June 14, 2002

My Friend Daniel Froomkin Writes About How the World Wide Web Created His Dream Job

Daniel Froomkin saw All the President's Men a few too many times in high school, and so after college he entered the journalism profession with... unrealistic expectations about freedom, voice, seriousness, and elbow room. So did he succumb and become a bitter time-server? No. Instead, he used modern information technology--the world wide web--to snag his dream job.

Of course, IMHO, it may stay his dream job only as long as he can convince his bosses at the Washington Post that allowing him his elbow room is the way to keep the Post's Washington-area classified-ad franchise from leaking away to other internet businesses.


Dan Froomkin on Web Journalism

Why The Web Can Work So Well for Journalists
By Dan Froomkin
Special to Poynter.orgDan Froomkin, who was named editor of washingtonpost.com in November, wrote this piece originally for the newsletter of the Michigan Journalism Fellowship program, where he was a member of the class of 1996. The article is reprinted with permission. Washingtonpost.com recently won five top honors at the 2001 EPpy Awards, sponsored by Editor and Publisher Interactive.

One winter day in Ann Arbor about five years ago, I realized I was just too old-fashioned for the modern newspaper business. So I went into new media. Counterintuitive? Not really. Because I came to the conclusion that traditional journalistic principles and competencies are invaluable on the Net, and that traditional journalism can flourish in a world of immediacy, interactivity, and endless news hole. Turns out I was right.

And as it happens, some of the established journalistic traits that I saw being stomped out of people in the increasingly corporate print world – risk-taking, questioning, impudence, impatience -- have turned out to be among the most valuable of all online.

I grew up as a Watergate baby who never really thought of doing anything else but being a reporter. I wrote my first news story in sixth grade. After college, I worked for 10 years as a daily newspaper reporter, first at Media General’s Winston-Salem Journal, then Knight-Ridder’s Miami Herald, and finally at Freedom Communication’s Orange County Register.

I had a great time, but I also got more and more frustrated with management. And during the first few months of my fellowship, I realized that what I was experiencing was happening pretty much everywhere – and most calamitously at newspapers run by corporations, rather than families.

I saw a newspaper industry where horizons were narrowing. Where corporate values such as blandness and shareholders’ interests were edging out edginess and -- even worse --common sense. Where good people made Faustian bargains and became bad editors. Where interesting tools were twisted into idiotic rules. Where the misunderstood whim of a focus group had more clout than a room full of seasoned reporters. Where newspapers were giving up on what made them great in the first place.

The Internet, I thought, could be the antidote. So I changed course.

In the ensuing years, I have come to realize the Internet is not paradise. Yes, the ceaseless news cycle tends against profundity. Yes, titillation outdraws solemnity. And yes, so far it’s been hard to achieve liquidity.

But it’s an even better fit for me than I expected. Journalists are ideally suited to the medium. What we do best is collect data, sift it, digest it, determine what’s important and bring it to light succinctly and credibly. Those are critical skills on the Web, key to the happy user experience. I really don’t see why journalistic values in general – and journalists in particular – shouldn’t be the predominant leaders of each and every sector of the Internet -- with the possible exception of live chat rooms and pornography.

We’ve been awfully successful at washingtonpost.com, and I think that’s in large part because we’ve done online what so few newspapers do today. We’re cleaving to core newspaper values. We’re trustworthy. We provide depth and context. We exercise careful and responsible news judgment. We don’t let trends sway our good sense. We don’t let advertisers affect our coverage. We evolve and change – heck, it’s a new medium – but always holding fast to our roots. Sure, we use focus groups -- but not to tell us what to do, just how to do it better.

We fight to be first, but not at all costs. If an AP story quotes anonymous sources, for instance, we’ll get confirmation from The Post newsroom before putting anything on our home page. And when we break news, our sourcing standards are as high as the paper’s. For instance, our mid-morning scoop on Linda Chavez pulling out as a nominee for Secretary of Labor wasn’t based on speculation from anonymous officials. It was based on a Post reporter's phone conversation with Chavez.

Though we want to be fun, we won't pander. One example: We don’t do phony-baloney online "polls" which readers could mistake for a genuine public opinion survey.

For a modern journalist, the Web has so many beguiling attractions. Not just the endless news hole, but eternal shelf life. In fact my favorite thing about the Net is not the interactivity or the immediacy, but the ability to provide context and let readers explore more. It’s amazing sometimes how "daily" even the great daily newspapers are, often at the expense of the big picture. By writing our own primers, and mining the archives, and letting readers interact with newsmakers, and even shooting short video documentaries, we can add so much to the incremental news stories we Web-publish each night.

And the horizons are not narrowing. They are endless.

The only thing that’s consistently frustrating about new media is the technology. It’s in its infancy, and it’s balky and unreliable. But otherwise, it’s a welcoming place to work.

And here’s another difference between this job and my old jobs. I like to think that in temperament I hearken back to the golden years of journalism. I’m a bit of an iconoclast. An activist. A boat-rocker. Your average modern newspaper manager finds people like me interesting mostly for target practice.

But in this industry – or at least at this company – I have found a place that actually values my energy and my passion. In fact, they promoted me. Go figure.

Posted by DeLong at June 14, 2002 12:35 PM

Comments

I agree with this article completely, personally and professionally.

As an extra point, the Internet also can make the media powers more answerable to the average reader and the call for accuracy.

For instance, a while back I was able to get the NY Times to correct a significant error it repeated in two page one stories on events in Afghanistan.

What did I know about Afghanistan? Nothing. What power did I have to call the mighty NY Times to account? Before my internet connection, none at all.

But what was reported just seemed implausible on its face. And with just a little searching on the web I was able to find definitive sources with the correct information.

I e-mailed it to the Times, and received an automated response saying all such submitted corrections are promptly investigated and answered. Then they ignored it.

So a couple weeks later I e-mailed it to them again but with cc:s to several parties outside the Times that might've been interested in it.

And then they printed the correction.

Information technology can make a little guy feel big. ;-)

Posted by: Jim Glass on June 16, 2002 12:35 PM
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