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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Part III of News War

As I watched the third installment of Frontline's "News War" program I was struck by the following:

I'm glad I don't work in a newsroom.
As an independent journalist, it's easy to sit and complain about having to convince editors to buy your story ideas. But I can't imagine having to make the same case while on staff. Shrinking news hole is hard enough to face as a consumer of newspapers, but I can't imagine the demoralizing effect it has on staffers. How many times have important projects been turned down because the paper can't justify the cost in man hours or space? Independents can pursue stories of personal interest and are limited only by our ability to find the right market and powers to convince the editors of their news value. It's not ideal, but at least if you get turned down you can try another market.

How many stories are not being told?
Last summer I was corresponding with an independent journalist who was seeking information about obtaining liability insurance. He was a freelance investigative reporter working on a story about the murky relationship between surgeons and a medical device company. He shared the background and there is no question it was an important story, one that needs to be told. But he also forwarded the e-mail he sent to his editors detailing his decision to back off the story. The reason? The magazine's liability insurance did not cover him as a freelancer and he couldn't afford to "lawyer up." As a former daily newspaper journalist, he knew well the costs of doing so. In two cases his previous news organization was forced to "lawyer up" for stories on which he had reported. In both cases, the paper was exonerated, but that didn't mean it didn't incur legal fees. Those costs could break an independent.

I'm working on a story now that involves the federal government. My husband and I have already had the discussion about what kind of legal exposure reporting this story potentially brings. We talked about attorneys who can help vet potentially litigious issues, what risks we were comfortable with and where to draw the line. He is admittedly still squeamish, but supportive after I convinced him of the larger importance of reporting the story.

Is Nick Lemann really that doughy?
Yuk! Leave the southern-fried delicacy at home, Nick. It's affected and disengenous. If I were Columbia Journalism School I'd be looking for some of those PR majors it turns away to do damage control. Scary to think that he is teaching journalists of the future and holds such condescension toward new media.

Too many middle-age white men
Look at the head shots of those interviewed for this series -- it looks pretty homogeneous, which is part of the problem in this program and in the journalism industry. We're always getting news filtered through the middle-age white men who lead newsrooms. The only women interviewed in the program are Dana Priest, Judy Miller, Lucy Dalglish and Lauren Rich Fine. Of the three, only Dana Priest is actively working as a journalist. I would have added Chris Nolan to the list or Monika Bauerlein or Clara Jeffrey, editors at Mother Jones.

Where is discussion of magazine journalism?
Much of this series so far has focused on print, new media and broadcast. Magazine journalism has largely been left off the program even though that's where long-form journalism that packs a wallop still finds a home. To wit, Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece this week about the Bush Administration's plans in Iran.

Are So-Jo's the way of the future?
Kevin Sites of Yahoo's Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone describes himself as a solo journalist or So-Jo. In his case, he's reporting, shooting video, stills, audio and sending it all back to be packaged and posted to Yahoo. The term sounds hokey, but it's meaning is something to which I can relate. My next purchase is a digital recorder that will allow me to explore audio elements to my stories. No one is requiring that of me—yet—but I'm interested in the multiple ways to tell a story. I'd like to get a digital video recorder as well, but I'll need to sell a few more articles to make that investment.

The point is that as an independent I'm left on my own to evolve or die as a journalist. My tendency to spend more time than I'm being paid for a piece is problematic financially, but I see a long-term payoff. Creative Ink is the ultimate repository of my efforts, which I hope will include audio and video soon. Here is where I will link to published work, but also include more of the reporting and background that was not used in the published piece. Sure I'm not being paid for that "extra" and readership here is not that high, but what if that changes? It only takes one well-placed link to propel a post into the media stratosphere.

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