The legendary journalist was in Paris last week, promoting (“flogging”) his last book: "Obama's Wars". (Large excerpts in the Washington Post here). It was the standard book tour: TV and radio appearances; a well-timed cover story in Le Monde Magazine; same quotes, same anecdotes everywhere.
Still, I was curious. After all, he's one of my heroes. In the 70's, I was in high school when the Watergate story flared up. Later, thanks to Alan Pakula's movie, All the President's Men, I got a kick out of American journalism, out of the grandeur and power of large newspapers, of deadline fevers and of news folklore.
Almost forty years after Watergate, I was curious to see how the Net Generation, hooked on Twitter and Facebook, perceived Bob Woodward. To find out, I sat among 300 students in the amphitheater at the Sciences Po University in Paris. Sciences Po is one of the most elitist and selective French universities with ties to several foreign colleges. Its curriculum includes a master in journalism (where I happen to have a small gig teaching professional blogging).
As expected, Woodward was really “on” – especially for those of us new to his stump speech. At 68, the trade still makes him tick. He gleefully enjoys going after what people are trying to hide, "peeling the onion" as he puts it. He likes to tell how he showed up at a US general's home at 8pm who greeted him by a loud "You! Are you still doing this shit?" Obviously, Woodward still does and still loves it. (A compilation of Woodward’s thoughts on journalism is available on Poynter.org, well worth your reading time).
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Bob Woodward is the embodiment of a disappearing form of journalism: source-based reporting as opposed to today's echo-chamber news streams. His motto: Real stuff does not grow on the internet; it still comes from human sources who won't expose themselves on Facebook or Twitter. As Woodward likes to recall, real journalism still depends on carefully planned and doggedly performed legwork. This results in a stronger position to get at the decisive facts. See this excerpt from the Poynter conference:
“In the case of Bush or Obama, I sent them long memos and said, ‘this is what I understand happened. What do you want to respond to?’ I remember sending Bush a 21-page memo. … The next day, Condoleezza Rice called me and said, ‘The president read it, I read it, and you’re going to write this book and these stories for the Post whether you talked to the president or not.’ I said, ‘Of course I am.’ She said, ‘He’ll see you tomorrow.’ ”
For students, even though Woodward stands by an idealistic (and ideal) view of journalism, such talk is both refreshing and invigorating. Still, one J-school student tries to bring him down to today's realities: "You say ‘go after sources, do the legwork’... But our future lies more in a desk job... In your view, how should we handle this reality?" Woodward's answer was as expected: a) get an iPad (for mobility – Woodward is known to be fond of it, unlike this self-depreciating Washington Post commercial would suggest); b) a great story always find its way and you should not be deterred to go for sources and original reporting. And no editor-in-chief will be insensitive to a great subject.
Touching but slightly out of touch.
The aspiring journalists deferentially listening to Woodward face an uncertain future, to say the least. Their world is likely to be productivity-obsessed. In journalism, stats are increasingly likely to define trends. See USA Today's alleged intention to tie reporters' bonuses to page views. This is yet another step in the current fashion now defining online journalism (below is a slide from the infamous AOL Way Memo leaked by Business Insider):
The quest for profitability is not a bad thing in itself. Even Woodward believes that, to be free of influence, media should be a profitable business and not a subsidized one (even a non-profit organization like ProPublica). But linking part of reporters' salary to traffic will corrupt journalism in many ways.
- First, it will accentuate the imbalance in news coverage. We all know the recipe: celebrity coverage (preferably prurient) and sports drive traffic; not politics or foreign affairs.
- Second, traffic-based compensation will deter young journalists from going after the most complex, difficult beats. Why try explaining what's really going on at the Fukushima nuclear plant, or digging through the arcana of E.U. policy (even though it shapes the life of 450m people) if, two desks away, your colleague will make more money by recycling celeb gossip?
- Third, prioritizing revenue over relevancy will inevitably impact newsrooms resource allocation. Already, as the Gannett blog reported last year, USA Today has 27 reporters covering all forms of entertainment against 5 reporters covering the United States Congress and 4 in their investigation department. This says a lot about where journalism is heading. Should most news organizations decide to follow USA Today's path, not only future Woodwards will end up making less than reporters treating lighter subjects, but they will soon become an extinct species.
Bob Woodward considers we are in the midst of a "news bubble" developing at the expense of authentic journalism:
“I think there’s too much emphasis on speed and feeding the impatience people have. … In many ways, journalism is not often enough up to the task of dealing with the dangerous and fragile nature of the world, or the community, or anything you might try to understand. [The world requires] high quality, probing journalism. And there’s just not been enough of it.”
In saying so, he acknowledges enjoying the luxury of having the time to work as he sees fit. -- and the means of a best-seller writer with a staff of two people working for him.
How many page views for Woodward? It is definitely not the right question to ask, it is not the right metric to assess the value of his work. In the same way, the web is not the best vector for his kind of reporting. Nonfiction books are. In print or electronic form.