Monday, August 10, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - Eighth in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers

Glenn Frankel brings a voice of authority and restraint to the discussion of what society, journalism and journalists are losing as a result of the shrinking of newspaper newsrooms. What strikes me about his interview and the previous interview with Tamara Jones, another former Washington Post reporter, is the appreciation and respect they still feel for the institution that supported their journalistic life and their former colleagues.

In this interview, I believe he makes an important point about what I'll call "real journalism." He writes: "
I fear that the downsizing is becoming so drastic and the search for younger readers so frantic that many news organizations may lose sight of their true value and importance. I also fear that the journalism is being lost or sacrificed in the emphasis on new technologies, social networks and shiny packaging. If we don’t have anything important to say and no unique journalistic contribution to make, we won’t need new platforms. We won’t need to exist at all---and we won’t."

1. Name: Glenn Frankel
Last news organization: Washington Post

2. What work did you win the Pulitzer for, when?

I won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for “sensitive and balanced” coverage of Israel and the first Palestinian uprising.

3. Why did you leave your paper? When?

After 27 years at the Post as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent, I took a voluntary buyout in the summer of 2006. It was a ridiculously generous offer to all of us of a certain age and experience level.

4. What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?

I’m one of the lucky ones. I landed a gig teaching journalism to undergraduates and journalism master’s students at Stanford University, where I’m entering my fourth year as a visiting professor. I teach a basic reporting and writing course, as well as magazine writing and human rights journalism---all things I deeply care about---to students who are smart, committed and intrigued by journalism, whether they are planning to enter the field or not. I was extremely fortunate to have gotten out of the newspaper business before the wave of bought-out, laid-off or just-plain-fired journalists went tidal. I miss working with my dear comrades at the Post in an enterprise I admired and believed in, but many of them have been following me out the door, voluntarily or otherwise.

5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?

I’ve written two books and had always planned to write more. I’m working on one right now that combines history, film studies and journalism. I’ve also written a number of freelance magazine pieces, book reviews, etc. Anyone who wants to see my latest work can click on I plan to stay involved in journalism until the bitter end---my own demise or that of the profession, whichever comes first.

6. What has the downsizing of your former newsroom or closing of your former paper meant to the quality of journalism in your community? For example, are there types of stories not being told? You could use your own experience to provide examples here.

It makes me very queasy to sit back and criticize my wonderful former colleagues and my devoted former employer. I don’t relish the role of aging ex-sailor, drinking grog in my rocker by a blazing hearth and wagging my ink-stained finger at the hard-working, rain-drenched folks still manning the lifeboats. American daily newspapers were never as good as they should have been, and they’re not so bad now. I don’t live in Washington most of the year and I can’t tell you what stories the Post may be missing. It’s pretty obvious, though, that the shrinking number of journalists covering federal, state and local governments throughout the country means fewer flashlights shone in fewer dark corners. As a former foreign correspondent---14 years as the Post’s bureau chief in London, Jerusalem and Southern Africa---I’m particularly concerned about the loss of alternative voices and perspectives as important newspapers like the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday shut down their overseas operations and others like the Post and LA Times cut back.

There’s no rule that says a Washington Post newsroom of 400 to 500 people---roughly the same numbers the Post had when I got hired in 1979---can’t put out a great newspaper. But there’s also no rule that says newspapers will become smarter or better managed as they become smaller. Each contraction of the staff damages morale and reduces journalistic ambition. Newsrooms are, among other things, creative enterprises that rely upon committed, restless, energetic people who are willing to take risks and work extra hard. They dry up quickly when the creativity and ambition are drained from their veins.

7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job?

See answer above. I allow myself the occasional cynical smile when I read the faux- brilliant clucking of some of the New Media gurus. The Washington Post did a lot of things right and a few things wrong, but it couldn’t prevent Craigslist or Google, revive the department store business nor patch up an irrevocably shattered business model. I fear that the downsizing is becoming so drastic and the search for younger readers so frantic that many news organizations may lose sight of their true value and importance. I also fear that the journalism is being lost or sacrificed in the emphasis on new technologies, social networks and shiny packaging. If we don’t have anything important to say and no unique journalistic contribution to make, we won’t need new platforms. We won’t need to exist at all---and we won’t.

8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today?

There’s never been a better moment to be young, flexible, enterprising and fearless. Journalism---the real stuff, not the phony, useless garbage---was never for the faint of heart, nor did it ever pay very well except for a lucky few. No one’s going to have the predictable, straight-ahead, climb-the-ladder careers that some of us enjoyed. People will have to be adept at moving from job to job, and platform to platform. They’ll have to specialize sooner and create their own personal brand in a chosen area of inquiry like foreign affairs, health, politics or environment. The days when generalists like myself could move from place to place are probably over. But the popular appetite for original reporting that defies conventional wisdom is great and growing, and the demand far outstrips the supply. That’s what I tell aspiring journalists---some of whom have the potential to be the best I’ve ever seen---because it’s what I strongly believe.

To read previous installments: Deborah Nelson, Andrew Schneider, Kim Komenich, Janet Reeves, Jerry Kammer, Paul Giblin and Tamara Jones.


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