Newspapers Should Recruit Non-Journalists

The New Yorker article about concussions in football has an interesting model of journalism:

Credit for the public’s increased awareness of these issues must go to the Times, and to its reporter Alan Schwarz […]

Schwarz was a career baseball writer, with a heavy interest in statistics, when, in December of 2006, he got a call from a friend of a friend named Chris Nowinski, a Harvard football player turned pro wrestler turned concussion activist. […]

The result, “Expert Ties Ex-Player’s Suicide to Brain Damage from Football,” wound up on the front page, on January 18, 2007. It described [a deceased football player’s] forty-four-year-old brain tissue as resembling that of an eighty-five-year-old man with Alzheimer’s. […]

Schwarz’s phone kept ringing. Several of the callers were the mothers and wives of football’s damaged men. They represented a readership far less likely to have come across, say, the annual men’s-magazine features about mangled knees, wayward fingers, and back braces, which had hardened almost into a sportswriting trope. In March, Schwarz published another front-pager: “Wives United by Husbands’ Post-N.F.L. Trauma.” Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor at the Times who oversees long-term, Pulitzer-worthy projects, read this piece and decided to intervene. Schwarz was given a full-time position, with no responsibilities other than to broaden his new beat’s focus beyond the N.F.L. to the more than four million amateur athletes who play organized football.

Schwarz was already a journalist, but he was given a fulltime position due to his contacts and enthusiasm for a subject outside of his typical realm of expertise.  You could easily extend this model to other fields and issues. It would be great if the Times seconded, say, a doctor to travel around the country and report on the implementation of the healthcare reform. Or convince an economist to take a sabbatical and report on the crisis in the euro.

One of the great things the internet has done is broaden our definition of journalism from something you are to something you do. Newspapers have a great opportunity to scoop up writers not based on their journalistic credentials, but on their talent, enthusiasm and ability to present complex topics to a broad readership.

The last 10 years have shown the weaknesses of the ‘he said, she said’ model of objective reporting. The press increasingly accepts that its mission is finding out the truth, rather than simply repeating what various interest groups say it is. As newspapers begin to compete on this, I wonder if they’ll find that the most reliable journalists are the accidental ones.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Newspapers Should Recruit Non-Journalists

  1. Brandon Mayo

    The Times already has a Nobel award winning economist, Paul Krugman, writing regularly for them. In fact he’s been doing so since the late 90’s. I would venture to say that most large newspapers have already realized that it takes professors, economists, businessmen and lawyers to report accurately on the developments in the business and financial world.

    Luckily, there are a number of these professionals who are able to make the information understandable for broader audiences (Niall Ferguson also comes to mind since he gets under your skin ;) You should also check out Krugman’s recent piece in the NY Times Magazine about the euro crisis (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/magazine/16Europe-t.html).

    But I couldn’t agree more that this model should be broadened to other fields!!

  2. elephantwoman

    This is also quite common in health and science too, a lot of ‘practitioners’ decide that communication is more their thing and they cross over into writing and journalism.

  3. As a journalist, I guess I am programmed to jerk my protectionist knee here but in the same way that, even though most people can sing after a fashion, it doesn’t make them Kiri Te Kanawa, similarly, just because most people can write, doesn’t make them writers or journalists.

    My point being that journalism is a profession, with techniques, procedures, ethics, standards, etc, and even though you might be splendidly, perhaps even peerlessly knowledgeable about a particular subject, it doesn’t mean you are equipped to disseminate that knowledge professionally. As you point out, Schwartz was already a journalist, hence he knew how to research, form and write an article fit to be published in a national newspaper, where it would then be edited, subbed, fact checked and held up to scrutiny and various legal standards. You’d be surprised how many people wouldn’t have been, even smart, well educated professional.

    It’s pretty much the fundamental problem with the Internet, I’m afraid.

    Now that’s off my chest, I must add that I have really enjoyed your blog for a couple of years now. As a udlander in Denmark a lot of your writing has chimed with my experience, and you have a great written voice. It’s also nice to be able to comment without the rigmarole of your last blog host.

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