Tearing down the news-opinion divide

Nick Denton — who’s doing his best to destroy all journalism, of course — goes after the most sacred of cows (at his most profane website) arguing that it is time to for The New York Times abandon the false divide between news and opinion.

What’s really happening at The Times, in my view, is that its blogs have been a Trojan horse for the invasion of voice and opinion into the news columns. I say it’s a most welcome shot of blood into those old, gray veins. Nick gives plenty of examples, starting with:

When Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo fell through, hotshot reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin produced a scathing analysis of the deal-making skills of the Redmond software giant’s boss, Steve Ballmer. ‘Microsoft has tried to spin its reversal as a show of “discipline” and “self-control.” But what it really shows — painfully — is Mr. Ballmer’s indecisiveness about this deal.’ Ouch! And fun! But you won’t find Bill Keller and his fellow editors boasting about Sorkin’s punchiness: because they’re still in denial about the blurring of news and opinion, and so much else.

I’ve also valued finally getting Saul Hansell’s opinions (call it analysis, then) in the Bits blog. And I like hearing the voices of the other writers in the other blogs. This, as Nick points out, is one way for newspapers to battle the commodification of news: “An intelligent or provocative slant is one way that a newspaper can differentiate its story from the thousand other rehashes of the same information. British hyper-competitive newspapers have made an art of such spin; as America’s media becomes more competitive, outlets are following Fleet Street’s example.”

So opinion crosses a media divide: How can you write a blog without a human voice? And once you import stuff from that blog, even a Times blog, into print, you’ve brought in a human voice — that is, one with a stated perspective — into a publication that has prided itself on having no perspective. Heh.

There’s another divide to consider here, an organizational divide. Don’t forget that at The Times and many American newspapers, there’s a wall between business and editorial and another wall between the newsroom and the editorial page. The silly conceit of this is that opinion can be relegated to and imprisoned in the walls and pages of an editorial department: They own opinion and nobody else is allowed to have any — and that is the inoculation that has, historically, preserved the news department’s own conceit that it is objective: See, we don’t do opinion, those people over there do.

So one has to ask what the difference is between Andrew Sorkin and Paul Krugman except that Sorkin is paid to spend more of his time reporting with more sources. So — no offense to Krugman; I just picked the most convenient beat — but what whose opinion/perspective/viewpoint is more useful? If we take the argument that newspapers make against blogs — they just have opinions; they don’t report — that would give the contest to Sorkin, now that he is allowed to have opinions. So what’s the point of having opinion-page columnists? Why not just have reporters who can also share their perspective?

There’s another opinion divide to consider: inside v. outside. What about those bloggers? As newspapers get relationships with them — The Times has taken Freakonomics under its wing and the Washington Post today announced it is syndicating TechCrunch onto its side (as it syndicates my PrezVid) — one need wonder about their opinions. They have them. Michael Arrington certainly has them — including opinions about mainstream newspapers, we should remember. So how does that fit with the news-opinion divide? I was surprised to learn recently that Freakonomics is under The Times’ Opinion section. Why? The Post put TechCrunch stories on its technology news page. What’s the difference: prissiness, as Nick says, or turf battles? (And by the way, in all these cases, I think a network relationship is smarter than a syndicated relationship — but that’s the subject of another post another day.)

Nick concludes:

You know what? Screw the news-opinion divide. When the Times was still pure, reporters would simply trot out some tame expert to give the story the slant they planned; it’s less convoluted–and wordy–for writers like Sorkin and Stanley simply to express their own views. Readers can get raw information from wire services and press releases; the only value the Times can add is time-saving summarization–and attitude.

The Times is the closet-case of newspapers. Everybody knows that the political bent is liberal; that the newspaper’s reporters have opinions; and that they’re hungry for a juicy story, even if the rush to publish can introduce mistakes. None of these are crimes; they only become embarrassments because of the paper’s official position. Bill Keller needs simply to come to terms with the nature of modern newspapers. He and his colleagues will feel so much lighter if they do.

Of course, I agree. But I think The Times will be the last to admit it’s human. So if I were the editor of another paper in the U.S., I’d take down the divide and say that we’re all about our perspective with facts; that’s our value. The check on us is you and your opinions out there in the public, now that they can be heard (if the paper will listen).

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  • http://www.nashvilleistalking.com Christian Grantham

    Jeff, must you look the gift horse in the mouth and expose on your blog the army of opinion therein that awaits the Gray Lady? Let the horse pass through.

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  • http://www.pressthink.org Jay Rosen

    Have you seen Greenslade on this issue? It’s occasioned by Denton’s post? Surprisingly conservative, almost curmudgeonly column.

    It’s even got the classical form of the curmudegeon column: the “widespread” belief that no one holds, and that the column effortlessly debunks. Thus…

    “There is a widespread belief that the journalistic future is commentary, analysis and opinion. News will take care of itself. The raw data will somehow appear, whether in print or on screen, and the ‘added value’ will be the spin.”

    Really?

  • http://groundreport.com Rachel

    Shockingly, I see similarities between Denton’s argument and your comments at the panel on the web and politics. Even Arianna Huffington and Jay Rosen agreed that more opinion in news was needed– but for a different reason: the media’s responsibility, the duties of the Fourth Estate.

    Arianna said: They feel that in order to be “fair”, in order to be neutral, in order to be objective, they have to give equal time to two sides of a story, even if a story does not have two sides…we are beginning to break this.

    And Jay Rosen asserted: You actually lose people’s trust when you do not take a position.

    And your own closing statement Jeff:
    Jeff Jarvis: I think the media thought they were the owners of truth to some extent, and that’s simplistic and stupid but I will say it anyway. I think that they forgot that their job was to help them decide what was true, at the end of the day, the citizenry must decide what is true and who is legitimate.

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  • http://thenoisychannel.blogspot.com/ Daniel Tunkelang

    News publishers are to truth what search engines are to relevance: the best they can do is help their users/readers make decisions more effectively and efficiently. Moreover, a large part of both jobs is to filter out dreck and earn the faith of their user/readers by offering a consistent experience.

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