The Kids Are Alright

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JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 9, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

Michael Calderone at Politico has an entertaining story about the new breed of reporter-bloggers who have been hired by legacy media institutions, and the resentments they engender:

Klein is hardly alone. Reflecting a mix of desperation and determination to reinvent themselves for a new media era, legacy publications are recruiting and lavishly rewarding a new breed of journalists. They offer an edgy style and expertise in a particular field, but have never spent a day covering cops or courts or county boards — traditionally the rungs of the ladder all reporters had to climb. 

While still in their twenties and thirties, this new breed is winning TV time and book contracts, and, in many cases, newsroom salaries that reporters in their forties or fifties can only dream about. Hailed as prodigies by editors groping for a way to keep their institutions relevant, they are dismissed as pipsqueaks by an older generation still trying to play by the old rules.

The traditional career path to becoming a national reporter or columnist is highly problematic. Reporting is more of a talent than a trade -- people who have a knack for it (I don't) can pick it up very quickly. It does not take years of training, and certainly doesn't require journalism school. Now, in a media world consisting entirely of large institutions, there was no other way to cull national reporters than to pick out ones who had made it at a smaller level. There was no such thing as 23-year-olds who started reporting on some national issue on their own. But the internet has opened up the chance for the young and entrepreneurial to prove themselves on their own without small-town editor tutelage.

The traditional ladder is even more problematic for columnists. Calderone notes, "a Washington column has traditionally been the reward at the end of a climb up the journalistic ladder, with stops along the way at small-town papers, medium-sized city desks and local TV newsrooms." Whereas the small town beat is merely unnecessary as a career chokepoint for national reporters, it's actually counterproductive for columnists. Writing opinion about politics and public policy is a very different skill than reporting. The almost-uniform rule of political reporters-turned-columnists is that they're awful at it. They have no idea how to construct a persuasive argument or marshal the kinds of evidence they need to make their case. Usually, their argument relies on authority -- I am asserting opinion X and you should believe me because I am a prestigious veteran reporter.

The practice of training people for one kind of work and then shifting them into something that requires a completely different set of skills is one of the more bizarre habits of the traditional journalism world.  If the New York Times approached me and said that I've done a good job as a columnist and blogger for TNR, and now I should start covering the city hall beat for them, it would be nuts. I'd be horrible.

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posted in: jonathan chait, washington, new york times, michael calderone

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