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Journalism: Time to Buy and Time to Lose

May 9, 2010

People will say I’m bitter and vindictive, but we all have those moments. I’m going to indulge my nasty mood. So, read on.

I’ve been a writer and journalist for 30 years and I’ve spent the last five teaching undergraduates how to write like journalists — good journalists.

During that time, I’ve worked at some swell places — United Press International, CNN, CBS News, and I’ve free-lanced for The Washington Post Magazine and other outlets. In later years, I’ve written peer-reviewed articles for prestigious academic publications. But my attempts over the years at making it to the truly high ranks in long-form journalism have been met mostly with silence.

That’s why I had to laugh recently when I read Nathan Thornburgh’s complaint to the Poynter Institute’s Joe Grimm about standing face to face with that stone wall in his new life as a blogger and free-lance writer.

Thornburgh spends most of his interview touting the advantages of his life after being a senior writer and senior editor at Time. (At 34, he took a buyout, he said, “because the timing was right for me and my family.”)

He’s lucky, he said, that he still gets to write for Time and other well-known publications in addition to the blog he co-founded, DadWagon.

“I’ve had good opportunities since I left Time,” he said. “Not only was I able to keep working with Time, but I’ve been able to write for The New York Times, The New Yorker’s Web site and others. Any year in which I can travel and report from Berlin, Istanbul, Tbilisi and Wasilla is a good year. I’m very fortunate.”

But then he just can’t help himself. He whines, just like the rest of us who have been caught at one time or another whimpering that we didn’t get into the magazine he saw from the inside, and others like it. He’s on the outside now.

The hardest part of his new situation, he said, was “dealing with some stupendously unresponsive magazine editors from publications I hadn’t written for before.”

“I realize that editors are overworked,” he said, “but I when I was in their position, I think I always made an effort to be responsive (if I wasn’t, feel free to e-mail me to gloat). It’s disappointing that not everyone has that same approach.”

I see this same hint of betrayal in another news magazine executive’s eyes while he jokes on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, was told this week that the magazine would be put up for sale. He seems to waffle between trying not to make the development the end of journalism and believing it is the end of journalism.

“I do not believe that Newsweek is the only catcher in the rye between democracy and ignorance but I think we’re one of them,” Meacham told Stewart, losing all traces of his previously breezy smile. “And, I don’t think there are that many on the edge of that cliff.”

The painful developments in journalism are disconcerting to be sure, and I sometimes grieve as well for the good old days when the Big Boys like Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New Yorker ran the show.

But I can’t help but feel just a bit less sympathy for those who fashioned themselves the all-knowing arbiters of good writing and good journalism until technological developments opened the floodgates to those who were held at bay for so long.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 18, 2010 1:19 am

    Hi there – I’m just getting around to seeing this (I guess I need to ego-surf more?). I hear what you’re saying, though I’m not sure I would’ve done the Poynter interview differently, because both things remain true for me. I am both fortunate and frustrated.

    That probably says a lot about the lousy shade of our business that I’m frustrated, you’re frustrated, and Meacham (who was a true boy wonder of the industry) is apparently frustrated. But I’m still thinking it’ll get better (for you and me at least) as the difference between who is In and who is Out gets smaller, and the gatekeepers become less important. It’ll be better for readers and I think it’ll be better for writers. I agree with what you’re suggesting, that the big brands were not always meritocracies. Luck and opportunity let plenty of lousy people in and kept plenty of good writers out.

    It’s a much slower process for writers to try to build their own blog, not to mention their own reporting voice, without a big brand behind them, but I think it’s potentially a more honest and transparent process. That’s the idea, at least. It’s very much a work in progress for me.

    Anyhow, it’s a good topic, and I appreciate you bringing it up.

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