NYT editor: Journalism pre-dates newspapers and will outlast newspapers

Time for truth

The discussion around journalism and the internet often seems to devolve into a heated debate between digital-first, paywall-hating web supporters and print-first, newspaper-loving professional journalists, so it’s nice to see a reasonable comment burst through the noise now and then. On Thursday, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times did one of the Reddit community’s popular “Ask Me Anything” interviews, and made some exceptionally rational remarks about online journalism and the future of news — and how the internet has made journalism better.

David Leonhardt — who oversees the newspaper’s journalists in Washington and used to write the Economic Scene column for the Times — offered himself up to Redditors to talk about anything related to his job, although he said he mostly wanted to talk about the election and the recent debt negotiations. While those and other topics did come up, Leonhardt also took on some questions about journalism itself, including one about why newspapers like the NYT don’t challenge statements by politicians more, instead of defaulting to what Jay Rosen has called “the view from nowhere.”

Leonhardt: “It’s fairly easy for us to deal with an opinion, like ‘This policy should pass Congress;’ we also quote someone who says it shouldn’t. But the gray area is harder. And yet I think we need to deal with it: we sometimes need to look for ways to say which side in a debate has more claim on the available evidence.”

The Washington bureau chief was also asked whether he thought the rise of the web and social media — and the shift from print to web-based journalism — was a good thing for journalism as a whole, or whether it was leading to lower standards:

Leonhardt: “I think the Web has created a more responsible press, with higher standards. Think how much easier it is for readers to point out flaws (or perceived flaws!) in a story today than in the past. You don’t have to rely on our Letters to the Editor page or our Corrections process. You can write your own blog post or get the attention of a media critic (including our public editor, a job that didn’t exist until a decade ago). Such criticism isn’t always enjoyable — and we don’t always agree with it — but there is little question that it makes us better at our jobs.”

And Leonhardt also responded to a young would-be journalist who asked him what the future might hold for the practice, and whether social media and the web were not taking a lot of the life out of print-based media and the journalism industry:

Leonhardt: “The future of journalism is assured, I think. Journalism — facts and narration — predates newspapers and will outlast newspapers. The future of the printed word — that is, newspapers as we know them today — seems less certain. As a reader, I would be terribly sad not to wake up to printed copies of the NYT and Washington Post, among other papers. As a writer and editor, I don’t have a preference about whether people are reading our journalism on paper or a screen.”

What makes this comment from the NYT bureau chief so sensible is that it’s not a sweeping pro- or anti-web viewpoint, it’s just a realistic view of what the future probably holds — and what the past can teach us: namely, that print is probably in decline as a method of delivering news, that some people feel an emotional attachment to newspapers in print, and that as a writer and editor it doesn’t really matter where people are reading your work, so long as they are reading it. And journalism will survive, even if newspapers don’t.

Note: The New York Times has published a full transcript of the interview.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Donscarpo

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