Reinventing the Newsroom

An Industry of David Pogues

Posted in Branding, Cultural Change, The Journalist as Brand by reinventingthenewsroom on September 8, 2009

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.


8 Responses

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  1. […] SOBRE o caso de David Pogue no NYT é preciso ler: An Industry of David Pogues. […]

  2. Don Fry said, on September 8, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    I agree that journalists should have the freedom to pursue “their own brand,” but I can see some likely conflicts beyond the traditional constraints. One has to do with repurposing. Most freelancers publish what they write in several forms and several venues. With full-time staff writers acting like hyper-freelancers, we may have problems of self-plagiarism and copyright overlap. We may also have problems of insider knowledge. Writers who know their publication’s trade secrets, such as who’s investigating what, will find themselves caught in divided loyalties. We need somebody to think this all out, probably the Poynter Institute.

  3. Ellen705 said, on September 8, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    Divided loyalties? Life is divided loyalties. What Pogue is is a professional. And frankly, unless he’s been exposed as a fraud of some sort (and “self-plagiarism” is laughable in that regard), he should be at liberty to do what he is good at and tell us all about it. This brings to mind the nonsensical stance, taken by some political journalists and journalism organizations, not to vote, or donate to political causes (NYT prohibits it). As if they don’t trust themselves, or can’t be trusted, to THINK apart from their jobs. There’s something intellectually dishonest and sad about people who don’t believe in their own integrity, or who aren’t self-aware enough to recognize or even acknowledge bias. Instead they want to deny that it exists in them; that just feeds public cynicism in all news media. Here’s an idea. Do your job. Chase after the truth, whether it’s about operating systems or presidential policy. There’s no need to balance it with lies.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on September 9, 2009 at 8:27 am

      I think the key to this issue — and to bridging the differences expressed in the two comments above — is transparency.

      In reviews, Pogue should disclose if he’s working on/has written a book about the product being reviewed. He’s agreed to do just that, and offer disclosure about his various work, ethical standards, investments, etc. For me, that’s a good answer — the reader can look over Pogue’s various efforts and make his or her own judgment about them.

      The same applies to freelancers and independent contractors. Here, the Web forces a certain level of transparency as it is — search will reveal excessive repurposing readily enough. Re divided loyalties, the question of competition becomes a critical one. The NYT wouldn’t tolerate Pogue writing reviews for the Washington Post; your City Council reporter’s independent blog shouldn’t be Secrets of the Evil City Council.

      Yes, this all needs to be discussed and debated. But I think it’s critical that we begin from the right starting point: that writers of all levels of seniority are going to want and need to follow a career path like Pogue’s.

  4. danny bloom said, on September 10, 2009 at 1:37 am

    Pogue rules the prints. He’s good at what he does, leave him alone.

  5. danny bloom said, on September 10, 2009 at 1:43 am

    Center for the Future of the Screen
    FROM: Center for the Future of the Screen
    DIRECTOR: Danny Bloom

    Do we need a new word for the new kind of “reading” we do on screens?

    TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Are you reading this press release — or — are you
    screening this? How you answer
    this question will determine whether you get to the bottom of this
    news release.

    Alex Beam, writing in the Boston Globe on June 19, fired the first
    volley in this now-national
    discussion. “Do we read differently on the computer screen from how we
    read on the
    printed page?” Beam asked rhetorically. His column was headlined by a
    savvy Globe copyeditor: “I screen, you screen, we all screen.”

    The answer to Beam’s question is, of course, yes. From most of the
    research that has come in so
    far from academics in
    North America and Europe, the answer is clear, although not everyone’s
    in agreement with what it all means.

    Yes, screening has multiple meanings. We screen movies, we screen job
    candidates, we screen
    patients for medical problems, we do a lot of “screening” in this
    world of ours. And now, you will be hearing a lot about a new kind of
    “screening” — so-called reading on plastic, pixelated screens.

    Dr. Anne Mangen at the
    University of Stavanger in Norway tells us what she thinks about the word
    “screening” for reading on a screen: “My first
    impression is that the term ‘screening’ is adequate in some
    respects, but not in others. It’s adequate to the extent that it
    points to certain differences in the reading mode which has to do with
    the display nature, the central bias of a screen compared to a page of
    print text (our gaze is naturally oriented towards the center), and
    the image-like character of modalities (we tend to read a screen
    spatially, in contrast to the page which we linearly).”

    Dr Mangen, in a published academic paper published in Britain last
    December, listed a few reasons that reading on paper
    and reading on a screen are two very different animals.

    * Reading on a screen is not as rewarding — or effective — as
    reading printed words on paper.

    * The process of reading on a screen involves so much physical
    manipulation of the
    computer that it interferes with our ability to focus on and
    appreciate what we’re reading.

    * Online text moves up and down the
    screen and lacks physical dimension, robbing us of a feeling of

    * The visual happenings on a compter screen and our physical interaction
    with the entire device and its set ip can be distracting. All of these things
    tax human cognition and concentration in a way that a book or
    newspaper or magazine does not.

    * The experience of reading a book or a newspaper or a magazine is
    both a story experience and a tactile one.

    The jury’s still out on just how different reading on paper is
    from reading on a screen, but the public discussions in the blogsphere
    are getting interesting — and heated. But more and more, top experts
    in the computer and Internet fields, as well as typeface designers and
    readability gurus, are in agreement that we need a new word
    for reading on screens, and that the word should be “screening.” For
    now. A completely new word might come down the information highway in
    the future and take the place of screening. But for now, you screen, I
    screen, we all screen.

    We asked Kevin Kelly, the well-respected maverick of Wired magazine,
    what he felt about this
    new word for reading on screens, he told us by email in one short sentence: “I
    would be happy to see screening become a verb (for this).”

    Mim Harrison, a book editor in Florida with Levenger Press, said: “I find the
    distinction between reading and screening to be intriguing, and it
    certainly gives us all pause to consider just what it is we’re doing
    with our eyeballs these days.”

    “Screening, of course, is not a new term,” a top expert in predicting
    the future told us in a recent email, but this might just be the
    time that it catches on in the way you suggest. Screening is a clever
    and useful term capturing the fact that the
    experience of reading on a screen is fundamentally different from reading
    on paper. Not a priori worse or better; just different.”

    And then he added this important note: “It is the right word for the
    moment in terms of drawing people’s attention to the vast literary
    shift about to wash over us.”

    When we asked technology reporter John Markoff at the New York Times
    about this idea, he replied in a one-word email note: “Hmmmmmmm.”

    We asked David Pogue at the New York Times the same question, and he
    said: “Very interesting.”

  6. […] An Industry of David Pogues « Reinventing the Newsroom Kevin: Jason Fry writes: "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." […]

  7. […] Finally, two other hints at possible aspects of a new system of news: Jason Fry looks at journalists as “micro-brands” within their publications, and the Nieman […]

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