Geeks vs. journalists: A tale of two worldviews

This episode of Recovery is brought to you by a city full of nerds prepping for the Seattle Zombie Walk, because your Rain City geeks are all about the BRAAAAAINS and their undead data centers, and by frequent Betanews commenter PC_Tool, who said something in a comment that got me thinking.

Angela Gunn: Recovery badge (style 2)I wrote earlier this week about an essay by Richard Posner that suggested that what the media needs to survive in the era of the Internet is a ban on linking, excerpting and such. Conversations about business models and copyright belong with Lockdown, and we're still talking about them in the comments section there this morning. But there are some things no one talks about concerning the old-line media, and here in the friendly confines of Recovery, I thought I'd go ahead and say them, because they may confirm what you've suspected all along:

The mainstream news industry dug itself this hole by not staying smart, humble, hungry and focused, and now it blames the geeks.

Some of the incurious double-digit-IQ nonsense I've heard in the newsrooms of old-line mainstream publications would make the average geek bite a mousepad in half. Frankly, a lot of people with journalism degrees are the last people who ought to become journalists.

The idea of journalism as a white-collar profession, rather than a grubby old trade, is only a few decades old. As the profession became a more attractive line of work to the children of the middle and upper classes (because like the song says, there's only so much you can do with a BA in English), its practitioners wanted to retain some shred of elevated class identity, as they would have if they'd gone into medicine or the law. The job of journalism became less a matter of scrap and skill and shoe leather and more about one's educational (and, to some extent, cultural) bona fides.

One of the side effects of that was a change in college curricula to make journalism an actual pre-professional major, on alleged par with pre-law or pre-med. Suddenly you became a journalist by getting trained in journalism, as opposed to being trained in science or economics or business or statistics or any of those things journalists write about. That trend accelerated in the wake of Watergate, when it really did seem for a bit like you could save the world (and get famous and have movies made about you starring Robert Redford!) by going into the journalism business.

So now you have a whole bunch of people trained "as journalists" -- they know how to write headlines, they know how to conduct interviews, they own a copy of the AP Stylebook -- and holding a self-important belief that their education has given them a "profession" rather than a set of skills that could easily have been learned on the job. What they tend to lack, certainly at the beginning of their careers and often for a very long time after, is a necessarily deep understanding of the things they may be writing or interviewing about.

Reporters that really sink their teeth into a topic area often manage to triumph over their silly education, but that's not how the system's designed to work. Instead, the "profession" of journalism is supposed to confer on its people the skill -- and necessity -- of hopping between beats and publications to get ahead. This year you're covering the courts, next year you've jumped to the business section at a higher-profile paper in another town, five years from now with some seniority there you luck into the television-reviews beat. Nothing at all wrong with learning new things, but the mainstream career path doesn't lend itself to deep, sustained knowledge.

Compare that to the geekish life, where deep knowledge is major currency. Let's say you're a security nerd today; would you consider it a wise thing to absolutely turn your back on all that tomorrow and declare yourself the go-to guy on printing tech or HR or wiring? Do you feel that too much first-hand knowledge of your specialty and opinionated conversation with people involved in it might taint your ability to think clearly about matters? Do you think it's somehow embarrassing to be passionately interested in a topic? No and no and no and no? Let me tell you, friend, you'd have a pretty uncomfortable time around a lot of journalists, who would accuse you of going native, or worse.

(Mainstream journalists, that is. On the tech side, we may jump publications -- or, more accurately, all sort of revolve amongst the publications available; the joke among tech writers is that sooner or later every one of us works for everyone else -- but we try to build on expertise. It's one of the many, many things that causes large amounts of mutual contempt between mainstream journalists and us specialty-press types, but that's a topic for another day.)

Meanwhile, while the profession of journalism was trying to get middle-class respectable, the era of family-owned local newspapers (or regional chains) was ending -- consolidation was at hand, and the era of the publicly-held publishing company. This newspaper racket, in those days, was rather lucrative, but publishers were greedy bastards; even back when profit margins for newspapers dwarfed those of just about any other sector, it was nothing but cuts and belt-tightening for the newsrooms. That's public ownership for you, by the way; as the marvelous old fellow who owned that magazine of mine said many times, calculating a publication's success in terms of quarterly stock earnings is a counterproductive and ultimately deadly. (And that publication's fortunes slid right to hell after he retired and his kids sold the company, but that too is a story for some other time.)

Anyway, publications -- newspapers especially -- started casting about for ways to save, and they turned to the wire services such as the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, and so forth. Years before it had been a badge of honor for a writer to earn a position at such places; a wire reporter was the very best of breed, tried and true, in whatever topic s/he covered.

As the profession changed, though, the wire services changed too, shifting from a best-of-breed model to a churn-and-learn approach, eating up young journalists at alarming rates (and low pay, which meant the turnover was vicious). The movement to keep younger (cheaper) journalists in newsrooms and shed the older (more expensive) ones likewise led to increasing brain drain on newspaper staffs; you simply can't keep smart, experienced grownups around when you pay less than McDonald's or Wal-Mart.

Newspapers started relying on the wires to augment their own newsrooms... and then started cutting staff, figuring that many topics areas could be covered day-to-day with material "from the wire." That freed up staff in ever shrinking newsrooms, in theory to cover specific stories but in practice to do, always, more and more attention-getting (not to be confused with better) stories.

So you have these journalists, striving to make themselves a professional class and to earn honors for showy pieces of work, rather than the shoe-leather journalism of years past. You have publishers pleading poverty and leaning ever harder on the wire services to cover a growing number of "out of the way" places and topics. And you have wire services serving the same dishes to just about every newspaper out there. Most publications turned into a sludge of in-house "signature" pieces padded out by wire copy that read much the same in every one of the hundreds of papers running it -- islands of high-profile, sometimes blatantly sensational pieces surrounded by the same commodified coverage you can get anywhere else.

So when publishers whine about Google News, they're fussing about a system they themselves built -- because Google News, by virtue of the way the algorithms work, turns almost every so-called big story into a commodity, precisely because the newspapers themselves have homogenized their coverage. A really orthogonal story isn't going to make the front page of Google News, because there aren't enough others like it to trip the circuit. (I guarantee you that if I turn from this column and write the best news story in the history of the universe about, say, IETF RFC 4301, there is precisely zero chance it'll hit Google News, because no one else is writing about it today. That's just how it goes.)

The lions of the old-line press, in other words, left themselves no structure for very focused journalism on any but a few high-profile topics. Google News and its ilk pick up that trend and extend it to its logical end. The blogs, meanwhile, take up the very sort of reportage newspapers have been saying they can't do (ultra-focused journalism) and won't do (by writers who are primarily experts, not writers). Most of us here probably have never relied less on mainstream news sources -- or more on highly focused specialty sites, blogs, and data feeds written by people who know a great deal and have first-hand experience with the things they're writing about. There's a niche yet for sites like Betanews and people like me, who are generalists by virtue of not being actual IT folk or coders or governance wonks but have a knack for synthesizing data (and have a huge well of experience with the industry to draw upon). Such pubs are small and they will always struggle to make themselves known in the maelstrom, but we're better off than the big mainstream books, because we provide a product that makes sense in the link-anywhere, drill-down era of modern news.

It's a specialist world now -- figure out what interests you and focus on those topics via blogs and searches and feeds, rather than expecting any single generalist publication to be your gateway. Good general reporting is a proper and necessary counterbalance to that, and it's a damn shame the old-line publications can't provide that more consistently, since that's the evolutionary path they chose.

The most interesting task in online news right now isn't figuring out how to support an old business model and an old education model. It's figuring out how to support the big watchdog / investigative efforts -- the kinds of projects that made the reputation of newspapers in the late 1800s, made the reputations of the Blys and the Tarbells and the Lewisis and the Woodwards and the Bernsteins and all the eager idealists that followed in their path, and eventually ruined the thinking of awards-mad editors, publishers and writers who forgot what actually mattered to everyday readers in their everyday communities. A lot of online journalists, professional and citizen, are figuring out ways of doing (and funding) those projects, but the era of those acting as tentpoles to otherwise denatured wire-service delivery devices is over. And going forward, journalists are going to need to actually know stuff -- and care about it as much as their target audience does.

And now for something almost completely different: The Park Bench has, for those among you seeking a geek chick as a partner, a guide to How to Meet and Woo a Nerdy Girl. The comments may also be helpful to those of you pursuing this path, especially since they throw in some zombie-evasion information just in case. A full-service blog, that Park Bench.

Let your geek flag fly and have a great weekend.

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