Sunday, August 16, 2009

going ordinary: what we lose

Some time back, I read a piece in The Nation by Scott Sherman about how the Wall Street Journal had changed with its new ownership under Rupert Murdoch. Not surprisingly, the editorial perspectives of the two publications could be described as polar opposites.

And yet, Sherman has a keen appreciation for ways in which the Journal excelled:

At its best, in an epoch that future historians will view as a "golden age" for US newspapers, the Journal's front page excelled at various forms: explanatory reporting on politics, economics, science and social trends; deeply researched profiles of companies and executives; and investigative reporting. The Journal pursued General Motors, Mobil Oil, Occidental Petroleum, Texas Instruments, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Apple and hundreds of other corporations, which inspired Ralph Nader to proclaim that, aside from its "Pleistocene" editorial page, the Journal was "the most effective muckraking daily paper in the country.... the main reporter in our country of corporate crime." (Nader's words prompted Robert Sherrill to read an entire year of the Journal's corporate crime coverage for a Nation cover story in 1997.)

Finally, there was a remarkable tradition of immersion journalism: Alex Kotlowitz spent twelve weeks with a teenage boy and his family in the Henry Horner housing project in Chicago; Judith Valente lived for two months, around the clock, with a family whose son was wasting away from AIDS; Tony Horwitz took a job at a poultry plant in Mississippi to document the brutal conditions inside. This is not to say that Page 1 was flawless or that the Kotlowitz-type narratives were dominant. But they were never absent from the medley, and staffers clearly recall the words of former managing editor Paul Steiger, who led the paper from 1991 to 2007: "Go find stories with moral force."

What Sherman laments is that the paper, under Murdoch, has become ordinary. As have so many newspapers -- many of them ordinary to begin with -- which have jettisoned all vestiges of distinguished journalism in the interests, perhaps necessarily, of the bottom line. As reporters scramble to do more with less, pages shrink, and online readers refuse to click past a screen-and-a-half, what we lose is narrative journalism, solid enterprise reporting, and features that allow a writer's voice to peep through.

Even some alt-weeklies, at the expense of losing readers, are jettisoning popular columnists with both a voice and a following in favor of generic junk -- written by ad reps, underpaid assistants or even readers.

I was reminded of all this last week when I listened to Daily Beast Editor Tina Brown discussing Gay Talese with NPR's Steve Inskeep. In discussing a recent interview with Talese in The Paris Review, she mourns the scarcity of narrative journalism in today's media, and mentions what Talese brought to the table: an obsessive curiosity along with an obsession with getting it right -- during a moment in time in journalism when writing was savored.

Talese, she said, never wanted to be a page one writer because then,he said, you have to stick with the news. He wanted to dominate the story, and, like all good narrative journalism, found the truth in the details. bk

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