Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Trained journalists

COMMENTARY
(Re-purposed from a post in Caterwauled)

So, after volunteering to sit through a three hour Economic Development Committee meeting in Middletown, so that I could share the results with my fellow residents, I got home and listened, online to the podcast of Monday's Where We Live. The topic was "The Future of Newspapers."

It's a topic I'm passionate about, as a reader, a former newspaper writer, and a documentary film journalist.

I'm happy to say that an email I wrote to host John Dankosky got read on the air, but dismayed that the journalism professor (Paul Janensch) and the former NY Times reporter (Marcia Chambers) found it necessary to disparage the efforts of citizen journalism sites like The Middletown Eye, which I helped found.

Janensch posited that the Middletown Eye, and other local community newsblogs didn't display the journalistic discipline of real newspapers. Chambers indicated that unlike her newsite (kind of a blog), The Branford Eagle, The Middletown Eye is not staffed with "trained journalists."

Well.

The worst thing a "trained" journalist should do is presume that he or she knows something that he or she doesn't.

I detect a bit of journalistic snobbery.

First off, I won't pretend The Middletown Eye is something it isn't. We are not a website attached to a print newspaper. We do not have paid staff. We don't have an office, or the ability (time) to dig for all of our stories the way a paid staff might. We sometimes make typos and factual errors which we strive to correct as soon as we can.

But don't get me wrong. I'm not apologizing. The Middletown Eye is staffed by community journalists of all stripes. Some indeed are what you might call "trained" journalists. They have experience writing for print newspapers, magazines and journals. Some are professors. Some are artists, musicians, stay-at-home parents, ministers, business owners, civic activists, university employees, architects, environmentalists and others who care deeply about the town in which we all live.

All of us know how to write. I would conjecture that some of us know a bit more about research than most "trained" and seasoned journalists.

I will tell you this. We have scooped the Hartford Courant and Middletown Press on a number of occasions. We have been the media source (unaccredited), for newspaper, TV and radio stories. We have written stories which have made the US Army change course. We have exposed local issues and controversies for public scrutiny. And we covered the last election in town like no other media outlet could or would.

We've been around for seven months.

We try mightily to keep opinion separate from news reporting (though we are not always successful). We discourage anything that smacks of personal vendetta. We refuse to print anonymous assaults (though we will print non-threatening anonymous comments). And we are respected by town municipal leaders and residents as an accurate source of information. Our readership is small, but growing.

Certainly, some of what Janensch and Chambers say a "newsblog" ought to aspire to are lofty goals (goals, I might add, that many newspapers do not achieve) - fairness, accuracy, objectivity (to the extent that it can ever be achieved), insight, institutional memory, clear and spirited writing. We hope to be able to offer all or those things to our readership, and more, including a dedication to making Middletown a great place to live, for everyone who lives here (without becoming mindless cheerleaders).

By the way, that Economic Development Committee meeting I sat through resulted in a post which revealed that a gourmet food manufacturer wants to move to Middletown. No other "trained" journalist was at the meeting to report that. You won't read about it in the Hartford Courant or Middletown Press today. It was in the Eye at midnight.

The trouble with newspapers, as I've said dozens of time, is not the reporters, editors, photographers or graphic artists who toil for the dailies. It's the absentee-landlord corporate owners who have hocked the papers into debt-holes from which it is impossible to climb.

Finally, if examples of "trained" journalists are what we find in the ineffectual Washington press corps, or on cable news channel, I'd rather remain untrained.

10 comments:

Catherine said...

Ed: By founding The Eye, you have given the city one of the greatest gifts it ever has been given, and I genuinely thank you.

Anonymous said...

I heard the archived version of the WNPR program this morning. I was aghast at Chambers's arrogance. I've been reading Middletown Eye for about a month (having discovered it through a search for RSS feeds), and I have found it to be very well-written and filled with content that isn't provided by websites staffed by the trained journalists in the employ of the Middletown Press or the Hartford Courant. If the Press and the Courant, with all their trained journalists, provided the kind of in-depth reporting that the Middletown Eye provides on local issues, I might still be subscribing to them. But they long ago abdicated their commitment to local news. Their current commodity is not news but lifestyle and fluff. You and your fellow volunteers are filling the void, and you are filling it well. Shame on Chambers for speaking out of ignorance! So much for her vaunted training, eh?

argos said...

You have reason to feel offended. I enjoy the Eye and find it more interesting than the local papers. There is more depth to the information. Thank you to those who do the writing; these are the people in town whose information and opinions I value.

Barrie said...

I hope there is some good that can come from such unwarranted criticism of The Eye. Any ordinary idiot can see that The Eye has no competition in local news coverage. Its detailed coverage is far superior to "professional" newspapers and it is better written , more entertaining and cannot be matched for immediacy. A great service to the community.

TwoHands said...

1. I like the eye very much. It grows more important as the newspapers diminish.

2. Fairness, objectivity, and most especially "balance" are myths. Bias should be admitted and articulated to guide the reader.

3. A possible source of interesting information is the Superior Court on Court Street. In an hour a week, a citizen can review all the new lawsuits being filed and pluck out the facts of those with news value.

4. The Town Clerk's office is a similar fountain of data. A small percentage of the logged transactions may be of interest, either as raw data or as the basis for further inquiry.

5. It would warm my heart if the eye used the serial comma (red, white,[note comma] and blue rather than red, white [note absence of comma] and blue). After all, you have no need to save ink.

6. Paragraphs should be governed by the rule that no sentence should be added to a paragraph if it would push the paragraph over six lines of type. If it would, make it start a new one.

7. Paragraph captions would be user-friendly. "Mayor announces demolition." "Trained journalist." "Offense justified."

8. Alternatively and with even less effort, each paragraph could be made more involving by being started with three capitalized words: "THE PLANNING AND Zoning Commission approved a new zone on Tuesday."

9. I disagree that newspapers have declined because greedy corporate owners have put them into debt holes. They would have declined anyway, thanks to the Internet.

10. Happy New Year and best wishes.

Judy Konopka said...

Weird. The reason I like the Eye so much is because it is staffed by an unpaid, diverse group of residents with an soulful passion for our community.

How nice to hear all the different "voices". I love the authenticity of the posts and comments. It connects me with my community in a way that "trained professionals" never will.

Thank you!

Jen Alexander said...

Dear Two Hands:

Thank you for your thoughtful comments! Perhaps you'd like to become a volunteer proofreader for the Eye? I know I would sleep better knowing that someone would go through my posts and check for wayward commas and other embarrassments. Let us know if we can sign you up!!!

-Jen Alexander

Anonymous said...

Amen, -Jen. I was pleased that the gentle killer of the serial comma sweetened the criticism cereal by closing with ..."best wishes."(Is it single marks inside "'s?) Honestly, nothing thrills me more, as it sweeps in and fills my cold, grammar-depraved heart with joy, than a long-winded, comma-laden paragraph, demanding full engagement with its dainty twists and turns of phrase, while I am reading an Eye posting, a respite from two too wordy wordslingers, James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and rejoicing in a shocking lack of bias!

Anonymous said...

Dear Jen A., Ed M., et al:

You folks are the best! You don't need proofreaders. You could punctuate with both hands tied behind your backs. Heck, I bet you could punctuate even if you were rendered unconscious: because you could still use your...[wait for it]...comma-toes.

Love,

The Vigilant

Jen Alexander said...

Dear Anonymous @ 2:25,

You too! Come proof for the Eye! Or share your clause-plumped prose with everyone in the class by becoming an author (or maybe you already are?)

I loved your sentence so much that I am having it tatooed on my forearm. Except I am adding a hyphen in "too-wordy", if that's ok with you?

-Jen Alexander