Letters to the Editors: Hooray for the New Newsroom Sweatshops

May 2, 2012

The big bylines in the newsroom are lamenting the changes in journalism. They say it’s becoming a sweatshop. That’s progress, I say.

Causing concern is a technique called “aggregation,” the high-speed, deadline collection of multiple Internet stories on a single topic. The idea is to give a more demanding readership the benefit of “trending,” i.e., what is likely to happen down the road. There are no big ideas involved, so we hate it.

That, however, is how mass media has served its readership since Johannes Gutenberg. The new aggregation desks look a lot like the old news desks: the Bull Pen in Gay Talese’s “The Kingdom and the Power,” Jack Webb’s newsroom in “Thirty” (-30-) and even the field of cluttered desks in Alan Pakula’s movie set for “All the President’s Men” — all stripped, though, of their romanticism.

The late Robert Bartley, defining editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, taught us that successful information systems throughout history — before they could assume a posture or champion a cause — had to demonstrate objectivity and thereby earn trust. That trust has been squandered in recent years by a journalism driven by mere advocacy.

Certain news organizations are trying to win trust back. Newly trained digital journalists are reading stories on a given subject from different publications, summarizing and rewriting them, providing links and adding a local angle. No secret meetings with the assistant director of the FBI in a Washington parking garage. Boring.

But the old journalism included a large measure of drudgery, performed by desk-bound wretches (some of them sober) building that hard-earned trust paragraph by paragraph under merciless supervision, working with unreasonable deadlines, story counts and standards of accuracy.

Even so, there seems to be even more gloom in the newsroom these days. Here is the ombudsman of the Washington Post relating the core complaint:

“They (the new journalists) said that they felt as if they were out there alone in digital land, under high pressure to get Web hits, with no training, little guidance or mentoring and sparse editing. Guidelines for aggregating stories are almost nonexistent, they said. And they believe that, even if they do a good job, there is no path forward. Will they one day graduate to a beat, covering a crime scene, a city council or a school board? They didn’t know. So some left; others are thinking of quitting.”

Perfect, I say, especially when you consider that one out of every two recent college graduates is unemployed or underemployed.

And this new newsroom fits the standard set by a famed publisher, a Hoosier, William Rockhill Nelson, founder of the Kansas City Star (1841-1915). He told his editors to hire newsmen who live close to the office (to walk to work) and date waitresses (to gather the news).

Granted, that is Dickensian. Yet, members of journalism’s greatest generation (circa 1920-1950) didn’t set out to change the world. Rather, they hoped only for a weekly paycheck and at least the illusion of advancement.

All said, it should be clear a couple of decades into the computer revolution that an information system dependent on twenty-something social engineers, the marvels of Internet media aside, cannot produce the prescient or even factual journalism to justify advertising rates.

Must we go back to Linotypes, copy spikes and paste pots, young friends ask, can’t there be progress?

Not if your idea of progress requires suspending the laws of economics and human nature. The skills, organization and personalities of our information systems will change to regain the trust of those subscribers whom advertisers value, be they print or Internet.

That’s progress, too.



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