A poor craftsman blames others’ tools

Compare these two columns about Twitter: one by Mike DeArmond, a sports hack in Kansas City, and one by Roger Cohen in The New York Times. They are each frustrated that Twitter doesn’t fit into their set-in-concrete view of what they do and what journalism is – and how others fit in.

The sports guy’s column is, of course, the sillier:

Let’s quit tweet, tweet, tweeting like the birdbrains do. I don’t care what your friend had for lunch. . . .

I really don’t object to the message so much as the medium. . . .

I became a journalist because I love words. The way they can be used to paint an image, to link observation and explanation.

It is why I think it is wonderful to write about how some questions are so rambling that they climb the wall, scoot around a corner, take a stop in the men’s restroom, and only then arrive at their intended point.

You can’t do that with Twitter. You’re limited to 140 characters. And most people waste even those.

Now Cohen:

Twitter’s pitch is “Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world.” That’s what it does — up to a point. It’s many things, including a formidable alerting system for a breaking story; a means of organization; a monitor of global interest levels (Iran trended highest for weeks until Michael Jackson’s death) and of media performance; a bank of essential links; a rich archive; and a community (“Twitter is my best friend.”)

But is it journalism? No. In fact journalism in many ways is the antithesis of the “Here Comes Everybody” — Clay Shirky’s good phrase — deluge of raw material that new social media deliver. For journalism is distillation. It is a choice of material, whether in words or image, made in pursuit of presenting the truest and fairest, most vivid and complete representation of a situation.

It comes into being only through an organizing intelligence, an organizing sensibility. It depends on form, an unfashionable little word, without which significance is lost to chaos. As Aristotle suggested more than two millennia ago, form requires a beginning and middle and end. It demands unity of theme. Journalism cuts through the atwitter state to thematic coherence.

In each case, The Journalist is confronted with something new and if it doesn’t fit in with their world and worldview, they find reasons to reject it, to diminish it, to make it the province of others, not The Journalist – because it’s The Journalist who is empowered to say what journalism is. DeArmond’s going for laughs, Cohen for profundity, but they’re each only showing that they are not imaginative enough to recognize the power that comes from a new tool – no, not the tool but the connection to the people who are using it. I’d never let my students get away with that. I always try to get them to look at a tool and see how it can be used to improve journalism, not just violate its age-old dictates.

In these screeds, we also get a glimpse of these Journalists’ definitions of journalism. I say that news was made into a product by the necessities and limitations of its means of production and distribution in print and broadcast. News is properly a process, I believe. Cohen says, no, it must have a beginning, middle, and end, a narrative he sets, an order he gives, a chaos he rejects. He says elsewhere in his column that presence is necessary to do journalism; he thus says that it takes a reporter to report, that news without the journalist him or herself bearing witness to it is not real news. He puts The Journalist at the center of news. I say the journalist is the servant of news. I tell my students to add journalistic value to what is already being spread – reporting, fact-checking, perspective, answers – but recognize that the news is there with or without them. It is gathered and spread by the people who see it and need it with new tools, like Twitter. Like it or not.

: LATER: But at the same time, here‘s The Times’ David Pogue using Twitter to talk with the public to do his journalism.

  • Ken Sands

    Exactly right.

  • http://blog.syracuse.com/postscript Brian Cubbison

    The telephone: Is it journalism? Discuss.

    • http://taylorw.wordpress.com Taylor Walsh

      Hah! I was going to ask the same about sheets of paper and typewriters, just to be ancient enough about it.

  • Ash

    I think the issue is confusing the tools with the craftsmen.

    Is ‘Twitter’ journalism? No, it is a tool people use to express themselves.

    Same with the telephone, pencil, typewriter and computer.

    Twitter, in the hands of most, is a bunch of boring nonsense (same can be said for telephones, pencils, typewriters and computers).

    In the hands of a skilled journalist, author or poet, I bet it could be something more.

    I’ve read old telegrams. What a creative person could fit into a handful of words was amazing and often very powerful.

    There is no reason that can’t come back if someone is willing to step up and lead by example. Make it a new form of journalism… haiku of current events.

    Human nature will always make a certain percentage of people fear anything new and different. Phones were once newfangled devices that would ruin society (and our hearing)… computers were a fad for the geeky.

    Change happens. How you deal with it is completely up to you.

  • http://2creativ.com Gelbendorf

    Twitter is an enabler. If a journalist (or marketer, etc.) decides to not being enabled, it’s his choice. Others will become enabled and in some cases will re-write how Journalism “should” be exercised (until the next wave of social-technological development).
    Now days news is being consumed, not delivered and broadcast is being replaced by conversation- Twitter is the platform that quarterbacks that communication.

  • Bob P.

    Ash is right. Twitter is just a tool, nothing more.
    But what about the good craftsman, Jeff? I understand what Cohen is getting at: that the skill of a talented writer/reporter should be respected. What’s wrong with that?
    And while breaking news is one thing, telling a real human story takes a good writer. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to claim newspapers are any lone, remaining outpost of good writing. Please. But let’s not continue to forget about good writing, to just assume, oh, gee, anybody can do it.
    What would we have gotten by a thousand tweeting witnesses to D-Day, say? I really don’t know. It might have been interesting, but I doubt it would have been anything like this: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2027164/posts
    (Sad that I have to go back that far for the easy example of a great newswriter.)
    OK, anybody remember that fine Wash Post story about violinist Joshua Bell playing in the subway in D.C.? It won the Pulitzer for feature writing a few years ago. It was wonderful. It told us something about ourselves. I’m sure it took a lot of work and, yes, it took an organizing hand.
    Cohen may come off sounding arrogant, sure. But it’s a valid point. I am NOT trying to equate good writing and newspapers — only saying that writing well is a skill. Like any skill, it takes work and practice to be good.
    Sure, “Here Comes Everybody.” But some everybodys are more eloquent than others.

    • http://alexandraschmidt.com/ Alex S

      Here here, Bob. There’s some weird self-flagellation thing going on with all the “journalists aren’t the center of the universe” yelping. We have yet to reconcile the value of story telling, words and reporting with the new tools and paradigms before us. If you think about it, it’s not so strange that those who came up in the “old camp” and have moved on to the “new” are being polarizing right now. A new generation won’t feel that way at all — post-journal, maybe, just like post-racial. Can’t wait!

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  • http://www.reinventingthenewsroom.com Jason Fry

    Why the broad-brush condescension towards sportswriters? That strikes me as the very close-mindedness you attack effectively so many other places. You’re better than that. Joe Posnanski, for instance, is not only one of the best columnists on the planet but also one of the best bloggers, and has been a passionate and effective voice bridging the supposed divide between the two.

    • Andy Freeman

      Actually, sportswriters, like the folks who cover weather and society, are among the most accountable of journalists. Sportswriters can root all they want, but their narrative is limited by the score on the field. (Weather folk have the same “fact checker” and society folks don’t get invited.)

  • http://decaturmetro.com Decatur Metro

    “And while breaking news is one thing, telling a real human story takes a good writer. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to claim newspapers are any lone, remaining outpost of good writing. Please. But let’s not continue to forget about good writing, to just assume, oh, gee, anybody can do it.”

    This is the journalist’s straw-man of the moment. Who is actually saying that anyone can be a journalist? Who? Not anyone that has any sort of valid argument to make.

    What it seems like self-described journalists don’t get is that while “journalism” is an essential piece of the communication puzzle, it’s no longer all that great at reporting the facts that people want to know. Papers have gotten too big and bloated looking for larger returns, while their journalists don’t have the time to cover all necessary and important local news. And guess what? All the other crap that people want to know about (local crime, small town politics, etc) gets left out.

    And it was left out well before Twitter came around. Twitter and hyperlocal blogs are filling the gap that traditional journalists abandoned long ago. And when you look at it that way, journalists attacking new media journalism and not the other way around…now who’s the bully?

    Yeah, our medium isn’t as polished, in-depth and poetic as yours. We can’t afford to be. But ours is more inclusive and interactive with the community.

    Which is more valuable to a town/city? What an unnecessary question. They both are valuable and deserve a place in the public dialogue.

    • http://alexandraschmidt.com/ Alex S

      DM, just took a look at your site and while I was on your side before, now I’m not so sure. Let me be clear — I respect your efforts and know well that in-depth reporting and quality writing take time and money. But I also wonder if your community might be better served if you were to scrap all the snippets of purported news — McDonald’s promotion, high school students watching a speech — in favor of one good, long investigative piece. The hyperlocal blogs that have gotten press may become true news sources with time, but for now many are no more than hyperlocal ads cloaked as hyperlocal news (with room for comments, yay!). I fear that in our efforts to do something different from the “journalism” of old (which I’m not against!), we still aren’t serving the public.

      • http://decaturmetro.com Decatur Metro

        Thanks for the cursory glance. The McDonald’s “promotion” was actually pure sarcasm, and the high school students watching a speech just a report sent in by a teacher. Everyone out there needs filler. Let’s not pretend that newspapers don’t also copy and paste press releases…they just aren’t as up front about it.

        If you want to get a taste of what my site is actually about, I’d ask you to take a look at the comments in this post.

        http://www.decaturmetro.com/2009/07/31/emory-professor-accuses-decatur-pd-of-racial-profiling/

        I don’t know about other traditional newspapers online, but in Atlanta, the AJC’s comments are an absolute joke that are all flaming and racist attacks. I work hard to promote an environment where comments are respectful and well-thoughtout. The fact that you wrote “with room for comments! yay!” signals that while I’m certainly willing to give complete deference and respect to your tried and true methods of journalism, you don’t seem to understand the value of a well-moderated site, chock-full of thoughtful viewers.

        No, I can’t spend three days researching articles and getting quotes from local officials, I can’t afford it…but I DO have connections to all the pieces of local government and can get a response in a couple hours on any issue. Who does my on the scene tipping? Residents. And I serve as their middle man to get detailed info. Often it’s not pretty, but people don’t care. They just want info that no one else is willing to provide.

      • http://decaturmetro.com Decatur Metro

        One more thing, you said

        “But I also wonder if your community might be better served if you were to scrap all the snippets of purported news — McDonald’s promotion, high school students watching a speech — in favor of one good, long investigative piece.”

        I would argue that you’re looking at this the wrong way. Long investigative pieces are great, but no reporter should delude themselves thinking that they can start a website and ever hope to become financially sustainable if they just write one article a week. Traffic won’t be high enough and you’ll never have a shot at attracting advertisers. How valuable is an article that no one reads? I’d argue that long form investigative pieces are what I’m working towards, if I can become financially viable like BaristaNet or WSB. They should never be the starting point for a one-man-show looking to start a local news source.

        But even after admitting that, I’d still argue that a piece that I write that has a bit of digging in it and then thoughtful reaction from players in the story and followups from other residents can be just as valuable a community service as long form.

  • http://flowingmotion.wordpress.com Jo Jordan

    Mmmm, digging deeper into their objections – this might help.

    We, Gen X and BBs, are used to form. We look at contents pages and indices.

    Digital natives are used to receiving information as data and sorting it themselves. They are remarkably good at it.

    That is not to say form has gone. we’ve learned to put form into the content. Hence the popularity of “5 reasons why etc.” We expect the form to be embedded and scannable. 30 seconds is a long time to secure someone’s attention on the internet.

    The challenge for journalists is to convey form and structure, even in 140 characters. There may be some relearning but to be sure someone will learn and if we don’t as well we will be left behind.

  • http://wyman.us Bob Wyman

    What struck me was the difference in apparent motivation behind these “journalists.”
    DeArmond seems very much focused only on himself and his own selfish needs. He declares that he’s in the business since he loves to play with words — with no mention of purpose other than narcissistic pleasure. He seems to enjoy the power of being able to toy with the news seeking reader while delivering the news. He objects to his word play being limited to 140 characters because it is a constraint on him — not on any ability to serve his readers.

    Cohen never mentions his own needs but rather ponders impacts on the ability to find truth and to fairly represent events. Given a choice between the two of these writers, and with only these snippets as a guide, I would certainly chose to read Cohen…

    bob wyman

    • http://2creativ.com Gelbendorf

      I agree with Wyman, Cohen’s approach is looking at Twitter with a wider perspective, but he too misses the point- the format of the medium is an enabler of a new ways to create, inform, connect and deliver.
      Jimi Hendrix’s music was not created BY his electric guitar.
      Jarvis is absolutely right…

  • Brian O’Connell

    Can we ban the words journalism and journalist? Their use obscures more than it enlightens. There are writers and reporters. (Some reporters are great writers, but it’s not absolutely necessary.)

    Twitter isn’t a great platform for writing. The 140-character limit is a weakness here, but one of Twitter’s great strengths otherwise.

    Twitter is a great platform for reporting news. Headlines only of course, with optional links to the full story, where you may or may not find great writing.

    Anyone can report news, but not everyone is a good writer. It’s pretty rare. The news-writing style that’s been en vogue for the last 50 or 75 years is terrible writing actually. It’s bland, boring, repetitive, and pretends to have no opinion. That’s one reason, among several, why newspapers have been in decline lately.

  • http://editor.blogspot.com Howard Weaver

    Honestly, how hard is this?

    Is Twitter journalism?

    Well, some of it is. Some of it isn’t.
    Is journalism Twitter? Some of it is, some isn’t.

    Is narrative journalism? Some is, some isn’t.

    Is journalism narrative? Some is, some isn’t.

    Re news as process: We agree about that, and I’m more excited about that emerging capacity for reporting than anything else I see.

    But is narrative dead? Not hardly.

    Organized religion learned the power of narrative a long time ago. For countless billions, it has remained a bulwark no matter what technology or elites had to say about it.

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

      I’m not saying narrative is dead but that it’s not the only kind that will or should exist. We agree.

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

      Or to put it another way… the process is a new narrative. I like that better.

  • http://www.uberblogged.com Uberblogged

    What I dont like about these people is how they think “someone” is “imposing” Twitter as THE journalism way to go-

    Why dont they make it simpler and just use it along with the rest of the tools (blogs, facebook, etc)? I havent read anywhere that Twitter should be the only way to do journalism in the web… Come on, both articles are ignorant-

  • Sebastian

    This feels so old at this point. There are so many examples of ‘journalists’ that can do both with ease: Write the long-form traditional narrative *and* provide meaningful real-time context to events via Twitter. DeArmond’s piece is so willfully ignorant I think it’s best to just label it as trolling.

  • Fiesty1

    You could have tweeted this whole article as: “Journalist exposes journalists’ non-acceptance of Twitter in article longer than 140 characters”. Grin.

    Gotta go… too many people on my lawn with tweezers (cutting my grass in 140ml of gas or less).

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  • http://woip.blogspot.com Patrizia Broghammer

    They say the Internet reshaped History, may be it is true, because it reshaped life.
    Once people read the news, now they want to be part of them.
    The whole production, news included, used to be a monologue, after the dawn of the Internet it has become more and more a dialogue.
    That is why people like blogs and blogging.
    It is not just writing, it is beginning a discussion in which the reader can talk and say what is wrong or right (in his opinion).
    It is may be the beginning of a real democracy, where everybody counts a little bit.
    It is the cloud computing, where every end is also a beginning.
    It is a Network, a community, a big living room where everybody wants a seat and has a voice.
    It is a place where you can find out that there is somebody, somewhere, that can give you what you didn’t expect: new ideas.

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  • http://blogs.larioja.com/balonblog Pablo Alvarez

    A small complaint: Why ‘of course the sillier’?

    A sports guy

  • http://marccooper.co.uk Marc Cooper

    Tell the sports guy that most tweets are links to blogs, news sites, videos, forums which contain much more depth that one single newspaper article

  • http://apwatch.blogspot.com/ Bradley J. Fikes

    Marc,
    If the sports guy is as good as a journalist as he preens himself on being, he should have been able to discover that for himself. The column is just a fashion statement.

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  • http://isobios.com Roger Gonzales

    I believe 140 characters are enough to create a headline that will take the reader to your story. and not only that, if it is good it will be retweeted!

  • http://www.theplateishot.com Ricard Espelt

    I’m completly agree Jeff.

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  • Del Norvin

    Jeff, you’re right about the sports hack but IMHO entirely unfair to Cohen and don’t analyze him in context. In his piece, Cohn talks about how worked up Huffington got over his comments. She predictably became unglued at his claim because she believes that anyone with a modem connection should be able to cover events in Iran since everyone’s now a journalist. Cohen understands the power of technology but at the same time he’s quite right about his central point: there’s a crying need for boots on the ground. during the uprising earlier this summer, we found out a lot because iranians used tech to post pictures and blogs. i also sorely missed reading in depth reports that previously were produced by western correspondents, who had been thrown out of the country.

  • Vivian

    I believe that if used the right way, Twitter can be a useful tool for journalists. Not only can you use it to tell of breaking news but you can also learn about breaking news from it and that’s exactly what some journalist do with Twitter. Twitter (to me) is merely a stepping stone to help possibly improve a story or let other people know. Yes you might be limited to 140 characters but you can sum up a whole story in a sentence. Is that not what journalists do in the headline?

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