The other day, I was sent a copy of a memo written by the bright, talented and hard-working managing editor of a group of weekly newspapers just outside the Detroit metro area.
The memo, "A Reporter with Today's Tools Should Use Them," was supposed to be a helpful guide to her reporters as to how to do their jobs better. But it actually is the single most stunning example I've ever seen of what is wrong with print journalism today.
First, it needs to be said is that the author, a young widow in her early 40s, is extremely earnest, well-intentioned and one of the hardest-working administrators I know; I was a writing coach for her newspapers when they had different ownership years ago.
Unfortunately, she now works for a division of the Journal-Register Company, which is to journalism what a Soviet slave labor camp was to the union movement. In the process, she seems to have lost sight completely of what journalism is supposed to be.
That's not surprising, given that part of her memo notes:
"Most of my 60-hour work week is spent editing copy, posting articles and photos online, assigning stories to staff and freelancers, engaging the audience on behalf of our publications via social media, keeping abreast of issues going on across the county, checking out new technology, processing press releases and reader-generated content, and administrative tasks such as tracking website traffic, managing my e-mail account, which brings in about 300 messages a day, reviewing and submitting payroll, employee reviews and processing stringer invoices."
Plus occasionally "filling in when we've been short-staffed to cover a government meeting or write some police briefs."
Her company is aggressively promoting the "digital future" of journalism, whatever that means. She has completely bought into the idea, and has trouble understanding why her staff hasn't.
"While I try to promote and model the approach that I would like my reporting staff to take in today's world, with social media and new technology at their disposal, part of me is torn in understanding why it's not being completely done the way I ask," she says plaintively.
Next, she spells out exactly what she wants.
Any time a reporter covers a story, she would ask:
• Did you crowdsource this topic so you could ask more relevant questions of local officials?
• Did you upload the City Council's agenda to our website using Scribd.com before the meeting and share it on social media so that readers would know that city leaders were considering raising their own salaries despite a general fund deficit?
• Did you "check in" to the meeting on social media and then Tweet and post on Facebook some of the discussion points during the meeting?
• Did you shoot video of local residents during the meeting protesting the decision, process it during the meeting, and post it on our website before the meeting ended?
• Did you post a paragraph on our website under Breaking News about the vote during the meeting and then write the full story after, post it online, and then push it out using social media, SMS text, or our breaking news alert via our e-newsletter subscriber list?
• Did you follow up on the issue by hosting a live chat the next day with local leaders and residents?
Now stop for a moment, and try to imagine Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reporting Watergate and being asked to do any of this. You can't even imagine anyone doing these things, except as a bad Saturday Night Live parody of the life of a multimedia reporter.
One woman named Martha who read this on the editor's blog asked two questions that were far more perceptive than anything in this pathetically ridiculous memo. Her first was, "Is a reporter going to spend literally days covering one event?"
The answer is, no way in hell. The weekly sweatshops that are Journal-Register newspapers expect reporters to cover dozens of events a week. Another reader named Beverly also gets it:
"If you are going to devote this much time and expertise to one story how are you going to cover the dozens of other stories that have the audacity to occur on the same day? Your method seems perfect for ... an encyclopedia. But in a metropolis ... it would be unwise to spend that much time bowing to electronic gadgetry."
What our poor, overworked, underpaid, technology-crazed editor has completely forgotten is the purpose of journalism. Which is, to make sense of a bewildering array of events for people.
We're supposed to give them a manageable digest of events — national, state and local, plus some good reading and useful information. Nobody wants to read a whole goddamn city council agenda. Nobody human wants to look at video of residents at a city council meeting, except those who care enough to go.
The multimedia approach this editor suggests for her local village council meeting would be entirely appropriate if Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln and Vladimir Lenin showed up and began raising the dead, while simultaneously walking a tightrope backwards.
What is most ironic is that by driving their reporters to do this nonsense, editors like this woman are helping put their own papers out of business. Let's give the last word to blog reader Martha:
"I still don't understand why anyone spends money on a paper copy of a newspaper if they've got it all free on social media?"
No reason they should! They might still buy newspapers, if the reporters were allowed time to collect information, reflect and give the readers an intelligent analysis of, say, what this means to them.
But there is no way any reporter engaging in these multimedia acrobatics can do that. The Journal-Register chuckleheads, and to a large extent their cousins at Gannett, have been striving for years to create and publish newspapers for people who don't like to read.
However, they seem not to have figured out that people who don't like to read don't want to read anything. Meanwhile, they are alienating their core readership and making themselves irrelevant.
We are, meanwhile, becoming a nation of people increasingly worried about our future and ignorant of how the system works.
But don't despair. We are updating our Facebook statuses constantly!
Rumor Debunking Dep't: To continue the theme of pleading for responsible journalism, I want to say firmly that there is absolutely no proof that Mu'ammar Gadhafi is making his scurrilous broadcasts from the basement of Kwame Kilpatrick's Dallas home.
Nor can the persistent reports be verified that the former Libyan strongman, now using the former spelling of his name (Khadafy) and the former Detroit mayor have formed a partnership.
The rumor that they already have a multinational alliance called "K&K Unlimited," whose motto is "Screw 'em, kill 'em, steal their money," has no known basis in fact, and should never be repeated by any responsible journalist, no matter what the context.
Nor should any reporter worthy of the name repeat the allegation that the Kwame-Khadafy axis is being secretly funded by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to embarrass the Democrats.
All that is, in fact, reliably known and relevant to the average taxpayer is that both Mu'ammar and Kwame are having sex with Natalie Holloway — and responsible publications should leave it at that.