The end of bureaucratic American journalism

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Thanks to a Tweet from Joi Ito, I discovered that the great Dutch journalist and Japan expert Karel van Wolferen now has a blog. Or “Jottings,” as Van Wolferen calls it. Joi was linking to a jotting about the significance of Sunday’s election, but I quickly found my way to a long, undated essay on “The Bureaucracy of American Journalism.” It’s great, even if I don’t buy all of it and certainly can’t vouch for all the details (I’m pretty sure Tom Friedman isn’t a billionaire, for example, although his in-laws used to be). Here’s one passage I particularly liked:

As a correspondent reporting on many a major event in Asia for twenty years, I have often been astonished by the time and effort my American colleagues had to waste on finding people they could quote saying things they wanted to say themselves, instead of using their energy trying to get to intellectual grips with the situation at hand.

Van Wolferen then goes on to describe how the forced objectivity of American reporting spawned a class of pundits who were allowed to have opinions but generally didn’t do much in the way of reporting. He thinks we’d be much better off just encouraging reporters to think.

The bureaucratic model of American journalism Van Wolferen describes is falling apart, of course—it was a product of newspaper journalism’s  monopoly age (and TV and magazine journalism’s oligopoly age), which began around the middle of the last century and would now seem to be over. The new age seems to be encouraging a better sort of punditry, just because of the fact-checking tendencies and conversational nature of the Internet. But I don’t really see us being overrun by Van-Wolferen-style thoughtful reporters. Traditional media outlets like the NYT (and TIME) are more encouraging of such an approach than they used to be, but their resources aren’t exactly growing. Heck, I used to have a thoughtful-reporter job (at Fortune) and traded it in for something closer to punditry because I figured it would be good for my career.

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