JCL Blog

Who is Writing

Anyone who reads should be interested in what is happening in the media industry right now.  Anyone interested in that should follow “Rebooting the News” where Dave Winer and Jay Rosen talk weekly about the business of writing things.  I have been following their podcast for the last couple of months and have benefited tremendously.  Check it out.

This week Dave Winer brought up the topic of the places he would like to get his news and started me down a path of thinking about who writes what and why I write.  Here are some ways to categorize the authors you read and thoughts about the roles one can take while writing.

Expert:  I will go with Malcolm Gladwell’s description of an expert from Outliers – 10,000 hours or 10 years. The problem with experts however is it is very difficult to obtain the expertise without also taking on a bias.  I write often about things I consider myself an expert in.   Using Gladwell's measure I consider myself an expert in Technology Marketing (13 years), Organization Leadership (13 years), Education Philanthropy (20 years), The Computer Industry (25 years), and Boating (40 years).  I also have more than 10,000 hours in commercial real estate, public speaking, and sailboat racing, but don’t do enough currently to consider myself an expert.  Unfortunately, every post is bloated with my bias.  Some posts may even have an agenda.  Right now I am not sure if this is a bad thing.  

Interestingly the 1997 book “The Elements of Journalism” list as the forth element: “its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover”.  So I do like to read things written by experts, but there is always a bias to contend with.  Just think of Al Gore’s piece on the Opinion Page of the NY Times this Sunday.  Clearly he has the 10,000 hours, but we are getting a healthy helping of bias with that expertise.  And back to the is this a bad thing idea - Al Gore drives me crazy with his agenda.  Right or not the way he delivers his expertise chafes.

Reporter:  Dave Winer also has a post where he referenced The Giant Pool of Money created by This American Life.  He clearly outlines the benefits of consuming content reported by professionals.  Only a fool would attempt to name the top reporters.  Just think Woodard and Bernstein and before you know it the list is 100s long.  New media has introduced us to amateur reporters.  Amateur as in not paid - although we are all too aware of amateur in the other sense.  Although “The Elements of Journalism” does not use the word trust in its list – a reporter cannot add value without the trust of the reader and a professional works a lifetime to build that trust.  This is why we referred to Walter Cronkite as the most trusted man in America.

A good reporter does not need to be an expert in anything but building trust and reporting.  We benefit from the craft because it is an absolute pleasure to read and for the lack of bias.  A professional reporter with access to multiple experts of varying biases is a recipe for a meaningful contribution.

First Hand Accounts:  In the case of a developing or breaking story nothing can beat being there.  New media tools give us access to people “on the ground” in proximity to natural disasters, wars, political unrest, special events, and many other stories as they unfold.  These people do not need to be experts, or professionals, as long as they are there and can relate what is happening.  Any person on the street in Iran, Haiti, or Chile with a mobile enabled Twitter account qualifies – and even better with a camera.

The triple play of access to experts, professional reporting skills, and first hand proximity is what wins the big prizes and delivers the unforgettable pieces. 

Opinion:  By definition opinion is heavy on bias.   Done well it may include an argument supporting a position.  Like the stories major publications put above the fold, the choice of opinion topics says a great deal about a publication’s views because the number of opinion pieces in a paper are often limited by resources or the space on the page.  Conversely, a great deal of blogged content is opinion, and there are not space constraints on the web.  The choice of topics does say something about the author – as long as there isn’t so much of it that the meaning fails to shine through.

Gonzo / Satire / Skewering:  Jon Stewart is the new Cronkite?  Here the NY Times takes a look at the popularity of the Daily Show, where they don’t claim to be journalists, experts, on site, or anything but funny.  There are many points well made through satire from Vonnegut to South Park.  Unfortunately it is only a short leap from well crafted satire to the culture that is all too common of late where flaming the people on the other side is spewed out as if it was contributing to the discourse.  I think Jon Stewart is a rare talent.  I would put him in the comedian bucket.  Not sure what bucket to put Glenn Beck in – but not journalism.

Going forward, I am going to pay closer attention to these categories as I read and I suspect it will cause me to seek the rest of the story more often.