When journalism professors attack

Ever since getting broadsided by NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen’s 2,243-word July 14 lambasting of an 830-word piece I wrote for fortune.com, I’ve been thinking I need to write about it here. But I figured I should wait until I could be more thoughtful about than I was in the somewhat snotty response I posted on Rosen’s blog. I’ve also been on vacation, if that’s any excuse.

I did get lots of reassurances from colleagues that it was all nonsense, Rosen’s a jerk, I should ignore it, etc., etc. But I can’t ignore it, partly because I’m an oversensitive weenie (always have been), partly because past experience tells me Rosen’s blog posts are often worth paying attention to, and partly because buried in his tirade was at least one entirely irrefutable criticism. Rosen himself never made it explicit, but a couple of the commenters on his site did. Back to that later.

As for Rosen’s chief complaint, I still think it’s nonsense. He claims that my opening sentence,

Now that Wendy McCaw has driven away most of the editors from the newspaper she owns, the Santa Barbara News-Press, a lot of people in journalism are beginning to question what had become accepted wisdom in the past year or so–that independent, local ownership is the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry.

is "bull." Then he continues: "What conventional wisdom says (maybe) is that local independent ownership is worth a try again, and might work out better than corporate chains have."

Now maybe I am in fact "thick-headed," as Rosen put it after my  initial response to his critique, but I just don’t see a yawning gulf between those two descriptions of the state of affairs. I think Rosen and I would both agree that the return to private ownership has been a dominant meme in newspaper-junkie discussions over the past year or so, definitely ever since the greedy capitalists at Private Capital Management started pushing for the dismemberment of Knight-Ridder. Yeah, I stated it in starker, more sensationalist terms than he did. Or, if you prefer, he stated it in more boring, waffly terms than I did. But "salvation" and "might work out better" are both on the same side of public vs. private coin, and as a one-time newspaper journalist I’m of the opinion that my wording comes much closer to reflecting the at-times-desperate sentiments of my former colleagues than Rosen’s does. "Salvation" does not imply that private ownership is without flaw; it means that people in newspapers hope private ownership will save them from the depredations of Wall Street. Anyone care to claim that isn’t the case?

The next complaint from Rosen was that I didn’t provide any links to back up my statement. That’s true, I didn’t (although there were links elsewhere in my essay). Why not?  Mainly because the discussion among journalists wasn’t what I thought I was writing about. I was just using it to get to an issue that I ponder pretty regularly and that I’m (partially) writing a book about: The intersection between financial markets and corporations. And I wanted to get there quickly. Does that make me lazy? Maybe. I mean, I am lazy. No point in denying that. But the very assortment of links that Rosen used to back up his argument amounted to a textbook example of the limits of linking. Most consisted of people (among them my hero Joe Nocera) saying in nuanced terms that private, local ownership might work out better for newspapers than dominion by Wall Street has. They were pretty much the same things I would have linked to. In one case, Rosen linked to a Washington Post story about the "Push Toward Private Control of Newspapers" and cherry-picked the one "yes, but" paragraph to quote in his post, ignoring other parts of the article that seemed to back up my assertion.

What’s more, no one other than Jay Rosen has taken issue with that opening sentence of mine. My piece was posted on journalism site Romenesko, so lots of real-live newspaper reporters and editors surely read it, yet not one of them e-mailed me to complain about my mischaracterization. Of the commenters to Rosen’s blog (and there are admirably many), several applauded him for taking down a lazy big-media journalist and even more took issue with my assertions about Wall Street’s virtues, but unless I’m missing something, the only comments that directly addressed the question of whether people in newspapers think private ownership is their salvation backed me up.

But enough defensive stuff. My little essay was an assortment of thoughts about public vs. private ownership that had been running through my head for a while, thrown together with some breaking media news from Santa Barbara, and given a bold headline ("Why being publicly held is best"). For someone familar with the public-vs.-private discussion that’s been going on for several years now in corporate circles, all that was probably okay. I even got an e-mail from one such person, NYU accounting professor Baruch Lev, saying he thought the piece was swell. But I made no attempt to introduce that discussion to those unfamiliar with it (that is where I could have used some more links).

So Jay Rosen, who I imagine doesn’t pay many visits to the business school at NYU, read the piece, and must have thought, "They ran this in Fortune magazine?!?" In fact, it didn’t run in the magazine. What’s more, it never would have survived Fortune‘s editing process intact. It was too tentative and rambling for that. I wrote it instead for our website, as one in a series of columns that I’m supposed to deliver weekly (although I haven’t kept to that schedule lately.) When I write these pieces, I tend to think of them as equivalent to blog posts–trial balloons for ideas. I don’t put huge amounts of time into writing them (and I don’t really get paid for them either). But there’s no easy way for readers of the fortune.com and cnnmoney.com websites to tell them apart from magazine articles that took weeks of work.

This is going to change, and within a month or so my online-only pieces will be presented as part of a blog, with readers invited to add comments. That hasn’t happened yet, though, and it’s ridiculous for me to expect them to be treated as mere discussion starters when there’s no opportunity on the site to discuss them. I am in the habit of engaging in lengthy e-mail discussions with readers, and often post reader e-mails on the site. I’ve also been begging our Web people for years to do more to enable reader conversations on the fortune.com site. But there’s no way Rosen or any other first-time reader could know any of that. At least two commenters on Jay’s site remarked on this, and they’re absolutely right.

Blogs are a great platform, possibly the best, for opinion journalism. When I go to Jay’s site, I can read his Q&A about where he’s coming from, peruse his past posts, add comments, and get a sense from others’ comments of the community of readers that frequents the site. That is, I can put his opinions in context–and I can argue with him if even with all that context I still think he’s full of baloney. I can also use the comments section to point readers of his blog to my writings. This is all wonderful stuff.

It doesn’t mean, however, that "the bar has been raised on opinion journalism," as Jay put it. In fact, the bar has been dramatically lowered. In the olden days, I never would have written that essay and gotten it published, and Jay almost certainly wouldn’t have found anyone willing to publish his critique. There’s simply a whole lot more opinion journalism being committed than there was before. Some of it’s great, a lot of it isn’t, and the means by which the good stuff finds its way to readers is vastly more democratic than the old method of letting the op-ed editors of the New York Times and Washington Post decide.

Chris Anderson has a thoughtful discussion of this in the book that every last person in America seems to be reading right now, The Long Tail. Long Tail phenomena, like music on the Internet, or blog posts, "have a wide dynamic range of quality: awful to great," he writes. "By contrast, the average store shelf [or, I would add, the op-ed page of the New York Times] has a relatively narrow dynamic range of quality: mostly average to good." The key to navigating a Long Tail world is finding filters that steer you toward the great stuff and away from the crap.

I’m pretty sure that neither my original essay nor Jay’s critique will end up in the much-linked-to, much-read realm of modern opinion media stardom (at least I sure hope Jay’s doesn’t, although I guess by writing this I’m only drawing more attention to it). But does that mean I shouldn’t have written it? No way! Sure, I’d write it differently now. A more interesting approach might be to do a rundown of what kind of companies are best served by public ownership, and which are better off being privately held–and try to figure out where newspapers fit in that spectrum. Maybe I’ll write that piece soon, after I’m set up as a blogger on fortune.com. That’s what’s so great about the Internets. Page counts aren’t limited. You can address a subject again and again until you get it right. And it’s only when you do get it right (or spectacularly wrong, I guess), that large numbers of readers (or smaller numbers of the right kind of readers) will find their way to your work.

UPDATE: Matt McAlister has had his say on this subject on his "Inside Online Media" blog. (So my strategy of being nice to the chubby 12-year-old little brother of my high school pal Mike McAlister has finally paid off!)

2 thoughts on “When journalism professors attack

  1. Well, Justin, I perused most of your links and got some new ideas, so thanks. But my overall reaction to Rosen is that he’s a second rate writer who is a little envious of someone who can put a little sparkle into his writing.

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