Journalism and Unreasonable Expectations

Journalism is in a state of constant flux, thanks to the new demands placed on journalists and the environment we work in. We are already living in an era where our work is undervalued, where the budgets for what we do are constantly shrinking, where the world expects impossible things of us and then lashes back when we don’t deliver. But some of the most troubling changes are taking place in the newsroom, setting us up for failure before we even set foot in the outside world, creating an environment in which the nature of journalism is fundamentally shifted.

Some say that journalists who can’t adapt to these changes are dinosaurs who should be thrown out and replaced with the new, fresh-faced youth who can handle it, but this is a simplistic argument. It glosses over the fact that many of these demands are actually being unfairly placed on youth, who never have a chance to really develop as journalists. And it ignores the ignomities that the profession has forced on itself as stories become about grabby headlines, short commentaries – there is nothing deep and complex that’s taken seriously by large numbers of readers, viewers, and listeners.

Only true nerds listen to NPR, watch Frontline, actually read Foreign Affairs. In all other cases, newspapers and broadcast media feel like they’re on the decline, both because they’re playing to their audiences and because they’re underestimating their audiences, creating a vicious circle. This is especially acute in online journalism, which has become very much like a revolving cycle of recirculated stories.

Once, the positions of journalist, editor, copyeditor, photojournalist, and videographer were separate. They were viewed as individual skillsets, each with very different strengths, and, more critically, training. While they overlapped and got along with each other, and involved a high degree of interaction and cooperative work, they were, at the end of the day, separate. The journalist wrote the story, working with the editor on developing it. The editor further edited it, and the pair worked to make it the best story possible. The copyeditor took over, eradicating errors and bringing it into compliance with house style.

The photojournalist might shoot images to accompany the article, or could create an entirely independent image-driven piece, just like the videographer. When papers wanted multimedia packages, they hired separate individuals with the skills and training needed to deliver the best content possible. They knew that writing and taking photographs, for example, are very different skills, and involve different talents. Some people are great writers and photographers, but it’s a combination that isn’t all that common (though when it can be found, it should be treasured).

Today, journalists are expected to be everything. Their own writers, editors, copyeditors, photographers, videographers, producers. They need to be able to not just track down sources and conduct interviews, but perform all their own fact checking, to scrupulously copyedit their work (anyone who actually copyedits their work knows how difficult this is), to take and edit photo and video, to format it for publication. Today, that can require a knowledge of half a dozen programs, as well as HTML. Journalists need to be intimately familiar with house style (a working knowledge is a common expectation, but the level of detail needed for copyediting is not) as well as the quirks of a content management system.

Oh, and they have to file within a day, and often less. They’re doing the work of a half dozen people, easily, in a compressed time span, and yet they’re expected to deliver high-quality, error-free, compelling work. All those demands don’t leave very much time for actual journalism (which explains why so many stories become about piggybacking off other stories, because then at least some of the work is done for you).

I see a lot of people trashing journalists, and the work we do. Many of those people don’t seem to understand what the work we do actually is, and, moreover, have no comprehension of the demands placed on us in the newsroom. They don’t know how long it takes to produce an amazing piece of journalism (or even a decent one) and they don’t know how many people are involved behind the scenes.

You know how when you flip to the back of the book, there’s an acknowledgements section that feels like it’s a mile long? Truth be told, most journalism needs a section that large too – for example, when I write a piece for Bitch Magazine, first I work with Kjerstin Johnson or another one of the editorial staff. That starts with a pitch I send in, and a conversation about which direction we want to take the piece in and where I’m going with it. Sometimes this involves a prolonged discussion as we talk about the theme of the issue and how my piece would fit.

Then I have an extended period of time to write the piece. It’s my job to, well, write it, but also to seek out sources, conduct interviews, and document the process so the Bitch staff can conduct fact checks and stand behind my work, if necessary. Then I submit a draft to my editor. She and I take it back and forth a few times, working it out. Often, more than one editor weighs in with thoughts, suggestions, and concerns. This can take weeks, and requires a lot of work on both our parts.

Once I and the editors are happy with the piece, it goes to copyediting. The copyeditor doesn’t just look for grammar, spelling, and other style errors. She also consults Bitch’s in-house style guide to make sure my piece is in alignment. She has to know how things like em-dashes are used in the magazine, and she has to go over the piece with a fine-toothed comb for every detail. She may send me a query if I use a term that isn’t in the style guide – sometimes this involves me asking that it be left as is, sometimes I have to come up with an alternative, sometimes we work together to determine how to resolve a query. All of those queries have to be resolved before the piece can move forward.

When copyediting is done, the piece goes back to my editors and me for final approval. Once we sign off, it does to production, where someone with an entirely different skillset has to format it for publication. Other staffers make illustrations for the piece, edit my author photo, and make sure it looks perfect. At the same time, they’re also considering the whole magazine, making sure everything fits, filling spaces appropriately, looking at the layout aesthetic of each and every single page. Once everything is finally approved, it goes to press, which requires a skilled press team to produce plates (which have to be proofed and approved) which are then used to print the magazine – which is, in turn, bound.

These are just some of the steps that I know about, as a contributor, and there are many more behind the scenes. Scores of people are involved in the final article you see, and the same holds true for online journalism, for broadcast journalism. If you’re irritated with the state of journalism, it’s worth asking yourself whether you’re concerned about the elimination of positions from newsrooms nationwide, whether you think it’s a problem that journalists are forced to churn out pieces for publications that demand a high production rate, whether it worries you that journalists are supposed to be able to do 12 things at once. If you think these things are problems, how about you address those, rather than attacking journalists?

Image: Newseum newspaper headlines, m01229, Flickr.