City Desk

A New Strain of Journowhining

Journalists may whine about their shrinking profession with relative impunity. Layoffs, consolidation, the folding of publications, the dumbing-down of reporting, and the decline of investigative journalism, after all, are pretty legitimate things to gripe about.

But reporters and editors should be careful when called upon to complain about other things, and that's where this week's New York Observer story comes in. John Koblin set out to write about how print journalists weren't impacting the 2008 presidential race as much as they should, and some pretty big names in the profession proceeded to fill up his notebook.

Here's a quote from NYT boss Bill Keller:

But we do want our work to be noticed, and I’ve been repeatedly surprised at the rich, important stories that fail to resonate the way they deserve.

What has Keller so upset? Well, apparently, that three-bylined investigation of Sarah Palin that ran in this past Sunday's paper didn't bounce high enough for the big guy. "But this kind of work doesn’t dominate the discussion the way it might have in elections past,” said Keller.

Poor thing.

Apparently Keller and Michael Powell, one of the authors of that piece, have spent some time commiserating. When asked by the Observer if the more-than-1,000 online comments on the Palin piece don't mean something, Powell responded, "The answer is no. It doesn’t get picked up the same way.”

Can someone explain to me what he's talking about?

Clearly those titans at the Times need to scroll back a bit on this blog, which earlier this week credited the Palin story as a masterful mix of narrative and investigative styles, though the blog item was silent on the slight impact the story had made.

Let's throw in some perspective here, just for fun: The Times splurged on the story, sending Powell and two other big-time journalists, Jo Becker and Peter S. Goodman, to Alaska in search of Palinia. They got to pursue the story unburdened by blogging requirements or other annoyances that these days weigh down less privileged journalists.

And they did amazing work, unearthing evidence of the vp nominee's cronyistic and often petty ways, while pointing to her reformist credentials. And after they published their story, the Times Web site went nuts on the thing.

In other words, there is absolutely nothing to complain about here. No need to get nostalgic about how the story might have bounced in some more glorious, bygone media epoch. No need to blab to the Observer about how this wonderful piece deserved so much more loving attention. Yeah, and just what more do Keller and Powell want? Perhaps the entire country should pause in the middle of the greatest loss of paper wealth in history just to praise their Palin story.

If there's one reason why the story didn't land quite the way these guys wanted it to, it's perhaps because it was so good and fair. In one breath, the reporters hammered this controversial politician for all manner of short-sighted and, indeed, anti-democratic gestures; in the next, they were crediting her for clamping down on lobbyists or shaking down oil and gas companies. Accordingly, the piece didn't hand a case of red meat to either side in this campaign, keeping it on the sidelines in a season of partisan bickering.

That's just fine, as far as I can see. What good journalist cares about impact anyhow? Isn't that what marketing executives are for? The idea, as I've always understood it, is to put your best stuff out there, come what may. If the network anchors lead with it, great. If no one notices, well, too bad. You move on to the next story, trap shut.

Update: Just got a call from a very peeved Michael Powell, whom I called at the Times this morning but didn't connect (He's in Alaska). He said that he has no complaints about the new media environment and that by and large the Web has made journalism more fun and interesting. His comment to Koblin that's cited in this entry, he said, references how bloggers with different ideological viewpoints react to mainstream pieces. It was not a gripe, he said–just an observation.

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  • quotidian

    What Keller meant was that the story didn't do as much damage to Palin as he had hoped for.

  • Waynester

    Speaking of journowhining i noticed you left out the snarky sarcastic whiny piece by Roger Simon (Politico) the other day. Seems he had a hard time with the criticism of the media for all the negative Palin coverage. It was frankly, pretty off-putting, to say the least.

  • Bored X3

    Newsflash for Bill Keller and NYT!!!
    Circulation is down because Print and Televisions News died and has been replaced with off-center, opinionated, snarky talking heads (that was objective). You're ranting to your devoted followers, while the vast majority of the populations sees you as simply ranting. And did I also say boring? Sober up and lay off the drugs long enough to realize you need to get over your anger and sillyness - or you will have the exciting opportunity of a new profession, like flipping hamburgers.

  • edwardallen

    Maybe Sarah Palin's way of governing Alaska is a surprise to the NYT, given that newspaper's routine coverage of Alaska, but it is hardly of much surprise to anyone else who has read the press clippings from Alaska papers on Palin's regime. If the NYT has spent less time fretting about the environmental consequences of drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge, or the future of the Polar Bear, or the plight of the salmon, perhaps their readers would have been more completely informed. The NYT treats Alaska as some huge nature reserve, which a lot of it certainly is. But there are people living there, and there is a government there, and an occasional routine story on how they/it are doing might have prepared NYT readers for why the GOP's grey suits picked someone like Palin.

  • gael

    Right on! The NYT is just whining about the TYPE of response they received. Bloggers are sick of the slant pieces that paper-buyers support.
    Nice insight, edwardallen, although I don't think you will convice the NYT to change her ways.

  • william of san antonio

    edwardallen's squalid attempt to knead two stratums of objective print content published by the nytimes into one forum lends louder a voice of sorrow for the demise of independent newspapers.

    he argues subject behind a shield of subjectiveness, a favorite of blog-world where there are no editors to ride herd on authors. makes a helluva difference as to the quality of news offered to audiences. and, sadly, an even greater loss of a teaching tool for the young audiences.

    offhand, i'd say there are even more subjects important to alaska and its peoples than cold weather, petroleum, wildlife, and good/bad politicians.

    oh, and even bloggers.