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Journalists may whine about their shrinking profession with relative impunity. Layoffs, consolidation, the folding of publications, the dumbing-down of reporting, and the decline of investigative journalism, after all, are pretty legitimate things to gripe about.
But reporters and editors should be careful when called upon to complain about other things, and that’s where this week’s New York Observer story comes in. John Koblin set out to write about how print journalists weren’t impacting the 2008 presidential race as much as they should, and some pretty big names in the profession proceeded to fill up his notebook.
Here’s a quote from NYT boss Bill Keller:
But we do want our work to be noticed, and I’ve been repeatedly surprised at the rich, important stories that fail to resonate the way they deserve.
What has Keller so upset? Well, apparently, that three-bylined investigation of Sarah Palin that ran in this past Sunday’s paper didn’t bounce high enough for the big guy. “But this kind of work doesn’t dominate the discussion the way it might have in elections past,” said Keller.
Apparently Keller and Michael Powell, one of the authors of that piece, have spent some time commiserating. When asked by the Observer if the more-than-1,000 online comments on the Palin piece don’t mean something, Powell responded, “The answer is no. It doesn’t get picked up the same way.”
Can someone explain to me what he’s talking about?
Clearly those titans at the Times need to scroll back a bit on this blog, which earlier this week credited the Palin story as a masterful mix of narrative and investigative styles, though the blog item was silent on the slight impact the story had made.
Let’s throw in some perspective here, just for fun: The Times splurged on the story, sending Powell and two other big-time journalists, Jo Becker and Peter S. Goodman, to Alaska in search of Palinia. They got to pursue the story unburdened by blogging requirements or other annoyances that these days weigh down less privileged journalists.
And they did amazing work, unearthing evidence of the vp nominee’s cronyistic and often petty ways, while pointing to her reformist credentials. And after they published their story, the Times Web site went nuts on the thing.
In other words, there is absolutely nothing to complain about here. No need to get nostalgic about how the story might have bounced in some more glorious, bygone media epoch. No need to blab to the Observer about how this wonderful piece deserved so much more loving attention. Yeah, and just what more do Keller and Powell want? Perhaps the entire country should pause in the middle of the greatest loss of paper wealth in history just to praise their Palin story.
If there’s one reason why the story didn’t land quite the way these guys wanted it to, it’s perhaps because it was so good and fair. In one breath, the reporters hammered this controversial politician for all manner of short-sighted and, indeed, anti-democratic gestures; in the next, they were crediting her for clamping down on lobbyists or shaking down oil and gas companies. Accordingly, the piece didn’t hand a case of red meat to either side in this campaign, keeping it on the sidelines in a season of partisan bickering.
That’s just fine, as far as I can see. What good journalist cares about impact anyhow? Isn’t that what marketing executives are for? The idea, as I’ve always understood it, is to put your best stuff out there, come what may. If the network anchors lead with it, great. If no one notices, well, too bad. You move on to the next story, trap shut.
Update: Just got a call from a very peeved Michael Powell, whom I called at the Times this morning but didn’t connect (He’s in Alaska). He said that he has no complaints about the new media environment and that by and large the Web has made journalism more fun and interesting. His comment to Koblin that’s cited in this entry, he said, references how bloggers with different ideological viewpoints react to mainstream pieces. It was not a gripe, he said—just an observation.