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June 20, 2007

Time For A Change

Lawrence Lessig, hero and leader of the Open Source movement, is putting down intellectual property law to spend the next decade focusing on issues of political corruption. Good man. His actual reasoning, that after a decade in IP his energies could be better spent mastering and advancing another field, is solid, too. It takes relatively less energy to remain somewhat current in a field you've already studied intensely than it does to gain fluency in a whole new subject area. I, for instance, do a lot of work in health care policy. At some point, I'll do relatively less. Even now, as my workload has sharply increased, I spend less time reading Health Affairs articles than I used to. At a certain point, increasing your command of policy minutia has diminishing returns as compared to, say, focusing on Iran.

I would love to see political journalism/punditry work in ways more explicitly similar to the Lessig model. When you start at a magazine, you'd be given a beat. Doesn't mean that's all you'd write about, but it would be your job to keep the readership current on developments, argument, and debates in that field. After two or three years, you could ask to change your focus. But in an explicit (you will do this), rather than implicit (you seem to enjoy doing this), way, everyone would be forced to consciously develop policy expertise, potentially on multiple subjects. To some degree, this happens naturally, as writers begin publishing more often on subjects they enjoy, and find they get good response to. But it's largely at the writer's discretion how deep to dive, and whether to continue, and whether to follow the policy literature or just the op-ed currents. It shouldn't be. If magazine writing were more directed, with more attention to the training rather than just the product, we'd be better off.

June 20, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Lessig has not been as effective as he might have hoped, and may well feel that his morale would be enhanced by switching focus.

If what you have to bring to bear has been exhausted, it makes sense to move on. It makes a lot of sense to cut bait, when it becomes obvious that you are not landing the fish.

But, it is also no fun to go back to kidnergarten in any field. The satisfactions of mastery are deep and subtle, and mastery takes a while to achieve. If it is possible to stand on a foundation and expand your scope, from a position of established mastery, that is definitely desirable, and to be preferred in many cases, to a long haul as a pioneer.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jun 20, 2007 12:48:54 PM

Agreed. And television shows should be similarly focused. I know Lou Dobbs' All Racism All The Time show can be a little grating, but it is probably a better model than Crossfire, Hardball, etc..

Posted by: Sam L. | Jun 20, 2007 12:49:29 PM

That's dangerous talk, Ezra. Next you'll be suggesting pundits should have expertise in the things they pontificate about, and where would that lead us?

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jun 20, 2007 1:30:56 PM

Sounds great, although most magazines already do this, no? TV is, of course, another matter...

Posted by: brad plumer | Jun 20, 2007 1:44:47 PM

This disappoints me; we desperately need more voices calling for reform of our atrocious IP system, and Lessig was one of the loudest. However beneficial his anti-corruption activities may be, it's hard for me to greet this decision with great enthusiasm.

Posted by: Anthony Damiani | Jun 20, 2007 1:48:24 PM

I think what you're describing is not only a good idea, but absolutely *necessary* to reform our press. A Welsh anthropology prof tells me they have a dissimilar system with related goals in the UK -- people don't study journalism as they do in the US, but instead study a field like economics or chemistry or foreign policy. Then they write about that field.

A combination of these two systems -- where journalism was a minor, not a major, and people who wanted to write about things focused on actually learning something about them in college, and writers were assigned fields and expected to know those fields well -- would be an excellent remedy to much of what ails the American journalistic establishment.

Pundits, meanwhile, may continue to study philosophy, given the endorsements it's received of late, but I have to wonder now and again if a domestic affairs concentration might serve your crowd better.

Posted by: Mike Meginnis | Jun 20, 2007 2:08:10 PM

Good stuff, Ezra. There's a lot to be said for being a grounded generalist - grounded by deep immersion, extensive writing, and lots of dialogue and argument in specific areas. This is especially true for those who choose to write in public - and for good lawmaking as well, I'd add.

I've found that learning how to learn-in-depth (digging, I call it), and write-in-depth in one area makes it much easier to move onto a new area of emphasis, with only a modicum of effort to retain currency in previous areas. You give evidence that you've learned this as well - and at a much earlier point in your career than was true for me.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 20, 2007 3:50:32 PM

But, it is also no fun to go back to kidnergarten in any field.

Oh no... the best part of any field is that learning curve up front. So much to learn! Such quick progress! You don't know that your thinking is oversimplified! There is still right and wrong.

Then you get good at something and it turns out to be complicated and there aren't outright villains because they had reasons for the things they did and there aren't easy choices any more. The early stage is way better.

Posted by: Megan | Jun 20, 2007 5:16:51 PM

Considering that it takes an average of ten years of dedicated study to gain any real expertise in a subject (see this, for example), this recommendation seems guaranteed to ensure that journalists will be novices on any subject that they write about. Not sure that ignorance among journalists is something that needs any encouragement.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 20, 2007 9:20:26 PM

At some publications that kind of generalism is indeed encouraged. Different reporters have different beats, but they do work outside their beats (and occasionally change beats) so they don't get in a rut.

But that kind of system requires that the rewards for the various beats be roughly similar, and that employment be more or less stable. Otherwise you'll get people fighting for the beats where they make more money or prestige (or being put off from certain beats until they've "paid their dues") and jumping ship whenever it's time for a beat they don't like.

Sometimes it's a good thing for journalists to have expertise in the fields they cover, sometimes not so much. The ones with lots of expertise and experience often don't ask the questions their readers want answered, and sometimes align their interests with the sources rather than their readers. You need a combination of new blood and old hands, but that in turn requires staffs of a size few publications are willing to maintain (gotta keep those 25% margins).

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Posted by: judy | Oct 8, 2007 9:06:25 AM

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