Dear All of Journalism: This is Steve. Be Like Steve.

STEEEEEVE: 

If you do your reporting deeply enough, you can write/speak with authority – that’s objectivity, because the facts are incontrovertible. Some people mistake that, though, for subjectivity.

When a local magazine editor told me once “In magazine writing, you can have an opinion, that’s what I teach my students,” as if I’d never heard that before, I blanched. No, it’s not about having an opinion! It’s about reporting deeply enough to state the truth!

In newspaper writing, the problem is of a slightly different sort – without the time or resources to report deeply enough, reporters (and their editors) fall back on the formulas of objectivity that aren’t objective at all, but instead just catalog the unvetted claims and outright lies of everyone quoted in a story. That’s probably worse than simply writing an opinion because it’s disguised as truth when it’s the least truthy version of journalism of all.

The lack of time and resources is not an excuse, either; it can be done nonetheless. It just takes skill, hard work and a certain mindset. (It’s even easier in the digital world than in print, with the ease of search, the availability of video and the tool of linking.)

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That magazine editor, by the way, didn’t so much as want me to have an opinion, but to have his opinion, which, typical for him, wasn’t a very good one. I stopped working for him, and I don’t mean my old boss at Chicago magazine.

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I use to call my version of magazine writing a “reported conclusion,” which my old boss liked very much. The only problem was getting an assignment with a pre-determined conclusion, which invalidates the whole premise of the job, and which is hugely common in the newspaper world as well. It’s never served my career to come to an independent, reporting-based conclusion instead of the one an editor has dreamed up ahead of time. They tend not to like when you bring them real-world results different than what they dreamed up in their head. In other words, it’s hazardous to do your job the way it’s supposed to be done in this business.

Now, having a notion, an angle, a thesis going into a story is fine. Sometimes that’s how you start. Sometimes you have a basis for such a thing. But that doesn’t mean that’s how you have to end.

I can’t tell you the number of stories that died on the table for me. Like I started working on it and it just fell apart, and I’m banging on it yelling LIVE GOD DAMN IT LIVE FOR ME, and nope, the particulars just didn’t work. You or more often your editor has to pull you back and be like, “Buddy, you did all you could. Don’t prolong it.”

Get rid of the editors, tell the reporters every single second has to be productive and they can’t go down any interesting rabbit holes, value the conventional wisdom over the unusual or contradictory, and you wind up right where we are.

A.

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