Sunday, June 17, 2007

State of the art

It doesn’t seem the least bit odd to see Humphrey Bogart dictating a story to the operator of a clattering Linotype machine in “Deadline U.S.A.” After all, those were the olden days and that’s how it was done. Sort of.

But Robert Redford sure looked silly in “All the President’s Men,” a thoroughly modern journalism movie (to my eyes, anyway), as he pawed through a mound of clippings, reference books and telephone directories to identify a key figure in the early days of the Watergate investigation.

“Do you know how fast he could have done that on Google?” I said to my wife, who patiently sat through the movie for the umpteenth time to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the break-in that broke Richard M. Nixon.

The man Redford was researching was Kenneth H. Dahlberg, a Republican fund raiser who provided some of the hush money paid to the Watergate burglars. It took Google exactly 0.04 seconds to point me to this article at Wikipedia.

Back then, Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein had to ask an operator for an outside line to dial a call on a rotary phone in the newsroom. On the street, they had to hunt for pay phones and scrounge for coins to feed them. Back at the office, they typed their stories on paper, which was hustled across the newsroom to editors who attacked them with pencils and paste pots.

From the standpoint of technology, we have made a lot of progress since Watergate in the art of getting and giving the news. But journalism has not fared nearly as well.

Many of the middle-aged journalists who were attracted to the profession by the daring Washington Post investigation of a sitting president have been forced today into early retirement – or are desperately clinging to jobs in an industry they don’t recognize.

With newsrooms routinely being cut by 20% and 30%, the survivors are required to file breaking news bulletins, write blogs, record podcasts and shoot video, too. While those remaining in the business have better tools in laptops, digital cameras and instant connectivity to a vast array of data, they also have way more work to do – and lots less time to do it.

In the process, the costly and time-consuming legwork that produced the Watergate revelations is rapidly becoming as outdated as the TeleType machine whose pounding crescendo climaxes “All the President’s Men.”

The more productive the press becomes, I fear, the weaker it is getting.


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