A cure for curmudgeons

(recovered post; comments lost)

Yesterday, I was on a panel with Terry Heaton at the Public Radio News Directors’ annual confab in Washington. Topic: blogging. Terry and I were almost through with opening tap dances when a hotheaded curmudgeon in the third row interrupted — which is fine; we like conversation — to go on the attack and save the world from these horrible blog people. He spat out all the usual lines, including how terribly busy he is being a news director (his italics) and how this is such a nonsense and a bother. My favorite sputtering: “I have a job. Do you have jobs?”

To which the proper response should have been, “Go fug yourself.” But I didn’t say that. Nor did I complain about how rude it was of him to attack us when we took two days out of our lives and came to Washington — for free — to talk about this topic at their invitation. I’m tough. I can take it. This is hardly the first time I’ve heard everything he had to say (but he seemed so proud, as if he’d just thought it up himself; the only thing he didn’t say was that he didn’t want a citizen surgeon, either).

However, I also did not patiently respond to all his cliches. I have decided I’m not going to waste my time anymore with lazy, rude, self-important, self-delusional, intellectually dishonest, closed-minded curmudgeons who bark against the full moon of change. It has all been said before. I see no reason to waste my time, nor that of everyone else in the room. My new policy has been that I’m going to fight curmudgeonliness with curmudgeonliness. I told this fool that f he didn’t want to see the opportunities to do things in new ways, fine.

And then we proceeded with a very nice discussion of practical questions about blogging in news organizations, a discussion that continued later in the day. Everyone else I heard wanted to explore these new opportunities and had plenty of questions and doubts to deal with — as well they should — as well as experience to share; they welcomed change or at least know they couldn’t scare it away.

Meanwhile, the curmudgeon acted like a child sent to the corner and refused to look forward at the panel for the rest of the event. My goal was to get us past the growling as soon as possible and onto a substantive discussion. That is, I think, how to deal with curmudgeons. You can always find reasons not to do things. Then fine, don’t do them. Far more interesting and useful is to explore what might happen if you do them.

I did the same thing a week ago when I was called by a couple of consultants and one of them issued the usual yes-buts, such as, “Well, have you looked at the home page of YouTube, huh?” I said he was wasting my time — especially since I was, again, talking for free.

You see, the problem with curmudgeons and complainers is that its so easy for them hijack any discussion. For not to deal with their very grave concerns is to make you look careless. That’s the rhetorical trick: “You could be wrong, it could go wrong, answer me that!” And if you don’t? “Aha!”

Well, the hour is far too late and the state of the industry far, far too desperate to waste time with these sideshows. They had their time and the objections needed to be addressed in that time. But I haven’t heard fresh objections in a few years. What I want to hear instead is fresh ideas; we must have more of those.

So my advice is to set the ground rules for events and conversations such as these and stick to them. It might have helped the recent Australian-American Future of Media Summit that apparently descended into curmudgeonliness and “endless bloody whinging. Whinging about how journalism has standards and bloggers are all ‘just’ writing whatever they think.” Stilgherrian complains and then journalist Jonathan Este complains about the complaining. And then here’s one more. [links via a Jay Rosen tweet].

What a waste of time, of which there is so little to waste.

: LATER: Jay Rosen declared the war over in 2005 but he tweets: “I’ve since realized that they are each other’s ideal ‘other.’”

: MORE: I’m bringing this exchange with Jay Rosen out from the comments. He wrote:

Personally, I think the campaign to discredit and marginalize the curmudgeons is going just fine; and I do not intend to stop writing about them. As I’ve said before, the curmudgeon is a newsroom type, and the newsroom’s romance with this type has been a disaster. It is within the power of any living breathing thinking journalist not to conform to this type, not to “be” a curmudgeon. But when people do step into that role and go high curmudgeon on you, the performance should be discredited in any way that works. Could be smiling politely and reciting facts, or arguing back, or ignoring the provocation and moving on.

You have to persist, not only through the encounters like the one you write about here, but also through all the mini-lectures from all the well-meaning and usually quite intelligent, informed people who do the he said she said can’t we all get along the truth must be somewhere in the middle what extremists on both sides overlook we need to be more civil can’t we get beyond this now what a tired debate thing at you.

And I responded:

But, Jay, I’m not sure I do have to persist.

In campaign terms, Obama stopped arguing with Clinton when he knew she was vanquished. The question is: are the curmudgeon’s vanquished? Well, not while they’re in charge, perhaps. But they’re in charge of sinking ships and they’re helping sink them.

I suppose what you’re saying is that we should — we even have a duty to — grab their hands off the wheel and save the boat. What I’m saying is that I’m not at all sure that is worth the time and effort (and frustration) anymore.

Personally, this is why I left the corporation and went to teach and why I started a class in entrepreneurial journalism — to effect change outside these curmudgeon-run organizations. I also talk with and help organizations that are past the rule of the curmudgeons (starting with the Guardian). I find that more productive and ultimately helpful to the cause we’re both trying to serve than still taking the time to deal with the curmudgeons.

No, I think the time has come to abandon them to die. I’ll turn the hose and its precious water away from them to plants, new or old, that have a chance to survive. It’s triage time. Curmudgeons get tags on their toes.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    I’m trying to recover the comments on this post.

  • Louis Columbus Says:

    It’s been my experience that curmudgeons crave attention and try to get it not with brilliant insights or contributions but with attacks. Patron saints of resisting change, they hold onto their old perspectives and assumptions, unwilling to challenge themselves. It’s humorously ironic a person in charge of directing news rejects the most rapidly growing source of what their job is based on.

  • Jaap Stronks Says:

    This post reminds me of a recent post on the OJ blog, consisting of a list of things to skip in any discussion on the future of journalism.

    Can’t we think of a practicle solution to this? (Because, well: we shouldn’t give up on everything over 30 who doesn’t yet ‘get’ blogging – the guys asking you those questions are not the same ones as last year…) Like, a list, an FAQ, or even a full-blown wiki, with a set of agreed-upon (perhaps not by everyone, but by forward-thinking people, you know) notions and rules, along with a bunch of easy answers to cliché questions?

    It could be called the ‘online journalism FAQ’ or something, which you can refer to if anyone asks you a question. It can also be used at conferences: attendees are expected to have read the FAQ before signing up. It shouldn’t be too strict or formal though. It could serve as a great introduction to the whole topic, and I’d live to use it in class.

    What about it, Jeff?

  • Corky Says:

    Twitter point well taken. I will add my comment here as well as on Twitter. Bravo. One of my favorite replies to that sort of curmudgeonly blather is “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”

  • Jay Rosen Says:

    Personally, I think the campaign to discredit and marginalize the curmudgeons is going just fine; and I do not intend to stop writing about them. As I’ve said before, the curmudgeon is a newsroom type, and the newsroom’s romance with this type has been a disaster. It is within the power of any living breathing thinking journalist not to conform to this type, not to “be” a curmudgeon. But when people do step into that role and go high curmudgeon on you, the performance should be discredited in any way that works. Could be smiling politely and reciting facts, or arguing back, or ignoring the provocation and moving on.

    You have to persist, not only through the encounters like the one you write about here, but also through all the mini-lectures from all the well-meaning and usually quite intelligent, informed people who do the he said she said can’t we all get along the truth must be somewhere in the middle what extremists on both sides overlook we need to be more civil can’t we get beyond this now what a tired debate thing at you.

  • Jeff Jarvis Says:

    But, Jay, I’m not sure I do have to persist.

    In campaign terms, Obama stopped arguing with Clinton when he knew she was vanquished. The question is: are the curmudgeon’s vanquished? Well, not while they’re in charge, perhaps. But they’re in charge of sinking ships and they’re helping sink them.

    I suppose what you’re saying is that we should — we even have a duty to — grab their hands off the wheel and save the boat. What I’m saying is that I’m not at all sure that is worth the time and effort (and frustration) anymore.

    Personally, this is why I left the corporation and went to teach and why I started a class in entrepreneurial journalism — to effect change outside these curmudgeon-run organizations. I also talk with and help organizations that are past the rule of the curmudgeons (starting with the Guardian). I find that more productive and ultimately helpful to the cause we’re both trying to serve than still taking the time to deal with the curmudgeons.

    No, I think the time has come to abandon them to die. I’ll turn the hose and its precious water away from them to plants, new or old, that have a chance to survive. It’s triage time. Curmudgeons get tags on their toes.

  • Steve Yelvington Says:

    From what I’m seeing, most newspapers today are not curmudgeon-run organizations. There’s a lot of bewilderment (and in many cases despair) but that’s not the same thing.

    The curmudgeons are in the minority, fading fast, becoming marginalized even as they make trouble. The feeling of marginalization may be behind a lot of the increased noise they’ve been making lately. Marginalization radicalizes.

    On my blog I call on curmudgeons to give up their self-indulgent oppositional defiance. I don’t actually expect any to pay attention.

  • Staten Island guy Says:

    Not to be curmudgeonly, but when the heck did a perfectly fine, well constructed word have a “g” grafted onto its countenance?

    “Whinging”? When reading it, my brain screams, “what the hell does that even mean?”

    People “whine” about things; they don’t “whing”… unless you’re talking about tossing objects about… and in that circumstance you have no need for the “H”.

  • Jeff Jarvis Says:

    It’s a British word. Whinge, to complain persistently and in a peevish or irritating way. So don’t go whining about whinging.

  • Jeff Jarvis Says:

    Steve, yes, I think they are in the descent and so worth even less time and effort.

  • TeachJ Says:

    Thank you. No more whinging! Amen! What we need to be focusing on is what do we do now? How can we train young and old journalists for the new delivery models? What is the best way to deliver content? What is the best content model for the information? How do we monetize every possible delivery model so that we can stay in business?

    Those are worth discussion. But whinging/whining about lost opportunities, layoffs, budget cuts, lost readership is all hot air.

    You’re the man.

  • Jay Rosen Says:

    When my son asks why he has to keep taking that pinkish icky looking medicine (an anti-biotic) even though his throat feels fine now, I tell him we have the infection on the run and we have to make sure it’s gone. Ya know?

    I don’t have any disagreement with you, Jeff. I’m in favor of your not wasting time. But there’s the question of who the next generation of journalists is going to identify with– the Ryan Sholins of the world or some curmudgeon, who of course can be young or old.

  • Jeff Jarvis Says:

    Yes and I think that will be quite self-selecting. The young curmudgeons will seek out the old ones and they’ll make an orchestra for the Titanic. I think the folly of curmudgeonliness is now quite apparent to the smart students.

  • Staten Island guy Says:

    “It’s a British word. Whinge, to complain persistently and in a peevish or irritating way. So don’t go whining about whinging.”

    Yes, I get that. Heck, I got an Irish passport that to Mum and Dad; I’m good about wrapping my tongue around oddly-versed words. I just don’t how it means what it means, or how you actually SAY it.

    Do you pronounce the “G”?

  • Walter Abbott Says:

    From Wikipedia:

    The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the early nineteenth century who protested – often by destroying mechanized looms – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt threatened their livelihood.

  • Ken Burgin Says:

    Whinging is also an aussie word – pronounce whinge like cringe.

    Great post Jeff – inspirational as usual…

  • Stilgherrian Says:

    Jeff, this is a superb discussion, and I’ll be trying to condense it into an essay of my own some time very soon.

    One slight glitch: your links to my original rant and Jonathan Este’s response are broken. The linkage is Note to “old media” journalists: adapt, or stfu! and Bloggers: the biggest whingers since journalists respectively.

  • Stilgherrian Says:

    Oops, I got that wrong. The link to my rant was OK, but the broken ones were to Jonathan Este’s piece (which I fixed in my previous comment) and Hugh Martin’s Blogging Future of Media 2008.

  • Queen1 Says:

    God answered my prayers at last–someone knows how to pronounce “whinging!” Whenever I come across it in British writing my internal reader gets all tongue-tied.

    I’m not a professional journalist, so maybe I am missing something…and I am well over 30 and yet somehow up-to-date on modern conveniences like the internet and iPhones…but why should internet journalism have any less integrity than location-specific journalism? A NYT reporter can make stuff up–and they have, if I recall correctly. No matter how you write your stuff, if you are to maintain credibility, you have to fact-check and name sources and be able to write semi-coherently in order to have a consistent audience.

    One reason I don’t buy the newspaper or watch news on TV is that I see an obvious bias in what is reported and how it is done. The media’s fawning adoration of Obama is apparent to anyone who doesn’t share the slack-jawed amazement of his followers. It will be interesting to see if anyone in the MSM picks up on the information collected by Atlas Shrugged on Obama’s “peculiar” campaign contributions (who contributes odd numbers of cents to a campaign? Hmm, I think I’ll contribute $46.72 to Obama today.).

    I depend on the internet for most of my news–although I catch radio news, including POTUS 08, in my travels. Anyway, interesting site you have here–and a fascinating peek into the innards of journalism.

  • Ross Dawson Says:

    Unfortunately we didn’t get video from the Future of Journalism panels in Sydney and Silicon Valley at the Future of Media Summit, because on both sides they were fantastic. There’s some coverage from Summit participants on the Future of Media Summit blog (http://www.futureexploration.net/fom/) and I’ve compiled all the blog posts on the Summit I’m aware of (including Stilgherrian’s, Hugh’s and Jonathan’s as noted above (http://rossdawsonblog.com/weblog/archives/2008/07/fantastic_insig.html). I’ll write up my thoughts soon, having moderated the US panel (which included Scoble, Phil Bronstein, JD Lasica and others) and spoken to all the panelists and interlocuters on the Sydney journalism panel.

    In short, I think the discussions were constructive. Probably a little too bogged down in the bloggers vs journalists fundamentalist debate on the Australia side, but still helping people get their heads around the shifts. The blog (and particularly Twitter) posts started to devolve a bit, but the debate on the day was good fun!

  • Jay Rosen Says:

    My own approach to the curmudgeons is informed by ten years of work I did pre-blogging, on what became known as “civic journalism.” Something I had not known about or understood in the slightest at the outset seemed to me (after ten years of work) to loom largest of all factors affecting change at these big news organizations, from the local newspaper in Tallahassee to NPR. That was newsroom culture.

    The curmudgeon type is not only a product of that culture but deeply expressive of it. If you believe that meeting the challenge of new media means for serious journalists a new culture surrounding the work–expressive but of different ideas and possibilities– then the curmudgeon type is a good place to start simply because it reflects so much of the old. There’s a lot of distilled pressthink in it.

  • Lost Remote » Still debating over blogging? Says:

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  • Warren Harrison Says:

    All great stuff here, but it may be that becoming a curmudgeon may be a slow gradual process, rather than genetic (I do wonder though having met some families…). I hope I don’t come across any of you in the future moaning that the future isn’t what you envisaged/what what you wanted.

  • It’s not about the curmudgeons | Jaap Stronks Says:

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  • http://ismedia.org/ Nathan L. Walls

    “Nearly all reporting — I would guess at least 80 percent — is done by newspapers and the wire services.”

    81 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.

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