Don’t Settle: The Journalist in the Shadow of the Commercial Web




JOURNALISM serves two important roles: it keeps us informed about political, economic, and cultural changes that could resonate through society, and it provides a starting point for a conversation about those changes. That’s why good journalism is so essential. But journalism exists only as the accumulated work of individual journalists. That means the actual practice of journalism — the way those individual journalists go about their work, and the circumstances under which they do it — matter quite a bit in their own right.

A few years ago, I interviewed Renata Adler to mark the republication of her novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark. Our conversation stuck mostly to her fiction, and to the process of writing in general. But we also spoke very briefly about her long career as a journalist — she worked on staff at both The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others — and she reiterated a point she has made often over the years: “I’ve deeply believed for a long time in the decline of the press, the ascendance of power, and the decline of quality.” Reading Adler’s recent career-spanning After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction brings all this to the surface for me, because so much of her work comments on the behavior of other journalists, and on journalistic norms. Though I’m not certain how much I agree that the press is in “decline,” as opposed to perpetually beset by forces that can foster bad practices, I certainly believe that bad journalism ultimately serves the powerful; if journalists don’t adequately contest the agenda of political, economic, and cultural elites, that agenda will completely define the parameters of our society’s conversations and debates.

Almost all of Adler’s work predates the rise of digital media — indeed, she explicitly told me that her concerns about the profession had “nothing to do with the internet” — and her book appears at a time when optimism about journalism is, if not universal, at least widespread. So it’s easy to try and answer her warnings with talk about technology, and promises that the new digital landscape can solve the problems reporters and commentators face, without any additional effort on the part of journalists as individuals. In particular, many point to the leveling effects of modern communications technology as a spur to better and more informative reporting and analysis. Looking at the diversity and sheer quantity of work available online, journalist and self-described “golden-ager” Felix Salmon declares, “I think this is probably the greatest era for journalism that the world has ever seen.” But that optimism comes with a caveat — because he immediately notes, “the exact same forces which are good for journalism and good for owners [of media companies] are the forces which are bad for journalists themselves,” and that the chances of an individual journalist leveraging her career into a middle-class lifestyle “have probably never been lower.” While I share Salmon’s enthusiasm for technology itself, his aside about the economics of journalism — more precisely, the economics of a typical journalist’s career — is exactly why pessimists like Adler give me pause, because career pressures strike me as a significant threat to the ability of journalists to fulfill their role in society.

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Journalistic sins come in all shapes and sizes. The most obvious “bad apples” are the fabulists — people like former New Republic reporter Stephen Glass, who fabricated dozens of stories wholesale, inventing not only sources but entire events. There are lazy or naïve reporters, who are unwittingly but easily manipulated by their subjects. There are cynics who knowingly let powerful sources manipulate them in exchange for the kind of access that might lead to “big” career-boosting scoops down the line. And plenty more. After the Tall Timber chronicles many such lapses — Adler is particularly tough on reporters who rely on “anonymous” official sources, letting these powerful, unnamed government and business figures dictate newsroom agendas merely because they control official paths to information. But it’s another, more subtle habit that strikes me as especially pertinent in today’s professional environment: the risks of settling down. This problem hovers in the background of a few pieces, but Adler calls it to the center exactly once: in one of her most famous essays, “House Critic,” a rather brutal assessment of influential film critic Pauline Kael’s late career.

In a newly written introduction to the piece, Adler explains that when she wrote it, “Pauline Kael’s interest in movies was declining, even as her writing style became more and more excessive. She began less to write than to rule.” The essay itself ties the decline of Kael’s work to the specific pressures of writing a weekly column:

Serious publications […] tend from time to time to hire talented people, educated, usually young, devoted to the craft of criticism, at least as it entails fidelity to an art and to a text under review. What usually happens is that such a critic writes for some time at his highest level: reporting and characterizing accurately; incorporating in whatever is judgmental evidence for what he’s saying (a sign of integrity in a critic, as opposed to an opinion monger, is that he tries for evidence; in reviewing prose forms, for example, he will quote); and producing insights, and allusions, which, if they are not downright brilliant, are apposite. What happens after a longer time is that he settles down.

Adler praises Kael’s early writing, saying it “seemed to approach movies with an energy and a good sense that were unmatched at the time in film criticism.” But, she contends, “Over the years […] Ms. Kael’s quirks, mannerisms, tics, and excesses have […] taken over her work.” In the face of relentless deadlines, and demands for “more,” Kael fell back on a set of stylistic and rhetorical tics that she used again and again, regardless of context. Essentially Adler’s case is that Kael became an institution — or, in modern parlance, a brand — rather than a journalist or critic. The constant need to produce copy led her to substitute formula and intellectual gesture for quality work, pandering to her audience instead of focusing on crafting coherent arguments. Adler shows how certain affectations — such as “the mock rhetorical question” — recur throughout Kael’s late writing, and how Kael’s ideas are presented over and over as mere assertions, rather than as carefully supported conclusions. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Adler’s assessment of Kael — and the piece remains controversial to this day — it’s clear she’s hit upon an important professional pitfall.

Settling down stems from the same career pressures that lead to more serious offenses. When Adler turns her gaze to a pariah like Jayson Blair, who resigned from The New York Times in 2003 for plagiarism and false reporting, she dispatches him with a quick, but insightful aside, observing that “any reader of ordinary intelligence” would assume Blair committed his offenses not because he was a serial liar, as his editors claimed, but because he was ambitious — he wanted “to publish a lot of pieces and get ahead.” Settling down is the more acceptable — and therefore more intractable — way of giving in to this exact same desire. It happens when career ambitions overwhelm a journalist’s sense of responsibility. And, in an environment where it’s harder to “get ahead” — because, as even optimists like Salmon admit, there are few viable career paths left — it becomes much harder to resist.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to avoid giving in to the temptation to settle down, and plenty of reporters who provide models on how to keep pushing yourself to produce good work. In our conversation, Adler singled out Janet Malcolm as one such writer:

An almost uncanny thing that happens to me in a piece by Janet Malcolm is that it is so fair, and so true, that I have the freedom to believe something else. And that’s happened with at least three pieces of Janet’s. Where I thought, “This is just absolutely brilliant. And somehow, on the basis of what you’ve written here, here’s what I think really happened.”

The key thing is that the reader feels compelled to react to Malcolm’s work, even if she doesn’t share Malcolm’s conclusions: Disagreement is a sign of engagement. A weak argument, or a poorly constructed account of events, can only be dismissed — but a well-constructed argument, and a well-reported piece, needs to be reckoned with, even by those who think differently about the matter in question. This reckoning is exactly what a journalist must aspire to. It is the antithesis of settling down.

Malcolm herself famously wrote about the craft of journalism in The Journalist and the Murderer, and the book offers some worthwhile insight for the journalist who refuses to settle. Though much of the book — which details the efforts of a convicted murderer named Jeffrey MacDonald to sue the journalist Joe McGinness over a book McGinness had written about MacDonald’s trial — focuses on the reporter-subject relationship, Malcolm also explores journalism as a particular kind of writing: “What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.” Skepticism is the first step to being a good journalist. And the first step to good writing. But it’s worth pausing to note that real skepticism — as opposed to showy faux contrarianism — takes time.

The official story is the easiest, and fastest, story to write, because it’s already been laid out. This is one way powerful sources influence coverage: by offering an easy story to ambitious reporters looking to publish quickly. And it’s a hallmark of a “settled” reporter to play along, taking the predigested story in order to churn out easy copy on a deadline. A truly skeptical journalist needs to be willing to put in the time and effort to not only “question” an official report, but actually explore its logical flaws. All journalism — whether it be an opinion piece, a work of criticism, or a simple recounting of discrete events — is a form of argument. A journalist might make a louder, critical argument, the way Adler does when she writes about Kael, or she might make a quieter argument that simply assembles facts about a particular event and then turns them into an account of “what happened.” In all cases, the most important thing is for the journalist to assemble that argument in a transparent way — to include all pertinent information; to quote participants, primary documents, and subjects as much as possible; and to work as hard as possible to leave room for the reader to draw her own conclusions.

This means a good journalist needs to be cognizant of the mechanics of making an argument. And much of The Journalist and the Murderer in particular looks at the nuts and bolts of writing and reporting — whether that be editing quotes to remove the “bizarre syntax,” “hesitations,” and other eccentricities that make spoken language difficult to follow on the page, without changing the subject’s meaning or style of speech; or the necessity of resisting the urge to turn a subject into a “character.” As Malcolm observes, “Real people seem relatively uninteresting in comparison [to literary characters], because they are so much more complex, ambiguous, unpredictable, and particular than people in novels,” so an ambitious, unscrupulous reporter might be inclined to flatten them out, to turn them into literary devices, putting the need for accessibility over the obligation to be truthful. Though she never uses the phrase herself, all of these temptations are also forms of settling down — the impulse to produce something attention-grabbing, without putting in the hard work it takes to make genuinely informative journalism, the way Kael (at least from Adler’s point of view) put over half-formed ideas with intellectual gestures and stylistic flourishes.

But the most important thing about Malcolm’s approach to these temptations isn’t that she lays them out so clearly, but the way she frames her resistance to them: “The writer of nonfiction is under contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events or these characters.” This idea — that the journalist has a special contract with the reader — strikes me as both true and essential. A contract is an agreement between equal parties. It means that the relationship between the two is rooted in respect — for the reader’s time, attention, and intelligence. Settling down is a bad thing because it elevates the journalist’s career — the need to publish a lot of pieces and get ahead — above the reader’s need to be informed.

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Today, almost all journalism is digital journalism, in the sense that even work that appears in print also exists online. To pick but one prominent example — The New York Times, perhaps the most prominent print news source in the US, boasts a daily circulation of less than 650,000; that pales beside the 54 million unique views the site can draw in one month online. But digital journalism simply doesn’t make as much money as print journalism. As most people are already aware, advertising revenue has declined significantly across the newspaper industry — 4 percent overall, even when factoring in greater readership online and increased digital advertising revenue. Since newspapers traditionally offered a fairly large number of journalists stable jobs and institutional support, this has made the industry more tenuous, at least overall.[1]

Salmon isn’t wrong to be excited about the state of journalism today. Technology enables good work to spread faster, and it eliminates the biggest compromise of print: space. In theory, journalists can now write to their material — a deeply reported story about an important event can stretch out longer than a newspaper of magazine can accommodate. And the fact a reporter or commentator can quickly and easily look up scores of primary sources, statistical reports, or the work of colleagues certainly means the tools to create good journalism are more readily at hand than ever before. But, for most users and nearly all working journalists, the online experience takes place entirely on the commercial web — an explicitly commercial space dominated by a very small number of companies, such as Facebook and Google.[2] Those companies make decisions based on their own interests, and those of their shareholders. And that complicates things considerably, because they are not particularly inclined to share much of their revenue with journalists or publishers. The pressures under which journalists have always labored — the need to publish a lot of pieces and get ahead — only become worse.

Astra Taylor’s 2014 book The People’s Platform does an especially good job of laying out the problems the commercial web poses for news organizations, and for culture as a whole.[3] Her main point is that the commercial web’s efficiency and inherently consumer-centered nature amplify pressures that have always been present. Many journalists are even asked to contribute their work for free, in exchange for “exposure,” an amorphous idea that only reinforces the notion that a journalist needs to produce a lot of work very quickly in order to build a reputation in the hopes of getting paid to write something else down the road. The habits this engenders — an emphasis on speed, a lack of attachment to a particular piece (another will be along tomorrow, or even in the next hour), a general attitude that journalism is fundamentally about producing content rather than engaging readers — are the exact same ones that have traditionally led journalists to settle down, in one way or another.

For example, on July 6, a Washington Post opinion piece by Stacey Patton and David J. Leonard criticized the comedian Amy Schumer for a series of jokes she made at the expense of Mexican Americans and other Latinos. They concluded, “Schumer used her stage to play and profit off race while people of color are bearing the brunt of racial violence.” While the jokes they cite certainly are tasteless — and offensive — and their broader point about racial violence is a legitimate one, the piece does very little to put Schumer’s jokes in context, to see why audiences react to them the way they do, or how they operate in the wider context of Schumer’s stage show. A follow-up piece by Debra Kessler revealed why: the writers didn’t put in the time to actually research Schumer before writing. Kessler spoke to Patton about the article, and learned that she hadn’t actually seen the Schumer performances in question, not even on tape:

In fact, before the “Schumer issue” came up, she had never seen Amy Schumer perform stand up, and she had never seen Schumer’s Comedy Central television show. Even more surprising, she said she didn’t watch any of Amy’s performances or shows while writing the article, not even as background for the piece.

A reader needs something to hold on to — details, context, and enough information to draw her own conclusions. That’s what a conversation entails: an intellectual give and take. Patton and Leonard’s piece doesn’t give the reader enough information to make an informed judgment either way, because the authors didn’t master their subject before writing it. Instead, the article draws heavily from another, separate discussion of Schumer by the Guardian’s Monica Heisey. There are a few reasons this kind of “aggregated” analytical piece — which is very common — is problematic. First it’s simply irresponsible to make a conclusion or build an argument without actually doing the proper research: a journalist needs to reestablish his or her authority in every single piece, every single time, because every single piece asks the reader anew to lend her time and attention. More importantly, though, it limits the journalist’s ability to really explain a problem. A journalist that doesn’t know their subject down cold ends up with a monologue: they have just enough information to make their own judgment about what happened, but cannot make the kind of argument that might convince the reader this judgment is correct.

The point is not that the reader should or should not disagree with the conclusion; the point is that the reader can’t. The only choice is to accept it on face value, or dismiss it. There is not room for the genuine engagement a reporter like Malcolm inspires, because there isn’t enough detail about the central facts. This isn’t really about a particular article, or a particular writing team. According to Patton, this specific piece came into being at an editor’s prompting, only after Heisey’s article had already generated controversy — in fact, she indicated that they had originally turned down the assignment, only deciding to write the piece after being prodded to do so.[4] This is the shadow of the commercial web: a controversy erupts on social media, and the economic imperatives of digital publishing lead editors to push for work that can capitalize on the wave — quick pieces that are almost designed to fail, at least in traditional journalistic terms. I’ve certainly written similarly disappointing pieces in my life, and many other writers have too. It’s very easy to settle down when so many incentives point in that direction.

The internet allows for a lot of analysis, because journalists can comment on a story as it develops. That’s a good thing — analysis is really important — but the commercial web often promotes a kind of analysis that benefits platforms instead of readers. The problem is that democratic conversation, the kind that journalism needs to nurture, takes place between people, while the commercial web’s primary interest is presenting a conversation for people — a simulacrum, that can be used as a vehicle for advertisements and a means of collecting data about readers’ interests (to make sure those ads are well targeted). It’s not enough to engage readers, but it’s enough to draw clicks from readers wasting time at work, and clicks pay. This opens up a place for “analytical” writing that promises an argument, but doesn’t necessarily need to deliver it. It is the most prevalent modern way a good journalist settles down. And it leads to wasting a lot of readers’ time, which is a brazen violation of the terms of the journalist’s “contract.” More importantly, it reinforces the pernicious notion that there is no distinction between journalism and mere content, which helps build acceptance for other kinds of “settled” work — including the kind that merely repeats official stories from official sources. When journalists fail to engage readers, they discourage readers from critically engaging with journalism — and that diminishes readers’ ability to critically engage in democratic conversation as a whole.

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Salmon is definitely right about one thing — there is absolutely a lot of good journalism being produced, the kind of work that not only doesn’t waste the reader’s time but rewards it. Perhaps the most lauded journalistic project of the last few years is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “The Case for Reparations.” In a lengthy profile of Coates, New York magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells observed that it is “probably the most discussed magazine piece of the Obama era.” The article earned any number of industry accolades, including a National Magazine Award and a George Polk Award. It attracted a large audience, too, particularly online; according to editor James Bennet, it “brought more visitors to the Atlantic [website] in a single day than any single piece we’ve ever published.”[5] The essay’s success boosted Coates’s already considerable profile, helping to launch his most recent book Between the World and Me (published in July 2015) to bestseller status. It’s difficult to imagine an individual assignment earning a better response. For that reason, it’s worth looking at exactly how and why “The Case for Reparations” works so well, because that can help illuminate what a journalist can accomplish by not settling down.

The essay begins with the experience of Clyde Ross, an elderly Chicago resident who grew up in the segregationist South, and then after migrating north was subject to rather grotesque — though at the time legal, and sometimes even codified in local, state, and federal law — housing discrimination. Coates judges this discrimination to be a form of plunder, using that specific word to great purpose, as he moves from the overt plunder of slavery — “Plunder had been the essential feature of slavery” — to the more subtle plunder of Jim Crow and housing discrimination. Along the way he considers German reparations to the victims of Nazism and their descendents, the ideas of John Locke, and more, before finally endorsing HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, a piece of legislation put forth by Congressman John Conyers Jr.

What’s remarkable about the piece is the sheer volume of quotations from both sources and from individuals like Ross. When Coates wants to talk about German reparations, he cites David Ben-Gurion, an Israeli political leader who actively lobbied for them; when he wants to talk about discrimination in the New Deal (when Social Security was first introduced in 1935, nearly two thirds of African American workers were ineligible for the program) or the GI Bill (Title III of the bill relied on private banks to give housing loans to eligible veterans, but it did nothing to prevent banks from simply refusing to issue those loans) he turns to historians like Ira Katznelson and Kathleen J. Frydl. When he writes, “Today Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, a fact that reflects assiduous planning,” he does so only after giving an overview of the years of legislation that constituted that planning. It’s no accident that the word “plunder” now often appears in discussions of racial injustice — Coates’s argument is so well constructed that it is inevitable that some of its language would leak into the wider conversation. This leakage is the sign of a successful journalist — it means his or her work has successfully helped others frame their discussion of an important issue or event. And it only happened through the hard work of crafting an exacting argument.

It’s important to note that “The Case for Reparations” is also a triumph of institutional support. At more than 16,000 words, it is extraordinarily long by journalistic standards, especially since it also appeared in The Atlantic’s print edition, which has natural space limitations. It obviously took a lot of time to report, research, and write, and it seems unlikely Coates could have done that without having a staff position at the magazine, guaranteeing him an income while he put it together. He is the exception to Salmon’s caveat about career opportunities. For that reason, it’s very easy for a journalist working without that kind of support to feel this kind of work is beyond her — that it’s something to aspire to create one day, in the future, after publishing more pieces in the present and getting ahead. And it’s hard not to sympathize with a reporter whose editor might be more interested in flashy “content” over well-constructed arguments.

I certainly agree that — like a lot of important jobs — journalism can be a thankless profession sometimes. And I also agree that readers need to be willing to support good reporting and analysis, even by paying for it. But I also think the most important lesson of Coates’s piece turns out to be one that applies no matter what size project someone is undertaking, and how much support they are getting behind the scenes: be sensitive to how you are crafting your argument, and trust your audience to be able to handle it. If you step back and look at “The Case for Reparations,” its success stems not from its scope but from its execution: the use of quotations, the research, and the care with which it’s assembled. It keeps the contract with the reader. And anyone — even if they don’t possess Coates’s talent as a wordsmith — can put the effort in to sharpen their material. All it takes is a recognition that a journalist’s task is not to publish a lot of pieces and get ahead, but to engage the reader as sincerely as possible.

Journalists need to think like writers, in the sense that they need to have ambition about the quality of their work: If it can be better, it should be better. Every time. This isn’t merely a matter of good industry practice — in a democratic society, journalists carry no small measure of responsibility. Or, as Adler puts it in After the Tall Timber: “Independent journalists have obligations of their own.” Good journalism makes society more democratic by keeping people informed enough to participate in the full spectrum of democratic activity. But this only happens when journalists themselves make a point of not settling down — of pushing back against career pressures, shortsighted editors, and the commercial web itself. Content is not conversation. And ultimately it is conversation that a democratic society needs. It’s important not to settle for anything less.

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[1] The data in this paragraph all comes from the Pew Research Center, and can be found here.

[2] By “commercial web,” I refer to the nexus of platforms, investors, and business norms that dominates the digital economy — many, though not all, rooted in the for-profit sectors of the World Wide Web.

[3] For a fuller discussion of Taylor’s book, and of the commercial web as a whole, please see my previous essay Contemplation vs. Consumption: Making Sense of the Commercial Web.

[4] This is per Kessler’s reporting, linked above.

[5] The quote from Bennet is drawn from this piece by Richard Prince.

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Guy Patrick Cunningham is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York.


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