Why I am Not a Journalist: A True Story

The short answer is: I wanted to be, but I screwed it up, so I couldn't be.

28 Sep 2010 3:31 am 77 Comments

Discovering journalism in college saved me. At the time (1976) I was on a track that would have led to an assistant manager’s job at an Applebees. Seriously: I was a business management major at SUNY Buffalo, living at my mother’s house to save money, working nights and weekends at a banquet hall as a busboy, and without any passions other than playing pick-up basketball in four different gyms four nights a week, despite the fact that I wasn’t even good enough to make my high school team. I had no ambition because I didn’t know how to have an ambition. I wasn’t excited about learning and didn’t know what I was good at.

But then I walked into the college newspaper with a good story, and the editor who happened to be there, Brett Kline, said, “why don’t you write about it?” So I did. My piece was published, I got bitten by the journalism bug, and within six months I was special features editor of The Spectrum, then managing editor. In the spring of 1978 I was elected editor-in-chief for the following academic year. I was also a columnist. I rarely went to class. I was learning too much to stop and do that.

It was in the spring of 1977 that I decided that I wanted to become a professional journalist– a political reporter. Basically I wanted to be Johnny Apple, the legendary correspondent for the New York Times, who seemed to be on the front page every other morning. In those days the way you got to be a correspondent for the New York Times or the Washington Post was by 1.) rising in the hierarchy at your college newspaper, or going to a decent J-school; 2.) grabbing an internship at the biggest metro daily you could talk your way onto; 3.) doing well enough in the assignments you were given to get hired at that newspaper or a comparable one in your region; 4.) generating the “clips” (copies of your by-lined articles) that would allow you to jump in a year or two from Buffalo, Columbus, Birmingham or Norfolk to, say, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta or Baltimore; 5.) repeating step 4.) until you had the clips to get hired by the Post or the Times, which could take many years; and 6.) starting on the metro desk in New York or Washington until you got the call to report on the statehouse or the national scene.



The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation

This is adapted and expanded from the Inaugural Lecture I gave to the incoming class at Sciences Po école du journalisme in Paris, September 2, 2010: their first day. Presented to French students, it is intended for anyone studying journalism today, or attempting to re-learn it.

19 Sep 2010 2:57 am 1 Comment

Originally published at my Posterous blog, Sep. 6, 2010.

Typically when people like me—a professor of journalism who is deeply involved in the digital world—advise people like you—students just starting their careers in journalism—we say to you things like:

You need to be blogging.

You need to understand search engines.

You need to know Flash and perhaps HTML5.

You need to grasp web metrics like Google analytics.

You need to know how to record audio or edit video

You need to “get” mobile. (“Mobile is going to be big!”)

And all of those things are true. They are all important. But I want to go in a completely different direction today. Ready? You need to understand that the way you imagine the users will determine how useful a journalist you will be.


The Virtual Assignment Desk and The Launch of the Local East Village

Today The Local East Village launches. That makes it a big day for me and the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU. And for Studio 20, which developed for the launch a new piece of software: the Virtual Assignment Desk. What is it? Read on...

13 Sep 2010 3:37 pm 14 Comments

Today The Local East Village launches. That makes it a big day for me and the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.

A daily news blog that covers the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan, The Local East Village—or LEV, as we call it—is a New York Times site produced in collaboration with NYU faculty and students. Some quick facts, and a caution:

Quick Facts

  • On Twitter, it’s @nytlev. The Facebook page is here.
  • The editor is Richard G. Jones , a former New York Times reporter, with oversight by Mary Ann Giordano, a Deputy Metropolitan Editor at the Times. They’re responsible for the content and the coverage.
  • The Studio 20 program at NYU, which I direct, was intimately involved in the planning and conceptual stage, working closely with Jones and Giordano, as well as Jim Schachter, the Editor for Digital Initiatives and Associate Managing Editor of the Times, Jeremy Zilar, Blog Specialist for the Times, Brooke Kroeger, Director of the Carter Institute, Jason Samuels, my colleague on the Studio 20 faculty, and Yvonne Latty, who directs the Reporting New York program at NYU.


The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage

The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: "what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year's election?"

15 Aug 2010 10:45 am Comments Off on The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage

I’m in Australia this week, where the country is in the midst of an election campaign that seems thoroughly uninspiring to almost everyone I’ve talked to. Several times I’ve been asked how campaign coverage might be improved. (See this television appearance on the ABC program Lateline.) I responded with the following sketch.

The Citizen’s Agenda in Campaign Coverage: Ten Steps to a Better Narrative (more…)

The Afghanistan War Logs Released by Wikileaks, the World’s First Stateless News Organization

"In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new."

26 Jul 2010 1:31 am Comments Off on The Afghanistan War Logs Released by Wikileaks, the World’s First Stateless News Organization

Wikileaks.org: Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010

Der Spiegel: Explosive Leaks Provide Image of War from Those Fighting It

New York Times: The War Logs

The Guardian: The Afghanistan War Logs

From my internal notebook and Twitter feed, a few notes on this development:

1. Ask yourself: Why didn’t Wikileaks just publish the Afghanistan war logs and let journalists ‘round the world have at them? Why hand them over to The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first? Because as Julien Assange, founder of Wikileaks, explained last October, if a big story is available to everyone equally, journalists will pass on it.


Objectivity as a Form of Persuasion: A Few Notes for Marcus Brauchli

"Reporting can be trusted if it is cured of opinion. Reporting can be trusted if it is dusted with opinion. Or even completely interwoven with opinion. It can lead to conclusions. Or the conclusions can be left to others."

7 Jul 2010 2:14 pm Comments Off on Objectivity as a Form of Persuasion: A Few Notes for Marcus Brauchli

Wanted: Political blogger covering the conservative movement. Must be provocative and write with a strong point of view although not in a way that would reveal bias or offend any of your potential subjects. Social media a plus until it’s not. Must be completely transparent, unless that proves embarrassing to the newspaper. Send sanitized résumé, innocuous clips and nonpartisan references to The Washington Post.

— David Carr, New York Times, Outspoken Is Great, Till It’s Not

Sometimes we can only reach clarity by separating two things that have become tangled up with one another. Authoritative reporting and objectivity in journalism need to be disentangled, or the situation David Carr was satirizing will persist. These notes were written for Marcus Brauchli, the editor of the Washington Post, but anyone can read them. He’s the one who needs them.