Confidence Game

Confidence Game

“The question that mass amateurization poses to traditional media is ‘What happens when the costs of reproduction and distribution go away? What happens when there is nothing unique about publishing anymore because users can do it for themselves?’ We are now starting to see that question being answered.”—Clay Shirky

“The whole notion of ‘long-form journalism’ is writer-centered, not public-centered.”—Jeff Jarvis

“As a journalist, I’ve long taken it for granted that, for example, my readers know more than I do—and it’s liberating.”—Dan Gillmor

“As career journalists and managers we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace, and that value is about zero.”—John Paton

“The story is the thing.”—S. S. McClure

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Power Problem

Power Problem

“The government, the financial industry and the American consumer—if they had only paid attention—would have gotten ample warning about this crisis from us, years in advance, when there was still time to evacuate and seek shelter from this storm.”—Diana Henriques, New York Times business reporter, speech at The George Washington University, November 8, 2008

“But anybody who’s been paying attention has seen business journalists waving the red flag for several years.”—Chris Roush, “Unheeded Warnings,” American Journalism Review, December/January, 2009

“I’m kind of curious as to . . . why is it that people were shocked, given the volume of coverage.”—Nikhil Deogun, deputy managing editor, The Wall Street Journal, quoted in “Unheeded Warnings”

“For in an exact sense the present crisis in western democracy is a crisis of journalism.”—Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News, 1920

These are grim times for the nation’s financial media. Not only must they witness the unraveling of their own business, they must at the same time fend off charges that they failed to cover adequately their central beat—finance—during the years prior to an implosion that is forcing millions of low-income strivers into undeserved poverty and the entire world into an economic winter. The quotes above give a fair summary of the institutional response of the mainstream business press to the charge that it slept on the job while lenders and Wall Street ran amok. And while the record will show this response is not entirely wrong, one can see how casual business-press readers might have a problem with the idea that final responsibility for failing to stop escalating dangers in the financial system has somehow shifted to them.

Dang, Margaret, we blew it again.

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The Hamster Wheel

The Hamster Wheel

These are challenging times in the news business. We get that, even up here in the CJR commune. I am not here to argue against experimentation, keeping up with the Huffingtons, Mike Allen-ism, or any of that. I am not anti-speed. Speed is good. It’s why there’s a news business in the first place. It’s why the man ran the twenty-six miles from the battle of Marathon. It’s why journalism starts with jour, although now it should probably be called heure-nalism. So rest assured, your writer is pro-scoop, pro-working hard, pro-update, pro-competing-for-scraps-of-news-like-a-pack-of-wild-animals, pro-video, etc., type, type, pant, pant—phew! Sorry, for a second I thought I was on DealBook.

I’m also for quantity when it comes to news—more is more, I say. Even though our readers are all supposed to be super busy, so in theory it makes no sense—at all—to be increasing the volume of random items for these harried people to sort through. You’d think we’d be decreasing our volume, and making sure each thing offered to readers is really good. But, like I said, I’ve no problem with volume, in theory.

Also, I should go on record as being pro-productivity. I’m for squeezing every last ounce from every last lazy, lucky-to-have-a-job reporter. I’m an editor, too, you know. Reporters and their “but we need time to look into stuff”—wah, wah. Don’t they know we’re in deep kimchi? “We are in a tough, take-no-prisoners, leave-no- terminal-unturned competition around the world,” as Robert Thomson reminds his staff in the memo cited above. Bleedin’ crisis, this is.

But let’s think about this for a second. Stop. Think.

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The Price of Admission

The Price of Admission

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail is an extraordinary work of reportage by a once-in-a-generation journalist. It is also something else: an example of access journalism par excellence. That’s not a flaw, necessarily, but it is a fact that colors nearly every paragraph of this sprawling book. As such, Too Big To Fail demonstrates both the potential and the limits of the form.

Anyone who finds TBTF less than satisfying as a work of nonfiction, and I’m among them, must first acknowledge that this book places vast amounts of new information into the public record, information that probably only Sorkin could have gathered in such quantity. When it comes to fact-gathering virtuosity, TBTF is in a class by itself. What’s more, the facts have held up. What more do you want from a journalist? It is a fair question.

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Boiler Room

Boiler Room

The nation’s business press at this point must be feeling a bit like the London fire department during the Blitz, scrambling from one financial emergency to the next—a Wall Street pillar collapses here, a bank seized there—each calamity more complex and dangerous than the one before, day after day, week after week.

No sooner had the ink dried on inside-the-boardroom accounts of Bear Stearns’s collapse—in The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, even, for some reason, in comic-book form in Condé Nast Portfolio—when a new series of bank write-offs threatened the global financial system—Whoops, there goes Iceland! (See: Subprime Wave Sweeps Over Iceland, The Associated Press, April 7, 2008); venerable Lehman Brothers became a running emergency, and it was followed swiftly by crisis at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the twin pillars of the U.S. mortgage market. In this environment, the second-largest bank failure in U.S. history—the discovery of IndyMac’s corpse in July—barely caused a ripple in the zeitgeist. In the face of global meltdown, what’s a few hysterical depositors running around Pasadena?

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