrina, and he chose not to become a paper-pusher on a desk.

So McQuaid becomes a poster child for newspaper cutbacks done wrong. I have been arguing that cutbacks are a good thing if they are used to boil a paper to its essence, to get rid of the useless stuff and decide what a paper’s real value is: reporting. Cutbacks are bad if they maintain the commodity stuff at the expense of reporting. But all is not lost. McQuaid remains a reporter, only now an independent one. He’s going to contribute to NewAssignment.net. He says:

Newspapers remain key venues for probing, public service-oriented journalism. While the format has its problems–too many dull, interminable series see print mainly as Pulitzer bait–at their best, newspaper series can not only reveal terrible problems and injustices, but also be lively and engaging reading.

Big papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post retain the staff and resources to do these kinds of things. But no matter how important or interesting they are, investigations don’t pay the bills, and in a lot of other places there’s neither the capacity nor the will to delve deeply into both local and national issues. That’s a serious problem, in keeping politicians and other officials honest and in the functioning of democracy itself. So I’d like to help new, Internet-based forums, emerge locally and nationally to do investigative or explanatory journalism. And of course we need readers, advertisers and financial backers to go with them.

This is a great era for news– government accountability has all but disappeared. Doubtless, there are dozens of government meltdowns — on top of the ones that we already know about — already underway or about to happen.

That said, I’m not sure how what this new form will look like. The newspaper investigation is basically a static form: journalists work for weeks or months on a story. For the most part, nobody in the wider world even knows what they’re doing. Then they publish it. It makes a splash (or not). Maybe it has a broad impact. After the publication date, on some basic level, it’s over.

But the web is so dynamic — an ever-unfolding conversation. So I was intrigued by NewAssignment.Net, which offers an opportunity to figure out how to harness that dynamism in the service of journalism.

: LATER: Part two up now.

  • http://www.recoveringjournalist.com Mark

    Excellent point, Jeff. Some of what’s happening (and a lot of what journalists are complaining about) are cuts for the sake of making cuts. The far better alternative is smart redeployment of resources, in which newsroom managers take a hard look at where they’re spending money, cut out the dumb and redundant spending, and concentrate their resources on the things they are uniquely qualified to do best, like deep local coverage and investigative reporting. There’s deadwood in every newsroom that can, and should, be cut. But at least some of the savings need to be reinvested in the things that will build readership. More thoughts about this, vis a vis changes just announced in The Washington Post newsroom, on my blog.

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