McGuire on Media

The “priesthood” is real and we do not need another one.

With trepidation I enter the mild debate between New York Times Editor Dean Baquet and now LSU Visiting Professor Steve Buttry.

Buttry wrote a blog post last week in which he said, using Twitter is” the best indicator in journalism today of someone who is refusing to embrace change.”

Baquet responded this week by contending that people like Buttry are creating a new “journalism priesthood.” Here are Baquet’s own words:

“One of the biggest criticisms aimed at my generation of editors is that we created a priesthood, that we decided who was a journalist and who was not. If you hadn’t done cops and courts you weren’t a journalist, etc. That characterization was right on. We deserved the hit.

As I observe the criticism nowadays, you will forgive me for noting that it sounds like a new priesthood is being created, with new rules for entry.”

To me this isn’t a straight-up debate that requires taking sides. There are two valid points here but Baquet’s warning must be taken seriously.

I agree with Buttry that all editors should be tweeting, not for the sake of show or innovation. but because it builds community, it makes the editor crucial to the publication’s immediacy and because it smashes the 24-hour news cycle mindset for an entire organization.

Twitter strikes me as a very small nod to the kind of innovation that will make news organizations strong. Read a book like “Creativity, Inc,” by Ed Catmull, and you can appreciate that much more fundamental changes are required to make innovation and creativity a defining element of your organization.

Twitter should be a part of your digital toolkit because it works, not because it is a merit badge for innovation.

That merit badge kind of thinking has been an essential part of “the priesthood.” As Baquet implies, the priesthood has always had certain markers that legitimize a “real journalist.”  Catching public officials’ hands in the cookie jar, horse race political reporting without substantial perspective, and quoting two opposing points of view no matter how far they take you from the truth, are examples of the portfolio of journalistic priests.

In Thomas E. Patterson’s book “Informing the News” he quotes studies which show how important weather stories are to readers.  And yet too many of the “working priests” hate weather stories.

I believe the “priesthood,” our commitment to our own insular, arrogant view of the world has separated us from readers and made it almost impossible to find our way back to the audience.

The last thing we need is a new priesthood. We need to break with the old ways with far more certainty and clarity than I am observing, but we must not search for a new orthodoxy.

A lot of important writers these days are talking about dramatic and real innovation. Catmull beautifully translates his experiences at Pixar to ways to help a reader rethink every business.  Patterson’s take on knowledge journalism could force a basic rethinking of our approach to reporting. Reddit, Buzzfeed and Vice have much to teach us about connecting with audiences, keeping in mind there is no right way. There is no new Gospel.

What is crucial is to get out of our comfort zone. Catamull uses what he calls “the door metaphor.” He writes that on one side of the door is all that we know. On the other side is what has not been created and what is unfathomable to us. Catmull says the goal is to put one foot on the knowable side and another foot on the murky, unknowable side.

He knowingly adds that we fear the other side of the door because we crave stability. That craving may be why some people resist Twitter. Twitter definitely has its own considerable value but I argue Twitter is not the canary in the coal mine for innovation. The failure to entertain and dance with the journalistic unknown is a far better indicator of whether journalists will innovate in time to save their hides. 

5 Comments

  1. Posted October 7, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Both are correct, and Buttry is as guilty for thinking “only digital” as the answer. As such, Buttry paints himself inside a very small box when it comes to protecting sources from government.

    This dooms him to small thinking. When I reminded Buttry of the WWII code talkers, well, let’s just say he remains unappreciative.

  2. Posted October 8, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Tim, you should never have trepidation about joining any journalism debate. You always elevate the conversation. Thanks for elevating this one.

    As I’ve said on my blog, I don’t like religious metaphors for journalism. I’m the son, brother, nephew and brother-in-law of seven clergy members, and I’m a former religion reporter, and I’ve never seen a religious metaphor for journalism that struck me as accurate. And some of them could be offensive to some people.

    Beyond that, if I ever became a “priest” in the old order (and I was editor of two mid-sized dailies), I don’t know when or how that was. I sure as hell didn’t have an ordination ceremony and no one spelled out to me what Dean called the “rules of entry.” For one thing, I never did the cops and courts beat, though I did cover some of both types of stories as a GA. Did that count? I don’t know. I think an actual priesthood would have more clarity. Beyond gender disparity, I disagree that whatever flaws traditional journalism had resembled a priesthood.

    And I don’t think my call for more and better use of Twitter by newsroom leaders fits any description of a priesthood that I can think of. It certainly doesn’t fit your description: “I believe the ‘priesthood,’ our commitment to our own insular, arrogant view of the world has separated us from readers and made it almost impossible to find our way back to the audience.” As I noted in my original post criticizing Dean, active engagement on Twitter would have helped him (and his TV critic) better understand the outcry over her insulting profile of Shonda Rhimes. Twitter use would not have created a new priesthood, but would have been an antidote to the insular arrogance and separation you described and they illustrated.

    You are exactly right to say that the reason to engage actively on Twitter is to build connections with the community. To the extent that I want editors to use Twitter more actively “for the sake of show,” it’s because the best editors always lead by example. An editor who shows the staff he’s learning new tools (not just Twitter, but it’s a visible one) will lead a staff that’s learning and excelling at new tools.

    The Times has done and continues to do some excellent innovative journalism using new tools. But the Times innovation report was not an external critic such as you or me lobbing grenades at the Old Gray Lady. It was the Times’ own innovation leaders saying it needs to do better. Baquet has endorsed the report. I was just saying he needs to lead by example.

  3. Posted October 8, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Bonnie, I may be guilty of small thinking, but you have mischaracterized my approach in describing it, in quotes, as “only digital.” I’d be curious where that quote comes from or what I’ve said that supports that description of my approach. My actual positions leave plenty room for criticism and I welcome such criticism (Dean Baquet was responding to my invitation for comment). But you might be operating under a misconception about what I advocate, if you think it’s “digital only.”

    As for protection of sources, I have certainly addressed that as an important issue for journalists to keep in mind: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/factors-to-consider-in-granting-confidentiality-to-sources/

    Your statement about my apparent lack of appreciation for your reminder of the World War II code talkers mystifies me. I have searched my email and the comments on my blog and can’t find any references to your name, code talkers or Navajos. I’ve also searched in vain for such a reference to me in social media. Maybe I’m not searching correctly, and I certainly have a faulty memory, but I simply can’t remember anyone making such a point to me. I invite you to make it directly to me by email: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. I don’t know whether I will appreciate it or not. But I think at this point, I did not receive (or perhaps did not notice) it.

  4. Len Downie
    Posted October 8, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I just want Tim to know that, in my years as executive editor of The Washington Post, I was such a persistent advocate of weather stories that much of my staff came to regard it as what Tim calls “bull crap.”

  5. Posted October 8, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Weather stories are especially big stories in Washington in the winter, Len, because Washington does such a lousy job of handling winter weather: http://www.tbd.com/articles/2011/01/wednesday-s-washington-commute-longer-than-a-drive-from-boston-47942.html