Thursday, August 7, 2008

Passing the Smell Test

In my early days in journalism, a seasoned reporter once said these sage words to me, "Maria," he said rather gruffly, "there is no such thing as new news; there are only new reporters."

I get a kick out of that statement even today, although it is not entirely true. He said this a few years before the personal computer era, which of course revolutionized everything from business to the home. And which I had the privilege to cover.

Beyond that, it's absolutely true that new news comes along all the time. Anybody heard of derivatives? What about the dot-com bust? Who knew about wireless? Hey, how about blogs? Or smart car? Both the senior reporter and the U.S. Patent Office were wrong when they assumed that "everything that needs to be invented has been invented."

And it's also true that there are always new reporters. And a newsroom full of new reporters with no or few veterans is a newsroom without institutional memory. You can figure things out from the clips, but newbies will have fewer seasoned reporters and editors to turn to. It makes a difference to ask, "Hey so-and-so, you covered the Gainesville murders?" Or, "What really happend in that courtroom?" Or, "What was so-and-so really like?"

That reminds me of a true story about a young reporter who was sent to cover an artist with a new album release and a concert to perform. The artist was covering old standards made famous by an artist of another generation. Well, after the interview was nearly over, the reporter asks, "Well, where's so-and-so (the older singer)? I'd like to interview him." So-and-so had been cold and six feet under for many years. Bada bing. I was the editor over this reporter and he never lived that down.

Because the paper cuts have been so deep, especially at Tribune, it risks turning the newsroom into a place filled with people with little knowledge or connection to the local community. It may make reporting shallower -- at least until new folks get their bearings. And when they do, they'll be shown the door too, kicking the negative cycle into gear again.

In a transient community such as Orlando -- where people come and go all the time and roots do not run deep, where people still root for their home teams (where ever home is), and where people generally don't know their neighbors -- it's particularly dangerous to have a newspaper filled with transient journalists as well.

The sense of permanence and connection is sacrificed. The sense of in-depth knowledge about issues and people is diminished. Why bother reading the paper?

A newsroom filled only with oldtimers would be just as bad because there would be no new blood. News people being news people, such a newsroom would also be way too cynical and blase. Balance is what's needed.

But increasingly, that's not what we have. Of course, you can always say the newsroom now mirrors the Orlando community, and because both are newbies, who will know the difference between a story that understands what came before and one that merely passes the smell test for the next day's paper?

Who indeed.

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