An Industry of David Pogues
The New York Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, isn’t one to pull punches, as his thorough hiding of TV critic Alessandra Stanley made more than plain earlier this summer. Over the weekend, he took up the case of tech columnist David Pogue, whom he introduces as “a high-energy, one-man multimedia conglomerate.” (For the record, I’m a fan of Pogue’s.)
Pogue writes a weekly column, blog entries, an email newsletter and produces videos for the Times. He also makes regular TV and radio appearances, gives lectures and is a featured attraction on geek-focused Caribbean cruises. And he writes help books about tech products — often the same products he reviews in the Times. For instance, Pogue recently reviewed Snow Leopard, the new Mac operating system, and has written two “Missing Manuals” for the OS. (Pogue was already writing tech-help books when the Times hired him in 2000.)
Hoyt asked three journalism ethicists if that was a conflict of interest, and they all said it was. But they didn’t agree about how to solve it. Meanwhile, Hoyt polled people inside the building about activities such as Pogue’s (numerous other Times writers make a great deal of money from other interests) and reports — in a typically dry turn of phrase — that “with what seems a mixture of resignation and sensed opportunity, editors say The Times can be enhanced by all the outside activity.”
This isn’t just a dilemma for the New York Times: As David Pogue goes, so will many a journalist who wants to be able to keep paying the bills.
Nobody likes to say it, but lots of papers’ best writers have been “one-man multimedia conglomerates” for years — and like stars everywhere, they got to blur rules and trample guidelines. Back then, though, less-established writers had few outlets for outside work — the rules applied mainly because they were enforced by technological limitations.
Now, things are different: Writers can blog, record podcasts, shoot video on their own — and promote all this through their own efforts. This has spurred the rise of more and more independent contractors like Pogue, for whom a newspaper gig is just one of many writing outlets and ways of making a living. It’s led junior writers to regard the old rules with a mixture of bafflement and disdain: Why spend years covering City Council meetings or high-school sports when you can have your own blog about politics or pro football up and running in minutes?
And to this volatile mix, one more incendiary has been added: the precarious health of newspapers.
Early in my career, I got to tag along at a working lunch with my managing editor and an old friend of his who was starting up a new journalistic venture. They were going over the qualifications one would want from job candidates when my editor’s friend shook his head, smiling. What was more important, he said, was finding “people who are on fire for the Lord.”
I loved that line, and it served me well when my tasks came to include assessing job candidates. But I fear it now describes a bygone era — in ours, even the most-devout worshipper may find the church empty and its doors shut. I hate to say it, but it’s no longer realistic to expect new journalists to give everything they have to their newspaper, or to subordinate themselves to the paper and its brand. The compact that once applied has been broken by buyouts and layoffs and papers eliminating all positions and inviting former employees to reapply for new positions that pay much less, and by the technological and business uncertainty of where newspapers are heading and if they can get there. A wise journalist now hedges his or her bets, takes care of his or her own brand, and isn’t inclined to wait patiently for opportunities that may never arrive.
I’ve written before about the possibility of a new compact: one in which journalists are “micro-brands” within the paper, tackling the expanded duties of chatting and shooting video and beatblogging (and thus creating new contexts for attracting and keeping readers) in return for a higher public profile and some portable brand equity. But that’s just half of it: Papers also have to face the reality that not only established but also new writers will want to pursue outside opportunities, whether their goal is to make more money, build their brands or just scratch a creative itch.
Would that have been anathema not so long ago? Sure. But given newspapers’ current situation, not allowing writers such chances will just accelerate their exodus from the industry — or stop them from working for newspapers in the first place.
I think the Times responded to Hoyt’s questions the right way, by improving the disclosures Pogue makes to readers about his outside activities, code of ethics and books he’s writing. This is welcome, but not hugely surprising: The Times’s policy on outside activities is already both progressive and wise, in my opinion.
But what all papers need to realize is how many Pogues they will soon have within their ranks. Forbidding young writers from outside activities will no longer work. Instead, papers have to give them guidance that allows them the freedom they’ll demand, while making sure that freedom neither detracts from the paper’s needs nor hurts its name.