You know what journalists apparently love to talk about? The state of journalism today.
The truth of the matter is that being a journalist can be simultaneously uplifting and rewarding and thrilling and depressing and tension-filled and infuriating. Yes, people experience that range of feelings in other professions (emergency services, I’m looking at you), but journalists have the means to easily talk about it, via the airwaves and printing presses, and these days, social media.
A few days ago, Kai Nagata’s 3000 word manifesto started blowing up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Not that he needs any more pageclicks or coverage from the likes of me, but in essence, the former National Assembly correspondent for CTV Montreal said that he could no longer stomach the superficiality of TV news, ie the dictating of news coverage by the audience/a quest for ratings, the way reporters are hired for their looks, and the frustration involved with not expressing an opinion on stories he was covering, among other things.
I’ll admit I sat and read the entire thing at one go. At the time, I even posted this status update: “judging by how many of my FB journo friends have re-posted Kai Nagata’s piece, it must have really struck a chord.”
In the days since, Nagata has done a range of interviews, and been hailed as a hero for daring to speak his mind, and for his “bravery” in quitting his job. There have been other responses too: Edmonton-based journalist Max Fawcett calling Nagata out for being a self-serving lazybones and Sandra Thomas of the Vancouver Courier quite beautifully expressing why she DIDN’T quit her job.
Then there was this thoughtful comment from my Facebook friend Hilary Henegar, reproduced here with her permission.
There is an underlying tension between ‘what the people want to see’ and ‘the important stories we should be bringing to people.’” this was something that proved a big struggle at my last editing gig (no need to name names)… people tend to click on top 5 lists about cats wearing costumes and charlie sheen catch phrases with the word “idiot” in the title, and advertisers want to see high traffic #s, so there’s a lot of pressure on editors to produce such content.
however, catering to this means they have to take resources away from more important content that meets the editorial mandate and serves readers, which then reduces “brand” loyalty – especially since the kind of traffic generated by ‘what the people want to see’ types of content tends to be low quality with very little return on investment besides the initial advertiser buy-in, which really is only a short-term solution to the much bigger problem of achieving sustainable revenue. the result: noise. a lot of it. and shrinking hard journalism budgets, especially for niche and hyperlocal markets, where the potential audience is already quite limited.
Also in my feed today via another Facebook friend – a link detailing why Claude Adams is no longer working at CBC Vancouver, after inadvertently “killing a dog” on air. I feel for you Claude; mistakes like that get made all the time. It just depends on where it airs and how many people hear it. And maybe how important the person hearing it is. I hope you land on your feet.
For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on all of this.
Quitting a full time job in the broadcast industry IS a brave move; they are hard gigs to come by, especially in the post financial meltdown world. I myself haven’t had a full time staff job (for a variety of reasons, which I’ll get into below) since August 2008. Others have gone for years beyond that.
I know some of Nagata’s points resonated with colleagues; I’ve heard some of the same viewpoints expressed privately at dinner and cocktail hour conversations.
However, some of his points criticize the way TV news is inherently set up. It is a visual medium. If a reporter had a giant festering zit on the nose, it’s unlikely a viewer would be able to concentrate on what he/she was saying, no matter how brilliant the coverage might be. There is an understood and I think acceptable compromise that TV reporters must be look a certain way, otherwise the message is lost. I don’t think it’s ‘Barbie and Ken’ as much as it is ‘look the way you would want to look on the day of a big job interview.’
TV is also a limited medium for telling certain stories. I think you could even say it is a shallow medium. It is better at telling stories with simple narratives: “hero cop saves woman’s life”, “girl dying waiting for surgery because of bureaucracy”, and yes, “attractive young royal couple tours Canada.”
Daily TV news is not as good as telling the international stories Nagata referenced, and will never be as good as telling them as, say, a lengthy newspaper or magazine article, or a long radio report. I’ve always been told, ‘if you don’t have the pictures, you can’t talk about it’, and context is something that it’s often difficult to find pictures for.
Truth be told, I’m not sure that TV news viewers are looking for that type of coverage anyway. I’ll quite freely admit that I checked in on the Royal tour coverage every so often, because I did want to see what the Duchess of Cambridge was wearing, and to see what parts of Canada were being showcased.
Why is there an assumption that if I’m watching the Royalpalooza that I don’t get tons of other meaty/serious content somewhere else? For every minute I tuned in to the Will and Kate show, I probably also read articles in the New York Times and The Guardian, or listened to some BBC and NPR podcasts. I don’t think we should make the same assumptions of the general audience.
As for Nagata saying he was tired of not being able to express his opinion?
It’s true that it’s a filter that all journalists have to apply. But there’s an easy solution, even within the world of journalism — it’s called writing an editorial. I did this year, for the first time ever.
Sandra Thomas quite rightly pointed out in her column that with a mortgage and bills to pay, it’s a rare bird indeed who can just up and quit a job. She also points to the responsibility she feels to her readers.
The question then becomes whether you want to work within the system or not. At the age of 24, Kai Nagata decided it wasn’t working for him (which is his prerogative). And maybe, as Max Fawcett says, there was a self-serving element to it. After all, a blog post doesn’t get picked up the way this one has without a little bit of a push out behind it.
I myself choose not to work full-time in the broadcast industry, because quite frankly, there are a crapload of egos, time pressures, rules, and other people who aren’t very good at their jobs to put up with. (The days I do go in, I do it to work with brilliant dedicated journalists who see themselves as servants of the public interest.) I’m very lucky that I have a number of freelance gigs that allow me to keep telling stories and meeting interesting people, and to be paid a decent amount while I’m at it.
I guess what I’m saying is that journalism isn’t inherently special. Like any other job or industry, you can try to change it. You can put up or shut up. Or you can leave, and others will step in to keep doing the job. Which is not to say that debates about the state of journalism aren’t interesting and perfectly valid, I only mean that there’s an ultimate bottom line.
I myself am waiting to see what happens to Kai Nagata. I suspect that he’s probably already fielding different offers, based on the buzz his blog post has created for him.
If he ends up with some plum job — courtesy of the “superficial TV news” coverage of his story — well, wouldn’t that just beat all.