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Published:February 19th, 2007 09:37 EST
Looking Over The Shoulder of A World-Class Reporter - Hot Copy #17

Looking Over The Shoulder of A World-Class Reporter - Hot Copy #17

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(Following is the transcript of Hot Copy, No. 17, Del Marbrook's weekly podcast about journalism).

The New Yorker is the very paragon of graceful, insightful writing. The weekly magazine is impeccably written, fact-checked and edited. It has no peers. A student journalist can hardly do better than to study its writing. Now, on the eve of a major redesign of its web log, this discerning magazine is showing how stories might be covered in the future.

Dan Baum has reported for The Atlanta Constitution and The Wall Street Journal. He has written Smoke and Mirrors, a book about the costly and ineffective war on drugs, and Citizen Coors, a book about Colorado's baronial beer makers. Now he is writing a daily blog from devastated New Orleans for New Yorker readers.

Baum's anecdotal reportage is intriguing and instructive from several angles. He has reported on the hurricane-ravaged city ever since Hurricane Katrina. He is writing a book about Katrina's destruction of America's most colorful and unique city, and he has particular acumen in money matters.

What we find in his blog is a special kind of alchemy: The New Yorker's habitually elegant reportage, a keen and knowledgeable eye, and business savvy. In Dan Baum's hands New Orleans' agony is a running story, as exotic as the city itself. It has the quality of a highly literate observer making daily phone calls to his family. It's a kind of debriefing in which everybody has an active role.

Technology is moving too fast for there to be a beau ideal for this sort of journalism, in the sense, say, that The New Yorker is and has been the beau ideal for magazines. For example, Dan Baum is not a videographer, but if he were, his running reportage of the New Orleans debacle could readily be given a visual component. For example, when several New Orleans supermarket shoppers see that Dan has no idea what to do with the hog jowls he has just picked up, we could not merely overhear, we could also watch the humorous conversation that ensues.

Elsewhere as Dan attends a public meeting at which it's clear that all the public is going to get is BS, he spots one of the heroes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, a police officer who did his job beyond the call of duty. Dan notices, to his dismay, that the police officer has not been promoted since his heroism came to light. Indeed, it turns out he has been shunted aside by the politics-as-usual crowd. Dan chats with him and the officer's disgust pours out. Here we get the synergy of the reporter's previous experience, his alertness, and the conversational amiability with which he draws out the disheartened hero. It's a valuable and telling insight into the reporter's trade and the New Orleans story.

In a print newspaper or magazine photographs are static. They're framed by print, boxed in, and to a certain extent prevented from telling their own story. There is still a tendency to regard them as a means to decorate typography. And while the still shot can be a work of art itself, it can't compare with video for conveying body language and even micro-expressions. When a reporter is gathering information for a report he is studying the micro-expressions of people's faces, their body language, their ease or malaise. The videographer catches these aspects of a story, but only the very best writers can do that in print, and even then not as well.

The video camera has not only changed the way police do their work, it has changed the way we perceive the police, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. But the change is here to stay. Cameras can catch the bad guys, but they can also catch cops being bad. The marriage of the video and the web log has already happened, but it was a fairly small wedding and the news hasn't gotten around yet.

The conclusion that can be drawn from what Dan Baum is doing is that journalism is becoming more intimate, animated and responsive to nuance. It's beginning to resemble human interaction. It is no longer something we pick up and put down, something we put away or stack up and take to the dump. But what Dan Baum is doing is distinctly different from the kind of journalism as theater, or as stage craft, that we get on television. On television they use archival film, melodramatic music, sound bites, takes, clips, anything to soup up the report. As a consequence you get an odd mix of static, superannuated blab from the very medium from which you expect real action and excitement. It's a kind of cheat and there's an element of dishonesty in it. Sometimes television news producers remind me of Doctor Frankenstein trying to animate his poor, sewn-together monster with lightning bolts.

Web log journalism, with or without photos, art or video, is different. Our surrogate is recounting his experiences, giving us little asides, getting to know the people he's interviewing, responding not as his producers think he ought to be responding but as he himself responds. This is his diary.

Probably the day will come when ratings drain the spontaneity out of the web log. If the diarist answers to corporate bosses, they will hold his feet to the fire, the fire being the ratings. He will be compared to other bloggers, and something will have been lost. But for now, as we stand on the threshold of this new format, we can consider how stale journalism has become, how handicapped by formal ideas that served the days of the teletype well but have little to do with the century we're living in.

We read Dan Baum's blog for The New Yorker and we're caught up in a sense of its freshness, its difference from what we're accustomed to, but we can't quite put our finger on that difference. We just know it's there. Put it this way: you read his byline somewhere and it's just another byline, having very little to do with the story, which you may or may not be interested in, but you read his blog and you feel you know him, and better yet, you know the people he's talking about. There's the difference. The blog has the look and sensibility of intelligent conversation, while the bylined story is a product somebody designed and marketed to you. It's not a trick. There is a real difference. Both you and the writer are free to perceive each other and to perceive the story in a different way.

We have all watched, usually with a degree of concern if not alarm, as video games become part of the wearing apparel of our youngsters. We know they're being influenced by these games, but we're not sure how. We know their brain architecture is being changed, but for good or bad or both we don't know. Now journalism is becoming part of our wearing apparel, too. We can use it, we can even interact with it, using laptops, cell phones, and other hand-held devices. Nothing is out of this world anymore, because we are so wired into it.

It used to be an event when the morning paper was thrown up on our doorstep by a kid on a bike or stuffed into boxes at street corners. Now the news is a continuous stream of events, and every story we read is linked to other stories, articles, essays, opinions, pictures, videos, you name it. We don't go somewhere to get the news, the way we used to go to the corner store for the paper. The news comes after us and sweeps us up in its current. This is not somebody else's world any more, it's our world. And the political consequences of this are immense. That is why we must fiercely resist government control of the Internet, because government will turn it over to corporate interests that will censor it, the way Fox and increasingly CNN censor news.

In other words, we have a relationship with the news and with its purveyors. We get to know Dan Baum through his blog. We get to know the people he sees and talks to, even the officials who stonewall him because they're afraid he's going to ask questions they don't want him to ask. The news becomes up close and personal. We talk to the reporters, we let them know what's on our minds, we give them ideas and sometimes even news. We become each other's tipsters. All the old distance and formality is breaking down in favor of immediacy and intimacy.

Dan is free in his blog to tell us how somebody looked when asked a tough question. He is free say the man's eyes searched the walls and the floors when asked such and such a question. Now when did you ever read in The Washington Post or The New York Times that Dick Cheney looked away when asked a question or made no contact with the reporter's eyes? He may have talked to the reporter on the phone, but even if the conversation had been in person the traditional forms of journalism do not encourage anecdotal reportage. There are good reasons for this, but there were also good reasons for calligraphy when the Gutenberg press supplanted it.

The print medium distances us from events. Television ought to have brought us closer, but somehow it has failed to do this. Instead we have illustrated chatter. But when you read a running story like Dan Baum's you get a sense of physical encounter uninhibited by the formal and often formulaic writing of newspapers and magazines. The on-stage theatricality and showmanship of television is bypassed by the diarist's directitude. The diarist is organizing his thoughts, processing them, coming to terms with what he has experienced, and this is the sense you get by reading such a blog by someone who has just experienced the events.

There is a flow of consciousness in which the reader gets into the writer's head. Part of this immediacy derives from our subconscious distrust of television news, which remains the dominant, albeit challenged, medium. Hour after hour we're treated to a combination of talking heads and archival film often unrelated to what the talking heads are saying except in the most general way, but we are never told we are watching archival or decorative film. We're led to believe we're watching news, but we know from experience we're being deceived. We harbor a justified suspicion of the journalists who are smilingly tricking us. It's dishonest, it's commonplace, and it discredits television news.

No aspect of this medium prevents Dan Baum from writing well, from considering his questions carefully, from taking full advantage of his experience. There will be many blogs, as there have been many magazines, that will not be as well edited as Dan's blog for The New Yorker, but what he is doing shows that we do not have to sacrifice good writing and responsible journalism to derive the benefits of new technology. Just the opposite. The technology should help us maintain and even elevate standards, but we must have the will as journalists and owners of news businesses to respect these standards. We have the sad history of television news to remind us that good use is not always made of new technology. We're all sick of watching the smart-alecky talking heads and the B-roll footage and listening to the bad jazzed-up sound effects, but we don't know any better. We just sense that with that kind of technology the television people could be doing better. Their bosses would tell you the reason they're not doing better is because it's too expensive. That's exactly what the newspapers are arguing, and we all know what's happening to them. Between their concerns with cost-cutting and ratings, the television producers are committed to giving us high-tech junk.

We like to say that business has an obligation not to sell us dangerous products, not to exploit us, because, after all, business enjoys the protection afforded to it by taxpayers. But the Fourth Estate's obligation to us goes far beyond that, because it enjoys a special status under the First Amendment: our Founding Fathers viewed its role as crucial to the health of the republic.

If you read Dan's New Yorker web log you will see not just a running account of the incidentals a reporter witnesses-they used to be called sidebars-you will see how a reporter observes and interacts with people and their circumstances. You will see how he draws upon his experience and his research to ask the right questions, to seize the moment to explore an issue or raise a point. You could get your graduate degree from Columbia and never have such a first-rate opportunity to observe a world-class reporter at work.

But the larger point is that this is exactly what all of us are going to be treated to from here on in. This is part of the future, a window thrown open by The New Yorker's commitment not to allow the New Orleans story to die.

There's a lot of talk going around the web about breaking the United States up. The theory is that we're too big for the federal government to handle, and therefore states and regions have to pick up the slack, because they have problems that are not necessarily germane to the whole country. And if they do this, well, that leads to semi-autonomy and perhaps even autonomy. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California has given rise to a lot of this talk with his universal health care ideas, and so has Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. New York State in its defiance of the disastrous federal demand that it use touch-screen voting machines is another example.

I'd like to suggest an alternative scenario. I'd like to ask why we'd contemplate breaking up this magnificent republic at the very time when the Internet has given us the opportunity to weave its fabric ever more closely. The disgraceful prattle and inaction in Washington that upsets the states and drives them to fill the vacuum can be corrected by better reporting. And if we can't get that from big broadcasters and the print media, perhaps we can get it from the blogs, just as we are getting a true measure of New Orleans' desperation and courage from Dan Baum.

You have been listening to Hot Copy, and I'm Del Marbrook. If you'd like to know more about what I think, go to www.djelloulmarbrook.com.
Source: The Student Operated Press