Frankie Flack: Why commentary is killing business journalism
So last week, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, wunderkid (apparently, when writing about Ezra, there is a rule you must use the term “wunderkid”), walked away from the newspaper to create his own digital property. But Ezra is hardly an original; his departure lagged that of Walter Mossberg‘s decision to flee the confines of The Wall Street Journal for a brand-new outpost on the web: Re/code.
You might think that’s great news for flacks: new, high-profile outlets to pitch, billions of pixels worth of online real-estate to be filled. And that is good news, in the short term. I have a list of clients that I can’t wait to get Mossberg to write about. (Walt: give me a call. Lots to discuss.)
But over the long term, this trend is going to make my life more difficult. Ezra and Walt’s decisions to walk away from stable, well-financed journalistic institutions speaks to the power of their personal brands. And it’s not just those guys. Bill Simmons leveraged his everyman sports columns into Grantland, a standalone (though Disney-owned) sports-and-pop-culture site. It’s hip to be a digital pioneer.
But let’s be honest for a second here: neither Ezra nor Walt (nor Bill, for that matter) earned his kingdom based on good, old-fashioned journalism. They all created empires based on the way that they married their knowledge with commentary that clearly belies some opinions. Walt loves Apple. Bill loves the Celtics. Ezra wants nationalized health care. And those guys are all smart enough that we — as readers — are better off for their freedom to editorialize a bit.
Here’s where the problem comes in. Most of the folks covering business today, especially the young guns who see a role model in 29-year-old Ezra, aren’t experienced enough to pull off commentary. Especially in business coverage, which requires in-depth industry knowledge and more than a smattering of accounting know-how, taking sides is a dangerous endeavor. Hell, even the professionals do a crappy job of picking winners.
So God forbid some 25-year-old reporter decides that his route to fame and fortune requires providing snark along with the numbers. I have my hands full just getting the facts out there in a way that folks can understand. If I have to contend with a new army of kids who think they need to smack a “good” or “bad” label on company they cover, I’m going to have to go looking for my bottle of gin.
This isn’t a product of my fevered mind, either. I was lunching with an erstwhile business journalist the other day, a guy who is now up in the ivory tower, teaching college kids the magic of the inverted pyramid and the danger of the anonymous source. I asked him what today’s generation of j-school students expected to do with themselves, given that the job outlook ain’t exactly what it used to be.
“Blogging,” he tells me, with just the slightest hint of an eye roll. “They all think they’ll be bloggers.”
And what Walt and Ezra and Bill have taught these kids about blogging is that you have to take sides, make your best argument, collect the eyeballs. The alternative? Building sources and trust and getting out there in your local community, really knowing the beat? That’s a great approach, and it’s lead to some wonderful, ground-level business journalism, especially in the past few years. A lot of that journalism has come from the network of Patch sites.
Of course, about a week ago, Patch’s longtime patron, AOL, foisted operations of the troubled network off on some other corporate entity, a huge vote of no-confidence. So it’s hard to blame any kid, looking to make a name and a paycheck, that concludes that Walt had it right and Patch had it wrong.
If that’s the case, well: I’d better figuring out where that gin is at.