Monday, March 29, 2010

Journalist: What's in a Name?

"Repeat after me:
Short is better than long.
Simple is good.
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence."
Such were William Zinsser's words on August 11, 2009 to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. His talk centered on the technology era's diminishment of the sense of journalistic writing as craft. The overarching question he posed was why, in a digital age, should reporters be concerned with the art of writing when the focus is on the electronic: quick, mobile-friendly blog entries accompanied by video clips, podcasts, high resolution images. His answer:
"You’ll be making and editing videos and photographs and audio recordings to accompany your articles. Somebody—that’s you—will still have to write [my emphasis] all those video scripts and audio scripts."

In my journalism classes at Penn, professors touched on the importance of gaining familiarity with new media, in that if modern news writers don't stay abreast of the direction the field is taking, they have no hope of success. But they never suggested that journalists sacrifice the quality of their craft for the sake of satisfying digital trends. At my two magazine jobs, editors encouraged us to hone our writing skills even while it was important to compose succinct pieces befitting blog posts or newsletter blasts.

But when Wikipedia serves as a legitimate source for The New York Times, the vocabulary of printmaking is steadily dissolving into obsoleteness, elimination of copy editors' from publications' staff lessens the sense of professionalism (The Baltimore Sun's front page subhead on January 21, 2010: "Rawlings-Blake says her bill will seek to heighte public trus' "), cellphone novelists are scoring book deals, and LG has unveiled a bendable eBook Reader as a newspaper replacement, the message bull-horned to budding journalists is that eschewal of honed writing is acceptable in favor of catering to the format of modern media.

I realize that there is a vast audience for poorly written yet informationally rich writing, even sometimes including me. For example, my daily Slate e-newsletter often has typos but still provides a succinct global news roundup. In general, however, enviably fine writing such as in Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, The Guardian, and lit blog The Millions, can communicate the same valuable information but infinitely more palatably. The only difference between career journalists and citizen journalists is this allegiance to the art of writing; flagging in such integrity makes titling oneself a professional journalist meaningless.

I haven't settled on a writing path but I have always been drawn to the article form; so the debate over the metamorphosis of journalism has personal relevance. I understand the need to mold writing to the requisites of modern publishing. But I also will stubbornly defend the now-old-line mentality of journalists like Zinsser, my writing professors and former magazine editors. Superior writing is never outmoded.

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