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.