The Dangers of Specialty Journalism

May 26, 2009 at 5:27 pm 2 comments

Journalism has failed, according to Ron Martz, former reporter for Atlanta Journal Constitution, by failing to educate journalists about the intricacies of what they cover. In a May 15 entry at editorandpublisher.com, Martz states journalists need to be experts in a field of reporting, or traditional news outlets will “free-fall into irrelevance.”

I couldn’t disagree more. It is an over-specialization of reporters that has built a “communications environment that already is over-populated and under-resourced.” News outlets like MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC and more are proof of the dangers of reporters bringing in “expertise.”

I was a magazine editor for many years, in a very specialized niche of journalism. As is true with most niche publishing environments, editorial staff is hired young and inexpensively, and much of the industry is fraught with staff turnover issues. I hired a number of editors myself, and watched competing publications do the same. The best of these editors were strong journalism generalists; the worst – for both readers and the Editor as boss – were those who brought in expertise in the field. (Editor’s clarification here: Certainly, “experts in the field” can become good journalists. But when the driving force is simply passion for a topic and not a true desire to inform, then readers and the news itself will suffer.) I am personally most proud of a number of young editors I hired who had little or no experience with the subject we covered. I could easily teach anyone about our subject matter. It was much more difficult to teach someone the intricacies of journalism.

Martz should know that journalism is much more than “doing the who, what, when, where, why and how.” Journalism at its best is practiced by smart people who can visualize expertise from both sides of every story, and then perform interviews and analysis from both sides.

There is no doubt that journalists can and will become experts in a given field, whether that is covering the stock market or high-school sports. And a number of journalists can handle this incredibly well. The best of those do so by relying on their expertise first as journalists.

Traditional news outlets are failing because of over-specialization. And perhaps there is nothing that can be done to stop the free-fall. If that is true, and we’re all destined to read Perez Hilton and listen to Sean Hannity, then the future of media and news reporting looks bleak.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jeff Henson  |  June 25, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    I can point out several instances where your preferred “journalism generalists” provided readers with flawed, and just plain wrong information in your “very specialized niche of journalism.” For example, some can’t seem to comprehend the difference between a 4×4 system and a front locking differential. I think most readers would prefer having a field expert provide them with information on how to change an axle on their KingQuad. And I think the majority would rather read about a recreation area from the editor that is truly passionate about his subject, and can convey it well in words and photographs. For some “journalists” it’s just a job.
    This blog has been passed around by several editors in your specialized niche of journalism, and the prevalent response to what prompted you to write this piece points to bitterness over recent events in your career, mixed with a touch of arrogance. No offense Glenn, I’m just stating some of my feelings, as well as the overall tone between magazine editors in a recent discussion over this article . I’ve always enjoyed your writings, up until I came across this one. On the other hand, it likely will push me to pay more attention to my grammar, and brush up on my literary skills.

    Reply
    • 2. hansenhouse  |  June 25, 2009 at 9:56 pm

      Passionate can make good reading, that’s true, but it seldom makes good journalism. I said from my first days as an editor that I’d rather have a journalist learn to cover a topic that teach a topical expert how to do research, to report, to analyze, to interview, question and write.

      It can be great to have a combination of the two. But impassioned story tellers are not necessarily journalists.

      Glenn

      Reply

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