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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Revolution in Political Journalism

There’s an interesting feature article by Michael Calderone up at Politico today about the gradual revolution in political journalism going on at some of the mainsteam media’s major institutions. Its point of departure is the success enjoyed by my friend Ezra Klein at the Washington Post:

When Washingtonian magazine recently profiled The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, the story contained a tidbit that ricocheted around the Post newsroom: Klein has his own assistant.
An assistant? For that new guy with the blog?
Turns out to be true. Nothing more vividly highlights the changing times at legacy news organizations — or the bilious feelings those times have caused among the assistant-less masses in the depleted ranks of traditional reporters — than the instant status achieved by a newcomer like Klein.
Hired last year at age 24 from The American Prospect, the liberal monthy, Klein was given a prized platform — the invitation to hold forth with commentary and analysis about domestic policy — that not long ago would have gone only to someone with years of experience and achievement.
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.

Calderone goes on the examine other examples of the New Journalistic Kids on the Block, and the backlash against them among old-school reporters who view them as unprofessional interlopers who mistake bloviating for journalism.
Meanwhile, in his take on the Calderone piece, Jonathan Chait identifies the main weakness in the old-school argument: there are different skills involved in “pure reporting” and the synthesis and interpretation of facts. And that’s not changed by the journalism profession’s tradition of treating success at the former as the precondition for the opportunity to do the latter.
I vividly recall from my days in Georgia politics and government a friend who was a very good statehouse reporter. She was ultimately offered a rare spot on the editorial board of her paper, and given a weekly column. Soon afterwards she called me to complain of the difficulty of finding something to write about once a week. She hated her new gig, and it didn’t last very long.
Not long thereafter, I tried to make a lateral transfer from government and policy work, with a heavy side order of speechwriting, into a job on the editorial board of a Georgia paper. The pay was horrendous; the work-load was brutal; and although I was reasonably sure I was totally qualified, I was told I could forget about it because I didn’t have a journalism degree and hadn’t done any “pure” reporting. A reporter friend explained to me patiently that editorial jobs were the rabbit that kept underpaid reporters running around the track for decades, and that hiring someone like me would represent a disruption of the journalistic career path.
I finally “got it,” and didn’t try journalism any more. Eventually, I got a job with a Washington think tank that ultimately involved writing op-ed length institutional opinion pieces every single day for years. It dawned on me that I had become a “journalist” in all but name. But only the advent of “blogging” made it possible to perform that skill under a byline.
I know it’s fashionable in many journalistic and political circles to think of “bloggers” as ignorant bloviators who have destroyed the ancient standards of opinion journalism and driven politics into a perpetual hate-frenzy. And without a doubt, there’s a lot of crap out there for anyone to read. But as people like Klein and many others have demonstrated, there are also bloggers with much higher standards of research and fact-verification, and much more intelligent levels of reasoned discourse, than their counterparts in the MSM. And that’s why the MSM, forced increasingly to live “online,” is snapping up some of the best of them.
Sure, I have some sympathy for the ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate who are embittered by this revolution, which has been driven by the same economic realities that would be threatening their jobs even if the Internet didn’t exist. But they should have some sympathy for the many very talented policy wonks and political analysts who were shut out of their profession for the sin of wanting substantive training or practical experience in politics or government instead of J-School. I’m certainly old enough to remember the days when the very best of what would now be called “blogging” was available only through the extraordinarily narrow window of “Letters to the Editor” that almost no one read. We’re only now as a society beginning to understand that some of the best potential teachers are people who would not have for a moment considered taking many hours of Education classes in college in order to become professionally certified. The journalism profession has benefited from opening up the guild as well.

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