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Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 10/27/2011

Gene Weingarten is wrong about bacon-cats and journalism


Bacon. Cat. (John Scalzi - FTWP)
Gene Weingarten is a cantankerous old fud.

“Every time I write despairingly about what’s happening to my profession,” Gene writes this week, “there erupts an online clatter from younger journalists who contend I am a dyspeptic old codger resisting necessary and healthful change . . .

“When this column is published, young journalists will once again call me a cantankerous old fud, and allege that I am irresponsibly criticizing a brave new world I don’t really understand. Mostly, they’ll contend I am being shallow, and superficial, and shabby with the facts. I’m pretty sure they will do this without any sense of irony.”

Well, you’re wrong, Weingarten. We will do this with lots of irony.

What Gene is complaining about this week is a keynote address from something called ONA, a relatively recent phenomenon where journalists get together and, as a collective, announce that they have no idea what they are doing or where journalism is going, but that they have altered whatever it is they are flinging at the wall to see if it will stick. According to the speech, the new going wisdom is that news writers ought to be a conduit for the reader’s desires, and that mainly these desires are for images of bacon taped to cats. Why not? We’ll try anything.

When you are a young person starting out in the field, they sit you down and say, “Hey, print media may be dying, but journalism — journalism will go on. We aren’t sure how,” they add, “but trust us. Do you do video?”

There’s a Mitch Hedberg routine in which he complains that, whenever anyone sees you doing stand-up comedy, they want you to do something else. “When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do things besides comedy. They say, ‘Okay, you’re a stand-up comedian — can you act? Can you write? Write us a script?’. . . It’s as though if I were a cook and I worked my [rear] off to become a good cook, [and] they said, ‘All right, you’re a cook — can you farm?’

Young Journalists get this a lot. In the office, we stroll past a series of venerable elders trying to accustom themselves to a workplace where they are required to use keyboards, abjure porkpie hats and not sip whiskey pulled from their desk drawers, and where yelling “Sweetheart, get me rewrite!” is a sign of a neurotic breakdown. Meanwhile someone wants us to write a story and then produce an interactive personality quiz photo gallery for it using JavaScript, which is noble but not quite how we pictured things. “You are under 30, so this is your metier, right?” they say, hopefully. “Absolutely,” we murmur. “And tweet more!” “Sure!” we say.

“The tweets should have flair, but not too much flair, and they should make jokes, but not too many jokes, and they should be wildly, hysterically original and draw people in, but should not offend people,” says every newsroom policy ever, in about as many words.

My point is, we do the impossible every day, because that is what the business requires.

The trouble with being a young journalist is that you have a tendency to wander around starry-eyed, murmuring, “I’d do this for free!” Every time a young journalist mutters this, Arianna Huffington feels a surge of power and an ink-stained wretch somewhere gets shown the door. Correlation, causation? Who’s to say?

But what Gene is missing is that Old Journalism thrived only under the expensive delusion that people actually wanted Real News about Important Issues.

For decades, we had no idea what anyone was reading. We thought that people actually looked forward to our eight-column lugubrious commentary on the condition of the corn futures market, or that the Foreign section was a thing that interested anyone. “The reason no one can find Afghanistan on a map,” we told ourselves, “is not that they don’t read all our foreign coverage. It is bizarre, sudden-onset amnesia.”

Now we know better. What people want on the Internet, sometimes, is quality journalism. What they want all the time is images of cats.

And in a way, isn’t this more noble? To give people what they really want?

Sure, the thought occurs to us every so often that replacing the entire Opinions section with fair-to-moderately well-written “Twilight” fanfiction would probably get more hits. But we don’t despair. We work harder.

“Bella,” Edward murmured. “Your skin glitters. You are truly a vampire. Do you think that Huntsman is washed up, and, if so, whose fault is it really?”

“I’m glad you asked that,” Bella purred. “I am not entirely convinced by his economic proposals, and his effort to present himself as a sane alternative has been self-defeating lately.” She did a vampire thing, and it was mildly sexy, and her daughter Renesmee smiled and hissed, “I’m for Cain.”

And is this so demeaning? Is this even a departure from what journalism has always been?

Sloppy and unnecessarily titillating? In “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce defined reporter as “(n) a writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.”

And the stats add perspective. Few and far between are the stories more interesting than bacon taped to cats, it turns out! Before Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein actually pitched a story about bacon and cats, but it was turned down. This is a golden age! A new golden age! Right? Say yes, please. I might add a poll!

Look, journalists these days are being asked to do the impossible, in print and online. We are asked to do something that people used to be willing to pay for but now want for free, to do it just as well if not better, and to do it faster. Meanwhile the Huffington Post exists. So far, our only recourse has been to make the Web site more difficult to navigate, perhaps hoping to keep visitors trapped in it long enough for us to stun them and drag them to our advertisers, and to hire something called a blogger, a person like me whom an irate letter writer recently congratulated for “sucking on purpose.” Thank you, whoever you are.

The one comfort of Weingarten’s plaint was that, almost as long as journalism has been around, people have been complaining that it wasn’t what it once was. It’s a sign of life. But Weingarten at least had dozens of years with Journalism. We new kids are the Harold to its Maude. Journalism is that crazy old lady who will love us for a limited time before her passing, to the accompaniment of Cat Stevens music.

But in the meantime, she can have all the bacon cats she wants.

Update, Friday 11:05 AM: ONA keynote speaker Ben Huh responds.

By  |  03:00 PM ET, 10/27/2011

 
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