“Journalism Has Other Values Besides Popularity”

By Jack Limpert

Earlier this week Christopher B. Daly put up an interesting post, “What if traffic metrics had been used throughout journalism’s history?” Daly was bouncing off a David Carr column in the New York Times in which Carr identifies a trend “of news organizations paying their contributors based on how much traffic their individual ‘stories’ garner. If an item is really popular and brings a lot of eyeballs to the site, the ‘writer’ of the piece earns more money. Conversely, if you write pieces that hardly anyone look at, you get paid less—or nothing.”

Daly then says, “The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account that journalism has other values besides popularity. Yes, we want readers/viewers, and we want as many as we can get. But we also want to serve our society by occasionally embarking on stories that are so expensive to investigate that they will never pay back any return on the investment of resources put into them. Or, we sometimes work on stories that matter intensely to a small group of people. And, from time to time, we run stories that turn just about everyone off but still make the world a slightly better place.”

He then points out that some stories, like the Watergate investigation or Sy Hersh’s My Lai story, need time to develop, suggesting that if we only pay writers to do stories that are popular, lots of important stories never will get reported and written.

Daly, now a professor at Boston University, once worked for the AP and the Washington Post, and his examples of public interest stories that wouldn’t get done reflect his wire service and newspaper background. Based on my editing a monthly magazine, here’s another kind of hard-to-do story that seems endangered as journalism trends toward filing six times a day.

I called them “emotional” stories, and every month I tried to make sure The Washingtonian had one along with all the service and trend pieces.

An example: One weekend I was talking with a writer, John Pekkanen, who mostly did stories about health and medicine, and he said he’d been talking with a hospital radiologist who was dealing with an unusual situation. The top thoracic surgeon at the hospital, a man named Paul Adkins, had developed a cough and the radiologist had arranged a chest x-ray. Looking at the x-ray, the radiologist saw that Adkins had an advanced lung cancer that neither surgery nor drugs would cure. Then came the moment when Dr. Adkins looked at his own x-ray.

This was a story that took more than three months to do and for a writer it’s not the kind of piece that’s a sure thing—maybe it’ll be great, maybe not.

The headline on the story, “Hope All Things, Endure All Things,” was taken from Corinthians: “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

The story’s deck: “Dr. Paul Adkins glanced at the clock above the lightbox. It was 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday. He took a final look at his x-rays and the thought hit him: ‘I am looking at my own obituary.’”

The story went on to describe a man’s life and the internal battle between what he hoped and what he knew. This kind of story is timeless. If I read “Hope All Things” again—for the 100th time—I’ll still have tears in my eyes at the end.

Every month we tried to find a story that described people meeting life’s challenges—stories that showed courage, resiliency, compassion, love.  As Daly said, “Journalism has other values besides popularity,” and those values include both public service and the kind of stories that let us admire lives well-lived.
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The story also made clear that a lifetime of smoking  probably caused the cancer, and the American Lung Association distributed many thousands of copies of the story in its effort to get people to stop smoking

Comments

  1. As a media and culture columnist for The New York Times, is David Carr above being edited by the Times? Apparently so, given his use of “hardly anyone look at” rather than “hardly anyone looks at” — something an editor or proofreader should have caught and changed if allowed to do so.

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