The purpose of journalism is to get the story

The purpose of journalism is to get the story and tell the story. (Pixabay)
The purpose of journalism is to get the story and tell the story. (Pixabay)

Summary

People love and need real reporting, but reporters have decided their job is something else entirely.

We are talking about journalism this week, about newspapers and warring newsrooms and lost readership and what to do. At bottom, though this gets lost, all the arguments are really about what journalism is.

Here is what it is.

It is a dark night on a vast plain. There are wild sounds—the hiss of prehistoric cicadas, the scream of a hyena. A tribe of cavemen sit grunting around a fire. An antelope turns on a spit. Suddenly another caveman runs in, breathlessly, from the bush. “Something happened," he says. They all turn. “The tribe two hills over was killed by a pack of dire wolves. Everyone torn to pieces."

Clamor, questions. How do you know? Did you see it? (He did, from a tree.) Are you sure they were wolves? “Yes, with huge heads and muscled torsos." What did it look like? “Bloody."

As he reports he is given water and a favored slice of meat. Because he has run far and is hungry, but mostly because he has told them the news, and they are grateful.

Humans like news, need it, want it, will usually (not always) reward those who bring it. We need it to survive, to make decisions, to understand the world. We need it to live.

The purpose of journalism is to get the story and tell the story.

Now the cavemen turn to the tribal elder. “What should we do?"

“Short term, climb a tree if you see a wolf," she says. “They don’t like fire and noise, so we should keep lit torches and scream. In the longer term, wolf packs are seen in the west, so we should go east to high ground." That is the authentic sound of commentary, of editorials and columns. Advice, exhortation—they’re part of the news too. People will always want it, question it, disagree. “To the editor: You have it all wrong. We should go north, toward the water." “To the editor: Has it occurred to your columnist the dead tribe may have provoked the wolves through farming practices that encroached on their habitats?"

But even cavemen who eat bugs and wear hides are not always grim. Man wants not only to be informed but to be amused, entertained. He wants humor, wit, mischief, a visual tour of the latest cave paintings. Cave man want cooking app. And word games and reporting on the richest tribes: “Most Expensive Cave Dwelling Sells in Malibu." And he wants the story, the yarn, the tale that takes people into a reality unfamiliar to them and makes them want to share it, and in the sharing be less alone. “Martha, listen to this!" means you know Martha. What a serious purpose that is, to leave people less encased in themselves.

All that is the purpose of journalism, forever and now. It is what a newspaper is for, to serve the public by finding out what’s really going on in all sectors and telling them, clearly.

The great news for journalism is there will always be a huge market for this. The need for news is built into human nature. Tech platforms change, portals change, but the need is forever.

So what is the problem?

The past two decades, accelerating over the past four years, newsrooms have increasingly become distracted from their main mission, confused about their purpose. Really, they’ve grown detached from their mission. This has happened in other professions and is always hard to capture. But the journalistic product now being offered has become something vaguer than it was, more boring, less swashbuckling, more labored, as if it’s written by frightened people. There’s an emphasis on giving the story “context," but the story doesn’t feel alive and the context seems skewed. Twee headlines: “What You Need to Know About Dire Wolf Intersectionality With Humans."

I’ll decide what I need to know, bub.

It is as if journalism is no longer about Get the Story but about Meeting People Where They Are and helping them navigate through a confusing world. But do you really think current editors know where people are? Do you think they know how to navigate? It all feels presumptuous.

More disturbing, major stories go unreported because, the reader senses, they don’t relate to the personal obsessions of the editors and reporters, or to their political priors. Didn’t I say that politely? There’s a sense newsrooms are distracted by HR issues and how people treat each other. But the news doesn’t care if it is delivered by an especially collegial person, it just wants to be delivered. My FedEx package doesn’t care if it’s delivered by a nice person, and neither really do I. I just want it on time and in one piece.

More and more as I observe American journalism I miss the guys who were big TV news producers in the 1980s and ’90s. They were animals—real cavemen. They’d do anything to get the news. They yelled at people and pushed them around. But the people around them, they sure got the story.

Facebook and social media can’t get the story. They can amplify it, give an opinion, comment. But they don’t have the resources and expertise; they don’t have trained investigative journalists and first-class experienced editors and a publisher willing to take a chance and spend the money. Social media has opinions, emotions, propaganda.

And the great thing for newspapers is if you get the story—if you are known to get the story, like the Washington Post in the Watergate years—you will be read.

Because you will be needed. And if you are needed people will pay for you.

If you are just following along with some agenda, you will be read by those who share that agenda, but no one else. And readership will plummet.

In early 2023, Len Downie and Andrew Heyward, formerly executive editor of the Washington Post and president of CBS News, respectively, wrote a paper about how modern journalists see standards within their professions, and it seemed to me not only confused but a kind of capitulation. There had been a “generational shift" in journalism, and the many editors and reporters they interviewed think objectivity is more or less “outmoded," a false standard created by the white male patriarchy. What was really striking was there was no mention, not one, of the thrill of the chase, of getting the story—of journalism itself. It was all about the guck and mess, not the mission, and made them look like news bureaucrats, joyless grinds, self-infatuated bores.

If that is who they are, who needs them? Who would pay hundred of dollars a year to read them?

They were obsessed with who’s in the newsroom when their readers are obsessed with what comes out of the newsroom. It is good and worthy and necessary to have reporters and editors who come from different experiences, different classes, different cultural assumptions. But current ways of encouraging diversity seem to yield a great sameness in terms of class and viewpoint, and in any case diversity is a mission within a mission, it isn’t the mission itself, which is: Get the story, tell the story.

“Something happened. The tribe two hills over . . ."

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