How to make fishwrap

How to make fishwrap
: Matt Welch has a wonderful column about the newspaper biz post BlairBragg in the National Post (datelined Los Angeles, I should add).

He argues that newspaperpeople are more upset about BlairBragg because they (read: we) put it on a pedestal more than readers in most of America. Guilty. I love and admire the Times. That doesn’t mean I always like it. The paper has become terribly overwritten lately, with writerly writers spending paragraphs showing off before getting to the point, which just wastes my time as I try to figure out what the hell a story is trying to be about. I’ve never said the Times is perfect, but it is damned good.

The problem isn’t liking the Times. The problem, Welch points out, is emulating it in the wrong ways.

Almost every newspaper that views the Times as a role model… is a local monopoly in a less liberal city. Chances are, it will equate success with such Timesian yardsticks as Pulitzer prizes, and (in the immortal words of Rick Bragg) the ability “to go get the dateline.”

Amen, brother. I’ve said here before that if I ran a paper, I wouldn’t enter any contests. The only contest we want to win is the fight for the attention and affection of our readers. And the way to win that is to be useful, not to write 1,000-inch show-off thumbsuckers. But I say that such mondostories are born not of Times envy but of conference bragging.

Welch sees a silver lining in the cloud over West 43rd Street:

As importantly, the bulk of this navel-gazing is happening in public, giving readers a rare, transparent glimpse into the sausage-making minutiae of newspapering. A week ago, if you had asked 10 Americans about the journalistic significance of the word “dateline,” nine probably would have said “that stupid entertainment show on NBC.”

Perhaps. But the risk is that all this will make newspapers even more boring — not only in their new sense of what’s safe but also in their reflex to write reflexively, about themselves. Please, no.

Welch’s money graphs (as we say in the news biz) are these:

Newspapers, in theory at least, are attempting to help their readers become as educated as possible about their city, country and institutions. Luckily for everyone, the World Wide Web has enabled consumers these days to have an unprecedented ability to consume, debate and, most importantly, repackage their own news, from nearly infinite sources across the globe.

Every person who has created a current-events weblog — and there are tens of thousands of them, at least — has been forced to write headlines, weigh the veracity of sources, select an appropriate mix of stories, avoid running afoul of libel and copyright laws … basically, to make many of the decisions that are familiar to editors everywhere.

This has created a revolutionary level of reader sophistication, one that savvy newspapers will eventually recognize as a valuable source of feedback and potentially bottomless reservoir of distributed intelligence. If a newsroom uses the post-Blair level of scrutiny to strengthen practices and improve the product, these people will be the first the notice.

Right. We saw that during the war and not just on the Web but also on TV, as new tools gave the audience instant access to news as it happened or allegedly happened, including front-row seats at previously press-pass-only briefings. The audience had to learn, as reporters and editors have long-since learned (or should have), that you can’t take the first word as the true word; you have to see how things shake out; you have to ask more questions; you have to doubt.

And so here’s my money graph:

The Times represented the pinnacle of an old news business and it was taken to be as true as it gets because it was the best we had. But now we have something better and that’s not more newspapers (or weblogs): It’s more information, more up-to-the-minute news, more of it in the audience’s control. And the audience will have to learn that news isn’t easy. Nobody does it perfectly, not even the Times.