A journalist’s No. 1 ‘platform-neutral’ duty

Readers may not realize this, but journalists have all become paperboys and papergirls. We obsess over how and when the news will be delivered to readers — will it be in print, online, in the iPad application, pushed out to mobile phone users, tweeted or given away in a free edition on the subway?

In an earlier day, most of these distribution decisions were determined by the requirements of the subscription and circulation departments, the relatively unmovable deadlines of the printing presses and the size of the news “hole” — how many column inches were left for stories after the advertising spaces were sold.

But now newsies are all deeply engaged in, even haunted by, how to distribute the news. Lots of newsroom time is spent discussing which “platform” should carry the story and how fast can it get out there. It sounds like we’re all working for FedEx.

Not all of this is wholly bad, and much of it is necessary, prompted as it is by new technologies that enable us to reach millions — yes, millions — of readers instantly around the world instead of hundreds of thousands in a limited geographical area once a day.

That revolution, and the resulting hyper-competition in the media world, has us all looking over our shoulders. It’s no longer newspaper against newspaper, magazine against magazine, TV station against TV station; it’s everyone against everyone, a Web site up against a cable network, an iPad application against a print version, talk radio against a streaming video. It’s an intergalactic media arms race.

Which is why it’s time for journalists to come back to Earth. We need to remember our anchors: why we are in this business, who we are, what our mission is. We’re preoccupied with conveyances instead of with good journalism. Does a story “go viral” because of the transmitting technology? No, it goes viral because it’s an insightful, groundbreaking story. The great thing about the new technologies is that a good story will always find its audience.

So, after seven weeks as The Post’s ombudsman, I’d like readers and Post staffers to know what my guideposts are for good journalism, why I’m a journalist and what it means to me to be a part of this unique life.

First, I think that what we do here at The Post — all of us — is important, even supremely so. We do not manufacture widgets. Nor do we simply produce “content.”

What we do is report, write and edit stories. We take and publish photographs (and now video, too). We publish the stories and images as news through compelling design and graphics. And, in columns and blogs, we analyze the news. Through this painstaking process, we reveal truths. The country cannot long survive as a democracy, or as a capitalist economy, without this kind of independent journalism.

That is why after Eugene Meyer bought this newspaper in 1933 he put at the top of his seven guiding principles: “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth can be ascertained.”

Meyer knew that not all truths are self-evident; they require the skills and toughness of reporters to uncover them. Ours is an unusual profession; the talents necessary for it cut across many occupations.

We are gossips, snoops and relentless inquisitors; we are curious. We like facing unpleasant facts; indeed our job is to get people to stare them in the face, even when ugly and uncomfortable.

We are also ambitious commodities traders, only our commodity — information — we regard as the most precious of all.

And we are, in a way, artists. We challenge, provoke, interpret and try to make sense of the world. We do this through words, pictures and art. It is the stories, the truths and the messages of our journalism that have power, especially when beautifully crafted and properly expressed.

And because our calling is enshrined in the First Amendment, right up there with freedom of religion, we sometimes think we are the anointed ones. We are vainglorious. Yes, readers, we know that can be annoying.

Finally, like a religious order, we pledge ourselves to a unitary god: the truth. It is this, this call to something greater, this relentless pursuit of the truth that I appreciate most about this life, this work we do, and it is this goal that I think should guide our newsroom decisions. Does this story, blog post, graphic or photograph get us closer to the truth? What more could we do to make sure that it does?

How and when we deliver the news is of course important in this new-media age. But our first duty is to be truth-tellers.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at http://voices.washingtonpost. com/
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