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October 26, 2007

Why Journalism is Like Manufacturing

"The Internet was a pretty standard resource for research and knowledge by the time we were in high school." Writes Brian. "God only knows how people "did" secondary education--let alone journalism--20 years ago."

I'm pretty sure the answer is "slower." When I moved to DC, I was often astonished by how little output was expected from journalists. Three or four features a year was a decent clip -- worthy of a salary. That seemed absurd. But back in the day, you couldn't just Nexis your way through everything written on the subject. Research required days in the microfiche stacks. Every time you got a new lead, you had to go back to the microfiche stacks. Writing serious articles took a really long time.

This is, in part, why you're seeing cutbacks in many newsrooms. I'm not supposed to say this, but journalism has gotten easier, and fewer individuals can do more of it. Now, you can certainly go way too far in that direction, and there are certain areas -- like foreign bureaus, where the reporting time is the same now as then -- where you don't want to lose staff. But as productivity rapidly increases, either the market has to expand or staffs will be cut. And to make matters worse, much like in manufacturing, the rise of blogs and online magazines has created intense, low-cost competition that simply didn't exist before. The problem, much like in manufacturing, is that we're killing off the positions that we still need and that Nexis hasn't made easier. The bloviators -- like myself -- reproduce, while the resource-intensive reporters, see their resources cut. Which is why we need more projects like this one, or possibly some public subsidies.

October 26, 2007 in Media | Permalink


It's remarkable how much things have changed just within the span of my professional writing career, which started early in 1995. I looked at my first web site (at the public library) in 1996. I was telling Chris Hayes the other day that when I started out, the only way you knew an article was really good was that you got a POST CARD in the mail from a fellow writer telling you so.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein | Oct 26, 2007 12:03:49 PM

There's no reason the market can't expand and staffs still need to be cut. The market for agricultural products has expanded greatly in the last century and far, far fewer work in agriculture.

Posted by: Jeff Westcott | Oct 26, 2007 1:21:14 PM

I think this is the crucial line: "the rise of blogs and online magazines has created intense, low-cost competition that simply didn't exist before."

When I started out 25 years ago, there were the good places where reporters got time to do good work, and there were the places where people banged out three or four stories a day based on a couple of phone calls and a regurgitated press release.

Nowadays you can turn out "in-depth" stories based on regurgitated nexis and google searches faster than you once could. And some useful records are online (as is the computing power to do interesting things with them). But talking to people, figuring out wtf is going on, developing memory and perspective, those still take just about as long as they ever did. You still have to read and digest those reams of data that are now available to you in milliseconds rather than hours (or do you?).

So nah, it's not because modern turbo-assisted reporters are so much more productive in writing actual stories. It's because publishers can.

Posted by: paul | Oct 26, 2007 3:33:17 PM

I'll tell you how I did secondary education 20 (oh, crap - I'm old) years ago. I went to libraries and cultural missions a lot. Specifically, I spent a good portion of my early 20s at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts and (because I had pretentious, deconstructionist professors) Goethe Haus.

Posted by: Samba00 | Oct 27, 2007 2:22:55 AM

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