Feudal Castles in the Sun and the Magna Carta of Journalism – Hot Copy #16

Newspapers used to resemble feudal castles. Nobody knew exactly what the baron and his cronies were doing in the middle of the night in those mysterious castles, but whatever it was it was going to affect you. The lights would be on late into the night. The building would rumble and shake with the sound of its hellish presses, and then the trucks would storm out of the building like knights on a holy quest.

That’s how the morning newspapers operated, anyway. When I entered the business in the late 1950s there was a lot of talk about morning newspapers going under because people didn’t have time to read them. By and large the morning papers were smaller and more serious. The evening papers were bigger and fluffier. But the worse evening rush hour traffic got, the healthier morning newspapers got and the sicker evening papers got. Finally it became almost impossible for the trucks delivering the evening papers to reach their destinations in the suburbs and exurbs.

Then, as advertising lineage slipped and the Internet began to threaten newspapers, some newspaper owners looked at their real estate as a more valuable property than their daily product. Many newspapers, after all, occupied prime downtown and suburban real estate. You could make a lot of money just selling off the real estate and the presses. Or you could cut your staff to the bone and raid the pension fund and see how that worked.

Djelloul (Del) Marbrook
Djelloul (Del) Marbrook

That’s the dark side of what’s happening today. But what is so interesting and hopeful is that the Internet is a kind of Magna Carta in which the citizenry win from the feudal barons holed up in their castles a voice in their own affairs. It used to be that shoe leather, telephones and teletypes were the instruments by which reporters gathered news. If they needed background information they went to a room called the morgue or the library in their own castle and got it. Or they called somebody. Or they went to somebody else’s library. Now of course they have the worldwide web, and all the libraries that have signed on to it.

But they have something much more valuable: the ability to listen to ordinary citizens, and the ability to communicate back and forth with citizens of their own countries and other countries.

In every story they write they can imbed a hot link to another story, and another, and another, so that finally there is an endless chain of information and background. They are creating, at the end of the day, not a static story that seems to have been written in cement, but a continuing conversation that will have a life of its own after the reporter shuts his computer down and goes him. In fact, in many cases these days he or she is home. Everything that was static and end-stopped has become fluid and open-ended. In a few minutes readers are responding to stories, and some of them have information that changes the nature of the story or expands its scope or redirects it. The consequences of this are incalculable.

Even while a reporter is writing a story, e-mail is arriving that may change it. The reporter used to do this by telephone, but the telephone had nothing like the potential of e-mail for conveying information quickly. Fewer stories these days are being overtaken by events, simply because a report on the worldwide web can be updated or completely rewritten in minutes, not hours or days.

This new intimacy between writers and readers, this collaborative project is creating a more nimble kind of journalism. It has its pitfalls, as all innovations do, but it’s like Dr. Frankenstein’s lightning bolt giving the inert body of his creation new life. Print journalism is floundering, some would say foundering. Newspapers see the potential of the Internet. They all have web sites. But they’re not entirely comfortable with this new environment. Some have moved to the web entirely. Some are hedging their bets, trying to do a good job on paper and online. Some are doing a poor job at both.

One of the problems-it’s hardly a new one-is the relationship between the creative people in the newsroom and the bean counters in the corporate suites. An even more significant problem is between the bean counters and corporate executives and even shareholders who think that bean counting is a just a quick fix, a patch on a leaky pipe, whereas what is really needed is thinking out of the box, vision, and greater expenditures to activate the vision. But in all too many instances, when it comes to media consolidation, shortsighted cost-cutting, motivated by shareholder demand, is accompanied by lack of vision, and even lack of recognition that vision is needed.

These are old conflicts. In the past two or three decades, because of consolidation and because of what might be called the trivializing and commodification of the news, the business side of journalism has trespassed mightily on the news side. The independence of the newsroom has corroded as shareholders have demanded more profit from consolidated companies. The easiest way to give the shareholders what they want is to cut costs, fire people, curtail coverage, come up with gimmicks- hence the advent of infotainment as news.

All this has happened at the same time that the Internet has been developing. So while newspapers were fixated on their bottom lines and cutting their staffs, a whole new world opened under their feet. For a long time they hardly noticed it, and when they did, their response was, Oh, hey, let’s have a web site, when their response should have been, Wow, is this a new world or what?

There has always been a kind of sock-it-to-’em, in-your-face aspect to print journalism. My first real encounter with journalism was in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen-it was originally Clinton and now that it’s getting tonier they’re calling it Clinton again. I was selling newspapers in front of the cigar store I worked for. Every night I sold 360 New York Daily News tabloids, 240 Daily Mirrors, 50 New York Times and 40 Herald Tribunes. The guys on the day shift sold The World Telegram and Sun and The Journal-American. The trucks would wheel up and heave bales of 50 papers at you. If you were standing in the wrong place, tough luck. Sometimes the truck drivers would open the bales with pliers, take out five or 10 and sell them on their own. In other words, they were ripping us off and they were also ripping off the papers they worked for. I complained about this once and the driver changed my face. Well, hey, it was Hell’s Kitchen.

I remember this job whenever I think of journalism, because there has been a take-or-leave-it quality to the way we have offered up the news. If you don’t like it, buy another paper, listen to another station, change the channel. Those guys in the castles had made their decisions and now they were chucking their decisions at you. The news was what they said it was.

But that’s changing. Readers and listeners are talking back. They’re telling reporters what they see, what they think, what they know. You can look at it as if they’re saying, Hey, you’re not as smart as you pretend to be, or you can look at it as if the people are saying, Can we be part of news gathering? The answer should be a resounding yes, please!

You can call it citizen journalism. That’s what some people are calling it. But I’d like to call it cooperative journalism or collaborative journalism. First of all, we’re not as smart as we think we are, we journalists. In fact, nobody is. Second of all, we do need help, lots of help, especially if our bosses in their limousines and private planes keep cutting costs. We need the community to understand that in a democracy it’s everybody’s job to keep informed, it’s everybody’s job to help everybody else be informed.

Just at the moment when media consolidation and absentee ownership have almost destroyed local or community journalism the Internet has come along to rescue it. You and I can start a community newspaper or a regional newspaper on the web. We can do streaming video. We can do web radio, and we can do it for very little start-up money. All we have to do is figure out how to make money doing it, so we can keep on doing it and hire people to help us. That’s a tall order, but entrepreneurs around the world are taking it on. And it’s scaring the hell out of Big Media and Big Telecommunications, because they want to monopolize the Internet. It’s up to all of us to make sure our wobbly Congress doesn’t sell us out to the poohbahs in their limos.

But right now you and I can dream of our own newspapers and magazines and radio shows. They’re all within our reach, but we have to think big and think originally. We have to decide how to make money doing what we’d love to do. We have to stop thinking like the guys chucking the news onto the streets from their castles and start thinking as if we’re all in this together, because we are.

Let’s look at this new ballgame. You’re twenty-three-years old, maybe a bit younger, maybe a bit older. You’ve just graduated from journalism school, but you’ve been listening to some old curmudgeons like me and you’re a bit leery of going to work for some corporate mill slicing news into entertainment. You’d like to make more of a difference than that. You’re not rich, not even close. Well, you could start an online news magazine about the working people in your area. You could be the next Joseph Mitchell, although I hope you’ll be more prolific, or Studs Terkel. You could write about people who grow grapes, repair cars, design software, coach disabled athletes. You could write about your neighbors. What makes them tick? What are they worried about? By the way, there’s a Studs Terkel web site and there’s plenty of information on the web about the late Joseph Mitchell. You owe it to yourselves to read their work.

But if you’d really like to go back to the root of journalism in the Western World read Herodotus, the Greek historian, the father of historians. What you’ll find in Herodotus is the power of observation. While the leaders of his time were making a lot of noise, telling everybody how to see things, Herodotus stood back and took a hard look, and what he saw was quite different. That’s what good journalists do. Yes, you do have to stay on top of the news. But that’s only part of the job. You have to make sense of the news. You have to show readers and listeners and viewers how the pieces form the big picture. You have to rescue your audience from the pieces so that they can appreciate the big picture. Otherwise the pieces just keep bowling them over. Always remember that a leader who is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, over the people’s eyes, wants you to get lost in the pieces. Always remember that nothing is ever as simple as the politicians or corporate bosses want you to think it is. It’s one thing to say something simply-you’re supposed to do that as a journalist-but it’s another thing to be simpleminded. Your task, and it’s a rigorous one, is to put immense complexities simply, clearly, understandably. That is why it’s so important for you to master the language.

Fine, all well and good, but how do you make money doing it? How do you make enough to pay yourself, pay your bills and maybe hire some other people to help you? There’s nothing new about this question. It’s exactly the question the big newspapers in those magic mystery castles have been grappling with all along. But there’s a huge difference. You have no overhead, or very little. You don’t pay huge real estate taxes. You don’t have a big payroll. You’re not operating trucks and garages and printing presses. You have practically nothing, except the power to reach people faster and more elegantly than they do. And a lot more cheaply.

All you need is a business model. Joseph Mitchell and Studs Terkel needed a publisher. But you can publish yourself. And your readers can download your writing into hand-held devices as well as laptops. But you have to make money. Well, you can sell advertising at much cheaper rates than the local newspaper, that’s for sure. But advertisers are going to want to know who they’re reaching, how many they’re reaching. Newspapers have to certify their circulations to advertisers. Sometimes they fake the figures, and that can get them into a lot of trouble.

I don’t have a business model for you. I suspect different content and different areas are going to require different models. And this is why I urge serious journalism students to get into cyber studies, to start talking with teachers and students who are giving this matter some thought. If they could mix up and color some sugar water and call it Coca-Cola and sell it around the world, you know people are going to figure out how to make money publishing news on the Internet. Just as Coke redefined what we drink, the Internet is going to redefine news. It can do it in many ways. It can give you a worldwide reach, but it can also enable you to cheaply cover the heck out of a small area. It depends on your vision and your business acumen.

When I was a young man, and during most of my newspaper career, young journalists didn’t have these options. There were traditional ways to go, and that’s where you went. Sure, there were some new ideas, like Wired magazine or Rolling Stone, but these followed more or less traditional models. Where they broke new ground was in their subject matter. Today all bets are off. The technology continues to move faster than we can think up ways to use it. Welcome to cyber studies.

For More Information: www.djelloulmarbrook.com

(Editor’s note: This is the transcript of Hot Copy, Number 16, Del Marbrook’s weekly podcast).

Source: The Student Operated Press

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook, born in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter grew up New York, served in the US Navy. His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University. His story, Artists Hill, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.