Does print journalism matter in this election?
“It’s obvious, and no crime against humanity, that the world has many, many places to turn for information, misinformation, analysis, rants, etc,” wrote Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, in an e-mail. “We—The Times, The Washington Post, Politico, the news outlets that aim to be aggressive, serious and impartial—don’t dominate the conversation the way we once did, and that’s fine, except it means some excellent hard work gets a little muffled.
“But we do want our work to be noticed,” he wrote, “and I’ve been repeatedly surprised at the rich, important stories that fail to resonate the way they deserve.”
On one level, more people read The Times, albeit in digital form, than ever. The pipeline piece did a brisk business as an e-mail forward. But so did everything else anyone had to say that day about the campaign—whether it was true or false, reported or simply asserted, fact or opinion. In-boxes crammed with New York Times articles and Huffington Post hyperlinks do not advertise their relative value or importance. Everything is equal, everything is a tie and nothing, it seems, is important anymore.
Nobody has felt this more acutely than the Newspapers and Magazines of Record in the United States. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time: all over the world of “quality” journalism, there is a feeling of decline.
“There can no longer be a Johnny Apple—a single political reporter who can set the agenda as he did when he discovered Jimmy Carter,” said Frank Rich, columnist for The New York Times. “Whether in print or on the Internet or on television.”
“At Politico we often talk about winning the morning, not just winning the day,” said Jim VandeHei, the editor of Politico. “Because the news cycle is no longer 24 hours—it might be 16 hours or even shorter.”
It works well for Politico, but if everyone is readjusting to that breakneck pace, how much real news is left? And who’s there to suss out the real from the junk?
“The story burns more intensely and then it burns out more quickly,” said Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek writer, musing about the life cycle of pieces. “And there’s so much information and so much political coverage that it’s easy for good stories to be lost entirely in that register.”
“Very few of these stories have a long finish,” said Michael Duffy, the nation editor for Time. “The gong dissipates quickly.”
“My instinct is that there is such cacophony of commentary that it does sometimes drown out ideas from good and deeply reported journalism,” said Marcus Brauchli, the executive editor of The Washington Post.
“In the Internet age, the cycle is constant and people don’t really have time to reflect all day on a single story in the newspaper,” he added. “And it’s more difficult to set the agenda for very long.”
Mr. VandeHei agrees.
“One of the casualties, I think, is that powerfully reported and written stories, especially investigative and accountability ones, do not land with the impact they once did,” he said. “They might still turns heads—and thankfully at times change things—but usually they get pushed aside as the new-media machine moves to the next ‘thing.’”
But such are the pressures of trying to produce material all day—even if it’s unclear what’s actually being absorbed from the information that’s being produced.
Mr. Keller, for one, wonders what happened to the big stories The Times reported during the election cycle.
There was a Jo Becker and Don Van Natta investigative piece of Bill Clinton’s relationship with Kazakhstan—barely noticed. There was a piece in the spring by David Kirkpatrick and Jim Rutenberg about John McCain’s relationship with Donald Trump in Arizona—hardly a word.
Even a meaty, damning, 3,100-word, three-bylined front-page Sept. 14 Times piece on Sarah Palin’s management style doesn’t appear to have the same sort of impact on the campaign trail that it might once have, Mr. Keller said.
“And it’s not just us,” said Mr. Keller. “The Washington Post did an impressive review of Cindy McCain’s drug addiction the other day, and I didn’t hear an echo. I could go on, and so could you. This kind of rigorous, intricate reporting is a major contribution to the public debate, and it certainly gets read. (Our Sunday Palin piece is still number one on the most e-mailed list.) But this kind of work doesn’t dominate the discussion the way it might have in elections past.”
That Palin piece, as of Tuesday morning, was still the second most e-mailed story on the Times Web site, and it had more than 1,050 comments.
Doesn’t 1,050 comments mean something? Doesn’t that suggest an even more meaningful impact than in the old days?
“The answer is no,” said Michael Powell, one of the three authors of The Times’ Palin piece. “It doesn’t get picked up the same way.”
That is, it gets picked up, but only by people who seem to refuse to break the tie between the journalism coming from The New York Times, the spin coming from the campaign trail, and the white noise of punditry and Web-ready opinionizing.
Despite its popularity, the Palin piece appears ready for the inevitable lifetime of a print story these days: It’s hot one second, gone and forgotten the next.
“I say this from a cultural point of view, not a political point of view or journalistic point of view—but bubble gum music just fades and leaves no trace,” said Mr. Rich. “We’re in a laboratory right now and we don’t know what’s really landing with voters.”
There is, of course, good old television.
Keith Olbermann isn’t sitting in his office with the morning papers weighing which lead-all from which major paper will drive the news for the night—in a way that, say, Uncle Walter would do before the CBS Evening News. Instead, you might get a nice anecdote from an Adam Nagourney story in The Times, a response from the McCain camp—and then it’s up to you, the viewer, to break the tie! If you can.
“Everybody knows that if it takes more than five seconds to explain the story, it’s not going to make a lot of noise on the campaign trail,” said Matt Taibbi, a columnist for Rolling Stone.
Mr. Keller, for his part, said that television “seems to shy away from complicated stories, and these big stories tend to be complicated.
“The simple-minded silliness of lipstick-on-a-pig filled at least one cable news cycle, but the question of what kind of executive Sarah Palin has been as mayor and governor didn’t lend itself to the bite-sized format of the nightly news or the constant low-grade babble of cable,” he continued.
In addition to the increased competition from blogs and electronic media, major print news outfits are, of course, indulging in all that the modern-day media environment offers: quick items, videocasts, online chats.
And, if you talk to the dinosaurs, it doesn’t help any.
“The big change for all of us is that we’re all multimedia players now and it means that we’re much busier writing and being on TV or Webcasts, and that can often leave less time for reporting,” said Mr. Alter. “That’s the real problem.”
“I think what’s changed mostly is that we are working every day in three or four dimensions—plotting stories for the Web today, the magazine tomorrow and long investigative pieces three or four weeks from now,” said Mr. Duffy, an editor at Time. “Maybe there’s a fourth dimension, too, and folks are blogging stuff every hour.”
“There’s so much content to fill,” said Mr. Taibbi. “People who write for news magazines like Newsweek and Time, in the old days, they’d be writing one feature a week. Now they have to file every single day for Web sites, and do video hits, appear on TV shows, and that’s in addition to writing their features. The same people are doing four and five times as much work and, obviously, they’re not going to have a great deal of depth on any subject.”
“Hobbes talked about the war of all against all,” said Mr. Alter. “Now it’s the punditry of all against all.”