Doctor’s Prescription Is All Wrong

I respect Ken Doctor. I like Ken Doctor. I’ve quoted Ken Doctor. But his idea of bringing young people to journalism with $35K-a-year jobs is most definitely not the answer. First off, with 12 years under my belt writing features at alt-weeklies and now a city magazine, I’m not seeing a shortage of that much-coveted tribe of “young people” who want to work in journalism. When I speak in college classes or walk through this magazine’s offices, I see scores of “young people” who want my job.

The problem is getting “young people” to read newspapers — either in print or online — and personally, it’s not my experience that, as Doctor suggests, we need the brightest minds of the Harvard Crimson to “reinvent journalism” in order to make that happen. I happen to work in a town, Philadelphia, overrun by bloggers. The reinvention of journalism is happening all around us here, where Will Bunch of the Daily News continues to be the hardest-working man in show business, writing a book, stories for his paper, and a blog, Attytood, that makes me feel part of a citywide conversation every morning; where Atrios influences the thinking of the politically-minded both here and across the country; and where two blogs, Philebrity and Phawker, compete for the coveted audience of “young people” that once belonged to alt weeklies.

These last two guys are paying the rent by speaking to a well-defined niche audience, which the journalism industry seems to consider a separate species they call “young people.” But personally, I think this audience is defined less by their age and more by their interests. And yes, those interests include things like music — an exotic medium that stodgy newspaper editors immediately associate with those strange “young people” — but also extends to politics, crime and education. Perhaps the industry missed this, but a whole lot of “young people” voted in the last presidential election, and once people vote they tend to stay engaged.

This means they are there to be reached by journalists, young or old. But whoever is trying to reach them needs to be aware of one thing: They’re smart, and the old conventions of journalism look awfully silly to them. As a writer raised up through the ranks of alt-weeklies, I understand why. Sure, there are at least two sides to every story. But sometimes — often, even — one of those sides is just plain wrong. This he-said/she-said stuff, with no attempt by the journalist to sort through which side seems closer to
the truth, is absolutely over. Check your inbox — it’s time you read the memo.

Believe me, I have had my share of colleagues from daily newspapers look down their noses at me over the years because I worked for a free newspaper that thumbed its nose at the tenets they held so dear. But to me, it’s more honest for writers to admit their biases, to acknowledge they’ve picked a side, to reach conclusions, so readers can use that knowledge to help them interpret the story in front of them. And here’s an added benefit: Writing from a point of view is more fun — more fun to write, and more fun to read.

There’s another idea for you: Make your product entertaining to read. Last I checked, the young and the old all like to be entertained. Does this constitute a reinvention of journalism? I don’t think so. If anything, it seems a return to the kinds of broadsheets with big personalities that once dominated the trade. And finally, I want to conclude with one last riff sure to make me even more unpopular among my colleagues. Doctor thinks the Ivy Leaguers who will save us all from certain doom might deign to come aboard the good ship journalism for $35,000 a year. But if someone really wants a career like this, they might not need that much money to do it.

I’ve been at this for 12 years; I started for considerably less, and I would never ask for another life. I know a lot of journalists who fit that description, and they tend to be the best reporters in town. One of the best writers in Philadelphia, a city still lousy with journalists, is a guy named Jeff Deeney, who writes for the aforementioned Phawker. Deeney writes stark descriptions of urban life in Philadelphia — sometimes strangely beautiful, often harrowing accounts of murder scenes, kids copping heroin and corner boys slinging dope.

I’ve done a lot of this kind of reporting myself over the years and always marveled at the fact that no one from the dailies was doing the same, and now I can say Deeney’s taken it to a whole new level. And, guess what? Even as the Inquirer and Daily News spent the last couple of years hurtling toward certain bankruptcy, they never could find a spot for Deeney, and all he does is write gripping narratives of what’s really happening in this town that appeal to — drum roll, please — those exotic “young people.”

I understand none of this, in and of itself, is The Answer. The economic model of Philebrity or Phawker will not support a newsroom. But we hardly need the Crimson staff to see that it’s time for dailies to start tacking in the direction of the very same media outlets they’ve been looking down on all these years — that is, if dailies are going to be part of the answer at all.