Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Great Big Newsroom

I'm enjoying the sight of Dan Rather picked to pieces by bloggers over CBS's claim to have damning evidence of Bush's dereliction of duty in the Vietnam years.

Hugh Hewitt has a good wrap here, linking to the major publications so far, laying out the issues, and meditating on new media vs. old media.

Lord Thomson's dictum about a newsroom having a duty to "provide a refuge and a home for the largest number of salaried eccentrics" was more than just a statement of social obligation. Those people will save your journalistic neck sometimes.

A typical U.S. newspaper newsroom is a staff of, say, 20 or 30 people all of whom write or edit for a living. But they also ought to have expertises beyond writing. One might be a backyard astronomer, another might have spent a decade knocking around Asia in the Merchant Marine, another might be fluent in Homeric Greek. (I've worked with all three over the years).

Add them all together, and you've got Sherlock Holmes. Someone, among all of that crowd, might know that, say, the U.S. minted no half-dollars in the year 1926, or that Key Largo in Florida is named for the John Huston movie, not the other way around, or that a full moon rises the exact time the sun sets.

And just once in the lifetime of a great news institution, that sliver of knowledge could rise from trivial to essential. It might not be the obvious point of some story, but it might be the little red flag, which opens up a suspicion that turns a whole story on its head.

If CBS had had any staffers who had fiddled around with typefaces and fonts in the course of their lives, they might have noticed some of the problems in the supposed Bush memos, which jumped out to some bloggers with Web design skills. A modern word processing program has or does as a matter of course some functions which were missing in typewriters in 1971 or '72 (supposed date of the Bush evidence) -- proportional spacing, superscripts, kerning.

And so Dan Rather ends up egg-faced, and the blogosphere puts another notch in its pistol handle. Because as big media newsrooms have shrunk, and grown more conformist, they know less and less, collectively.

The blogosphere is a great big sprawling newsroom in the old style. Somewhere, out here, there is someone who knows more about any one topic than all the j-school graduates in the nation do. And that person now can publish what he knows.

Odd thing is, in the real old days of newspapers there was a class of men (almost always men) who worked in the back shops, who remembered hot lead and stick-and-rule typesetting, and they would have spotted problems in these CBS letters. I doubt there ever were any such men at CBS, however, and there are none left at newspapers now.

Instead, journalism has changed from a collection of salaried eccentrics with eclectic interests, drinking problems, and half-written novels in their desk drawers, to a "profession." You go to a certain college right out of high school, and you study on a journalism track, and you graduate with a degree that will get you hired in any newsroom in America, but you don't know boo about anything except what's behind that piece of paper. You haven't lived much.

Newsrooms increasingly are made up of people from the same background, the same religion (or lack of it), the same political drift, the same education, the same limited experience of life. Artificial introductions of diversity, like Jayson Blair at the New York Times, often are disasters.