Journalist, like glaciers, breaking away?


Global warming has accelerated the melting – scientists say calving – of glaciers. With traditional media undergoing a similar meltdown — with the Web cast in the role of greenhouse gasses – mainstream journalists are also leaving the herd for greener pastures. One recent example is the defection of two Washington Post political experts who are trading their cubicles of power — with financial backing from a television news magnate — to form the nucleus of  a media startup that sounds like a trade publication for politics.

 Editor & Publisher, the glossy voice of the newspaper industry put it this way:

National political editor John Harris . . .  and top reporter Jim VandeHei are both leaving the paper to join a new multimedia political offering from Allbritton Communications, which is about to launch The Capitol Leader newspaper.”

A summary in Hoovers Online says Allbritton Communications owns nine TV stations, all ABC affiliates, including one in Washington, D.C. Hoovers adds:

“The company also produces a Capitol Hill newspaper called The Capitol Leader, which is published three times a week while Congress is in session.”

Company head Robert Allbritton says The Capitol Leader will combine talent and new media technique. He told E&P:

“This is the future of political journalism. Our ambitious goal is to cover this complex topic more thoroughly than has ever been done in history – and to provide that coverage in whatever form and whenever consumers want it.”

(I wonder: Will “Extra, extra, read all about it!” survive into the 21st Century as a text message sent to political junkies via their “Crackberries?”)

Jay (Press Think) Rosen interviewed the journalists; I extract this bit of career advice from John Harris:

“We live in an entreprenurial age, not an institutional one. That’s been true of many professions for quite a while, and increasingly (and perhaps somewhat belatedly) it is true of journalism. The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work—who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents—rather than relying mostly on the reputation and institutional gravity of the organization they work for.” 

In my day jobs (14 years as an ill-tempered reporter for a middling metropolitan daily) I write about business, technology, science and public policy as they relate to the aforementioned. What I’ve discovered is that most of what I know is wasted, in the following sense: the stories I put into the paper are necessarily brief and only hint at the complexity of the subject matter. I must know far more than I can use in order to know what I can safely leave out without oversimplifying to the point where the story is misleading. But the gap between what I learn and what I can convey is growing.

Furthermore, I’ve noted a perverse truth about publishing:  the larger the audience, the lower the information density of the stories, and the cheaper the subscription price (now circling the drain at free, thanks to the Web). Conversely small audiences that will pay huge sums for just that detailed information that experienced journalists leave out of their mass market versions. (This is not a Web-induced phenomenon; look up the BNA newsletters.) 

So money buys knowledge; and knowledge is power. What a way to run a republic!

The Allbritton development suggests top newspeople are ready to leverage their expertise with specialized and presumably affluent audiences. Hope for writers, perhaps. What it means for journalism to have the best and brightest move into the pay-to-know category remains to be seen.