Splitting newsrooms and hairs

Deborah Howell (with whom I used to work at Advance) writes an ombudsman column for the Washington Post that illustrates, in its quotes from editors at the paper, the kind of clueless, destructive, and snobbish territoriality between print and online that is killing newspapers.

Political reporters at The Post don’t like WPNI columnist Dan Froomkin’s “White House Briefing,” which is highly opinionated and liberal. They’re afraid that some readers think that Froomkin is a Post White House reporter.

John Harris, national political editor at the print Post, said, “The title invites confusion. It dilutes our only asset — our credibility” as objective news reporters.

I have to stop there. What a terrible insult and slap at a colleague who writes a very good, respected, and journalistic column for online. What a slap from a newsroom snot. But that is what newsrooms are like.

Howell continues:

Froomkin writes the kind of column “that we would never allow a White House reporter to write. I wish it could be done with a different title and display.”

Harris is right; some readers do think Froomkin is a White House reporter. But Froomkin works only for the Web site and is very popular — and [web site executive editor Jim] Brady is not going to fool with that, though he is considering changing the column title and supplementing it with a conservative blogger.

So we acknowledge that Froomkin’s column is popular with readers… but not with print editors. What does that tell us?

And the solution this reputed problem is to play the dumb cable “balance” game, journalism as a Chinese menu? No, the solution is for Dan to be very transparent about his views and for readers to judge him and what he says in that context; clearly, that is working with readers. The public we serve is too smart to fall for this balance game. Crossfire’s dead, folks. Howell continues:

Froomkin said he is “happy to consider other ways to telegraph to people that I’m not a Post White House reporter. I do think that what I’m doing, namely scrutinizing the White House’s every move — with an attitude — is in the best traditions of American and Washington Post journalism.”

On the other hand, Chris Cillizza, a washingtonpost.com political reporter, appears in The Post frequently. When he writes for the paper, he works for Harris, who is happy to have him.

Which is to say: It’s petty and personal. Newsrooms are.

Some Post reporters don’t appreciate that links are put on the Web site to what bloggers are saying about this or that story — especially when the bloggers are highly negative.

And what does that say? Post print reporters don’t like anyone else having a say; they don’t like dialogue; they don’t like listening. And they wonder why readers don’t respect them? Because they don’t respect readers.

Metro reporters think the Web site ignores their good work and doesn’t display it well. “My concern is that we have this rich, deep, robust local coverage which is not fully displayed, but I know the site is working to fix that,” said Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for metropolitan news. McCartney is a great ally of the Web site and was assistant managing editor of continuous news for two years before he became Metro’s top editor.

Oh, I heard that argument from every paper I worked with in my last job. It is code for: We want online to be just like the paper we produce and we want to be in charge of online. It’s about power and territory. Newsrooms are about power and territory.

Howell concludes that the web is good for what newspaper editors have wished it was good for: supplements to their print prose:

The Web is a wonderful place for The Post to put newsprint-eating texts and documents, such as presidential speeches, and other information, such as congressional votes, that readers want.

That is so 1995. No, friend, it’s just the opposite. The web is the rich medium; the paper is the thinner, less dynamic, staler, one-way, one-size-fits-all supplement.
Howell ends with one more slap at Froomkin:

But I agree with The Post’s political writers here; the Web site should remove the “White House Briefing” label from Froomkin’s column.

The Washington Post and its site are among the best in newspapering, yet we see this kind of trivial and destructive sniping between the two even there even as newspapering struggles to survive.

This is why I left that battleground.

: Froomkin rises above the playground rivalries in a most gracious post on the Post’s blog — and his readers come in to give him amazing support:

There is undeniably a certain irreverence to the column. But I do not advocate policy, liberal or otherwise. My agenda, such as it is, is accountability and transparency. I believe that the president of the United States, no matter what his party, should be subject to the most intense journalistic scrutiny imaginable. And he should be able to easily withstand that scrutiny. I was prepared to take the same approach with John Kerry, had he become president.

This column’s advocacy is in defense of the public’s right to know what its leader is doing and why. To that end, it calls attention to times when reasonable, important questions are ducked; when disingenuous talking points are substituted for honest explanations; and when the president won’t confront his critics — or their criticisms — head on.

The journalists who cover Washington and the White House should be holding the president accountable. When they do, I bear witness to their work. And the answer is for more of them to do so — not for me to be dismissed as highly opinionated and liberal because I do.

Amen, brother.

Some quotes of support for Froomkind, which should be printed on paper and handed out in the newsroom:

I am old enough to have read Woodstein word-for-word during Watergate. I recall the Post in that era with enduring respect and even fondness. Katherine Graham, Bill Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein – they made the Post the best newspaper this side of the moon; as integral to my day as that first cup of coffee.

I walked away in the early 80’s. It was a tip from a friend about Dan Froomkin’s “White House Briefing” that brought me back to the Post over a year ago. Through him, I have come to admire Walter Pincus, Dana Priest, and even the right-leaning Kurtz.

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The only way to balance Dan Froomkin’s reporting would be to counter him with a complete liar.

* * *

view Dan Froomkin as a true reporter. He connects the dots in a very basic fashion. Rather than imposing a narrative on what is now called the “news”, the column juxtaposes raw source material with reporting, opinion and comment from elsewhere in a fashion that illuminates connections between events, and drives sensible debate. This makes the occasional irreverent observation all the more enjoyable.

I don’t think it makes any sense at all to say Froomkin is overly “liberal”. Modern America is psychotic with its need to divide the world into two groups, however, so whatever.

But even if he was — Why on earth would you lose a strong columnist because he has an ideology?

* * *

The WPs new Ombudsman would do well to use Dan Froomkin’s methods. Simply stating that WP reporters find his reporting highly opinionated and bias and calling him a liberal is not reporting. It is spin. Why not list and investigate specific claims instead of acting like the White House press secretary.

* * *

Froomkin turned me on to looking in all sorts of spots for my info. I’ve read and watched transcripts of press briefings, read articles by journalists with whom I was not familiar, found sources of info that were unknown to me because of links and things I’ve read in Froomkin’s column. Sending people to many different sources for their information and pointing out when the media is unable to get real answers to important questions is the opposite of bias.

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Why would the credibility of the Post be endangered by a column that is largely populated by links to and discussion of stories filed in the print edition of the Post?

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I applaud his approach and wish more reporters, print and media, would follow it. Keep it up Mr. Froomkin.

* * *

Where do I go to file a complaint about the ombudsman herself?

Froomkin is a must-read for me. I can’t imagine there are people who think it’s factual reporting — anyone savvy enough to read his fascinating column is surely savvy enough to differentiate between opinion and fact.

* * *

Too many other reporters–including those at the Post–seem just to repeat what they are told. Froomkin does that openly, with links to his original materials, but in addition he has the guts, and integrity, to check the statements of his sources. If that is liberal bias I’m all for it.

* * *

How can anyone who reads the column equate accountability with liberalism? The quintessential Froomkin column ran a few days ago; it was called “Fact Checking the President”. It was composed almost exclusively of links to news stories in which the reporter noted discrepancies between Bush’s picture of Iraq and more disturbing pictures of Iraq provided by people who are actually there.

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The rest of the Post’s White House team should read the last year of Froomkin’s column to see what real reporting and analysis are. Froomkin has usually been way ahead of the curve of the “establishment” media, pointing out Bush’s increasing unpopularity, for instance, long before it became acceptable in conventional media to talk about Bush’s high rate of disapproval.

* * *

I often rely on Froomkin and Kurtz combined to get a grasp on many of the stories of the day, and the integrity of the reporting involved.

* * *

Froomkin’s “White House Briefing” is essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand 1. what is going on behind the headlines and 2. the greater context in which ongoing news stories play out.

The media guru Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, bemoaned the degradation of American discourse into a world of decontextualized information — thanks largely to the rise of television as our predominant medium for communication.

What the Internet does best is to subvert the packaging of news that television has led to — and Froomkin, by compiling the day’s news — from all sources online — with links to the stories themselves, subverts that decontextualization.

And on and on. To paraphrase my friend Jay Rosen, here’s the message in that to Post print people: The readers are writing. Are you reading?

: The real lesson for Posties should be this: As Howell herself points out, the Post’s site is a helluva lot bigger than the Post’s paper:

Its circulation, as reported in September, is 671,322 daily and 965,920 Sunday. The Web site’s reach is huge — 8 million unique visitors a month, about 1.3 million of them local.

Perhaps that should tell the paper’s editors that they should be learning from online, rather than trying to lecture to it with haughty bravura. That, too, is what newsrooms are about. But the audience has clearly shown its support for the online Post over the printed one; the only reason online is not as successful is because advertisers are even more behind than newspaper editors. And the audience has clearly shown Froomkin their support. Perhaps the paper should be doing more of what he does. Did you ever think of that, o, vaunted newspaper editors?

: And perhaps the Post print people should read what their boss and owner had to say about the future of print. The day of the last presses is approaching. Are you ready, print people?

: LATER: Jay DeFoore at E&P covers the kerfluffle.

: LATER STILL: Jay Rosen interviews the Post’s political editor, online editor, and columnist in a fascinating exchange.

What interests me first are the atmospherics. The online folks are bending over backwards to be deferential to the print people. The print person is spitting lines like “pompous” and “total bullshit.” Not a happy camp, there. Once more: Newsrooms are like that.

Second, what interests me is that I think we are seeing the Japanese monster movie of journalism … or perhaps a more timely allusion would be King Kong: Dinosaurs v. the overgrown ape. The print people (you can guess at my casting; either that or Godzilla would be loaded) are holding onto their beliefs in objectivity for dear life. The online people have moved onto a new world. And Dan holds firm saying that he’s not a liberal columnist or even an opinion columnist, though he has taken on the latter label; he says — and I agree — that these days, tracking media and those who would spin it is reporting. In my book, that is sometimes more like reporting than what some reporters do when they dutifully report what the powerful spin. But it all fits in the big tent of journalism, if those who think they own that tent will allow it. Jay quotes an internal memo from the print editor to the online editor:

It’s not an overstatement to say that our generation of reporters and editors is trying vindicate the entire tradition of ideologically neutral news in a web-driven age in which most information is presented through argument. Certainly the Bush White House would be happy to have this tradition die–it makes it easier for them to dismiss all reporting they don’t like as the work of liberal critics.

A tall order. But the contrary arguments that are made are first that no one is ideologically neutral and that transparency is needed and second that not all information online is presented through argument but argument does not invalidate information.