While much of the talk offered an analysis of what had gone wrong with chain ownership and management dating back to the 1980’s, Simon also spoke about key aspects of journalism craft practice necessary for individual career success as well as creating valuable content for the audience.
As something of an old school practitioner, Simon said that his chief journalistic skills were an “ear for dialogue” in listening to and recording the speech of his subjects and also the willingness to act as if he knew nothing when asking questions of his subjects. Touting the reporter Homer Bigart, a Pulitzer-Prize winning war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune as a hero and role model, Simon said Bigart’s main reportorial skill was the willingness to look like a “nebbish” and act as if he was completely clueless when talking to his subjects.
Terming curiosity the essential ingredient for successful reporting, Simon said he was amazed at how many young 30-somethings as reporters were afraid to ask questions that might make them look foolish, or willing to respond to a subject with questions that were intended to showcase their own knowledge of the subject and trap the subject in a falsehood, or even afraid to ask questions at all.
In describing this attribute of saying “OK , I don’t know anything”, Simon cited his own experience watching a drug dealer selling on a Baltimore street corner. Later, after his book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood was published, Simon had a conversation with that dealer asking him why he’d cooperated with Simon. It came back to his feeling that Simon was clueless and perhaps even at risk of being robbed nightly due to his seeming lack of understanding of inner city rhythms surrounding criminal activities.
This same kind of curiosity and the observational possibilities opened when a reporter admits ignorance to a subject are equally essential in visual journalists.
While I understand the difficulty of admitting such ignorance because it makes one vulnerable, I too have found it essential as the first part of the journey to a clear understanding of a subject’s life. We have to conduct observations that are rich in detail and clear in framing a story’s narrative. To do that effectively, we have to understand the meaning of certain actions in a subject’s life and to understand where we have to be to capture those moments that can express the truth of the story.
As Simon described the dangers of the contemporary journalism environment and what could be lost through continued mismanagement of media companies, I kept going back to his thoughts on craft practice as equally crucial although they might well be less reported out by other bloggers and any professionals covering his talk.
As much as I agree with his descriptions of what has caused the contemporary financial havoc of media companies and the pernicious consequences of allowing the exodus of talented, experienced, more highly paid beat reporters, copy editors, etc. to be offered “buyouts” in the frantic quest to downsize newsrooms and shed payroll, I think the reinvigoration of journalism is equally important.
It may well be that mainstream media companies cannot be saved by going to a model where online content is only accessible if the audience is willing to pay for it, as Simon suggested being necessary. Most larger newspapers still carry operational costs greater than the declining revenues from display and classified advertising and declining revenues created by falling circulation numbers.
I hate to see journalism’s practices and value continually undermined because I agree with Simon’s perceptions about the long-term value of journalistic inquiry as a “check and balance” within the overall framework of a democracy. But showing the full value proposition of journalism to an increasingly disenchanted, dissatisfied, or uncaring audience still seems a greater necessity to me presently than obsessing endlessly over the reform of the business model that has helped bring about a decline in media company fortunes.
As Simon spoke about the realities of the current journalistic challenges are self-inflicted wounds. “We did this to ourselves,” he said, by not standing up for investments in R & D, and supporting newsroom quality and numbers well before the Internet arrived as a force for creative destruction. “We were affected first and most by the abdication of our own ambitions,” he said, decrying the remaking of chain newspapers as vehicles filled with more wire copy and less populated by strong beat reporting, backed by fully engaged, functioning copy desks. I would add simply that historic imbalances in staffing levels between those responsible for visuals and those for text at newspapers has helped also ensure that visual narrative has seldom reached its full potential as a means of holding reader attention and communicating journalistic value.