There’s No “I” in Team But There’s a Lot of It in Great Journalism

By Jack Limpert

More than 80 percent of the professionals who responded to the survey said that being a “team player” was important to very important. That was higher than the 71 percent response by educators. Educators might want to think about how they can help students understand that journalism is not a “lone wolf” profession.
—From “Core Skills for the Future of Journalism”

Okay, being a good team player has its place in journalism, especially in producing the grind-it-out copy that’s a big part of today’s digital journalism. But as a magazine editor, I was looking for great reporting and writing and almost all the good writers I worked with weren’t team players. They wanted to be able to ask for research or editing help when needed but mostly they wanted to be left alone.

The writers who did great pieces—the kind of stories that resonate for months and years, not minutes—spent a couple of months reporting, thinking, and writing. I always thought great journalism was 25 percent reporting, 25 percent writing, and 50 percent thinking. That’s not the deadline-every-minute wire service journalism where I began my career and it’s not today’s digital journalism, much of which is closer to robot writing than real writing.

At the Washingtonian we did have lots of small meetings to kick around ideas and make everyone feel part of the creative process. But there were no emails to “Team” and writers didn’t have to listen to any team-building speeches.

Some writers say they now feel they’ve been forced to be part of a team with all that goes with it. When they’re in a relaxed mood, they make fun of the stream of “team” emails and the meetings where everyone is supposed to bond. When they’re not relaxed, when they’re doing their reporting, writing, and thinking, they see most of the team stuff as unwelcome noise.

When I see pictures of digital newsrooms where everyone looks like they’re working on an assembly line, my first reaction is not much thinking needed there. The best writers I worked with had an office door that was closed when they were writing and we knew to leave them alone. One writer did almost all his writing on weekends when the office was mostly empty, and many of them wrote in home offices where there were minimum distractions.

As for journalism not being a “lone wolf” profession, if J schools think journalism is only for team players, it’s another reason for editors to hire history majors.
I asked several writers about “Team” emails and meetings. Their responses:

“I think good journalists are born individualists, the creative sorts who are offended by business school types who seek to mold everybody into a ‘team.’ If I’d wanted to be on a team when I came out of college, I’d have joined the Xerox sales force.”

“I became a writer because of that shiver of excitement I got and still get when I take a notion and turn it into an idea, and then from an idea into a piece of writing—a piece of writing that didn’t exist previously. That sounds lofty but it’s the truth, whether the piece is investigative and important or a slice of a life. We’re talking about a process, about a period of gestation and incubation that then leads to creation. Take that away, or mess with it, and you’re making it clear that you have no respect for what I respect. That you don’t care about writers or writing.”

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