Cubicle Journalism

Why newspapers diedcublcles

The American newspaper died during my watch. Cause of death: “Cubicle-osis,” the practice of covering the news while sitting on your ass.

In 16 years of working for a small-town daily, I watched  young reporters increasingly rely on telephones and computers to gather the news.

It wasn’t entirely their fault. In order to compete with electronic media — and later social media — newspapers were forced to become more efficient. That meant making phone calls or going online in lieu of walking or driving to city hall to see what was really going on.

Efficiency is fine if you’re cranking out widgets on an assembly line, not so much when you’re gathering news. A phone call is a poor substitute for a good old-fashioned face-to-face interview. Email and text message exchanges are even less effective.

For one thing, it’s harder for the interviewee to buffalo you when you’re looking him or her in the eye.

Secondly, I’ve spun off many a feature story by making the rounds in person. On more than one occasion, interesting articles were spawned by asides that came up during interviews or objects I observed on public officials’ desks or walls.

Cubicle journalism ties reporters to their desks — and to schedules, as mentioned in a previous post. Neither is conducive to good reporting. Spontaneity makes for better journalism. As a city government reporter, I often made the rounds of city hall unannounced. No appointments, no interviews. I just stuck my head inside the door and, if someone was there, I struck up a conversation.

That went beyond city hall. I developed a reputation for dropping by most anywhere — the fire station, cop shop, parks department maintenance shed, street department garage. There’s no better way to feel the pulse of the city than hanging out with the folks in the trenches.

Fortunately, local governments — particularly in small markets — are accessible to reporters. They should take advantage of that while they can.

It’s too late at the state level. Public officials there are beholden to their power base — the big money that got them there. They are obligated to stay on message, so reporters don’t get to talk to them (at least not in any meaningful way). Information is filtered through their PIOs. Supposedly that’s an acronym for Public Information Officers. In reality, it stands for Pissants In charge of Obfuscation.

But that’s another rant for another post.

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6 thoughts on “Cubicle Journalism

  1. “Pissants In charge of Obfuscation.” I’ll never utter PIO in the same tone again. It does appear the up and out human species will soon perish and the old world order of human interaction is ushered out with soft nebulous indifference. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What’s worse is that when I was doing my time in the news trenches, I was often discouraged from doing a personal interview and told, “Just give them a call on the phone, it’s easier.” One of many reasons I left after only three years.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It was difficult but I survived 16 years of it, Mark. It’s really the same with much of our culture — we want it now, we want it fast and we’re willing to settle for mediocrity.

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  4. I always wonder if I’d even fit in as a reporter anymore because I like to do things the “old” way. When I was looking for jobs in Dallas, I realized that things had already changed so much that I wasn’t sure I’d like what my job would look like. With all the chains of papers and the way the work is farmed out, reporters are pressed for high story counts but had such little mobility.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Exactly, presentghost. Like the universe, society continues to expand. In the process, quantity has taken precedence over quality. In journalism and other realms. The results of an ever-expanding universe and society are inevitable. And that won’t be pretty.

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