Couples Counseling for Monica and Roy
PAUL: Couple of questions. What do you want this relationship to develop into over the next year, and what kind of work do you want to accomplish? MONICA: I defer to you.
ROY: I would feel more comfortable if you would go first.
MONICA: And why is that?
ROY: Well --
PAUL: Just decide who goes first.
ROY: I think it'd be appropriate for you to go first because I want to nurture this relationship, hear what you have to say and honor what you have to say.
MONICA: Okay. What the future should look like. I have an ideal. I think a lot of the problems, the miscommunications, the misunderstandings in newsrooms come from the fact that the people who are on the frontlines getting stories are all in one craft, and that has a few consequences. For one thing, those reporters naturally envision their stories immediately as a piece of prose, and there may be other story forms that are more appropriate: a list, an illustrated chart, photos with meaty captions, a series of quotes. There may be forms missed because the folks who are out there getting stories and defining stories think in terms of a limited repertoire.
PAUL: This is both in terms of the ideas they have and then their reporting of them?
MONICA: I'm mostly thinking in terms of form. They think, "Oh it's a narrative, it's a lead, what's my nut graph" and blah, blah, blah. But I think there may be other forms out there. We see the rise of more nonlinear forms of communication on the Internet, cable television, movies, all sorts of things. We are becoming a more visual culture, and newspapers should get in tune with that. The first thing I would do is put people on the frontlines besides writers. I would have some infographics people whose job it is to go out there and get stories. I would have some photographers whose job it is to do that. That way you also distinguish between reporters and writers. There are some reporters in newsrooms who really want to be writers, and going out there and connecting with the community and finding out what's going on is not necessarily their favorite part of the process. So I envision a group of front-end folks, front-end reporters who think in terms of a range of storytelling forms. The next level I see are what we now call assigning editors, and my feeling is that those people are really key to good storytelling. A lot of those people traditionally have been very good line editors or very good text editors. I would say for the collaborative future, those people need to be well versed in everything from graphics to streaming video on the web to serial narrative. They need to be story-form experts. You're going to need a group of people who figure out what medium different stories go to and in what form. You're also going to need some craft specialists, some really good writers when strong narrative is called for, infographic specialists who aren't necessarily out there on the frontlines, photojournalists, designers, copy editors. I think a newsroom ought to work in teams, but those teams most definitely should be cross-discipline teams. And in terms of the work, my hope for journalism in the future is that it's a little more surprising, less formulaic, more accessible, not above the community. That's my vision.
PAUL: Roy, would you try to either summarize or restate two or three of the key points that Monica has made to get a sense of your take on it?
ROY: I hear Monica saying that in an ideal future the territories of craft of genre and of medium will be much less important than figuring out what our purpose is as journalists and how to achieve it. And I think that would be a very important reform. I hear her say how important it is for a class of editors to be bi- or trilingual or bi- and trisexual, whatever their home discipline happens to be, and there's no reason why it has to be the discipline of words. It could be the discipline of visuals or the discipline of organization. The third thing I heard her say was that the news or the content of the newspaper never has been and never should be some static thing. What I heard was that it doesn't mean that it's just some arbitrary thing. It calls for judgment. But as society changes, as technology changes, there's no reason for the newspaper not to be innovative, to surprise readers, to stretch beyond what it now thinks it's capable of without abandoning its basic principles. If the culture of newspapers could evolve in that direction, I think that would be a very good reform. So that's what I heard her saying.
PAUL: Monica, is that pretty much --
MONICA: Yeah, that's good. One of the things that keeps newspapers from changing is that they're not all that clear on their core principles. They can't rattle them off; they're not quite sure where the boundaries are. Part of being able to innovate is to be able to say, "But these things are firm; we don't ever mess with these things." And then you can go crazy and innovate.
PAUL: Roy, would you then give your take of the future?
ROY: I'd like to build on the good list that my intended has articulated. In my ideal future, all members of the team would describe themselves as journalists. In my ideal future, particular members of the team would be proud of their specialized capacities, so they would have journalism and public service as the center of who they are and what they do. But on the word side they could also be appreciated for their literary sensibilities, on the visual side, for their artistic sensibilities, and right now I think that the most narrow-minded view of the future is suspicious of both the literary and the artistic. I notice that, in the things that I've written so far, I've been criticized for referring to visual journalists as "artists." The suspicion is that I'm taking a group of people and marginalizing them. Oh, they're just the artsy-fartsy types, they're just the beret wearers.
PAUL: And may then have a more limited function --
ROY: Sure, they're decorators. Right. They're page decorators. To call somebody an artist, whether that person is using photography or music or literature or design as their basic way of capturing the world and rendering it, that's the best thing that someone could say about somebody. So I hope that in my ideal future we'll be proud of each other's specializations, even as we attempt to bring those specializations together for a larger more important purpose. And then I would say just one more thing. In my ideal future, the visual journalists will be more capable of recognizing their achievements then they now seem able to do.
PAUL: Monica, can you reflect on some of what he's saying?
MONICA: I'm just struck by how much I hear the themes of marginalized cultures in what you're saying. First of all, I heard you say in the future you hope that we can appreciate people whose forms of expression are maybe a little bit out of the mainstream but really powerful, like people who are really good writers or people who are really good illustrators, and that it isn't necessarily a slur to say, "You're an artist," to be able to see the strength in those special skills, special talents. And then I hear you saying that you hope that visual journalists will have a greater sense of what they've accomplished and maybe not be so "sensitive."
ROY: Did I say "sensitive"?
MONICA: No, you didn't say that. I'm not using your exact words.
PAUL: You did say that you hoped they would have a greater sense of their --
MONICA: Their own accomplishments -- which is the most respectful way to say it. When I hear extreme forms of that from other folks who are maybe not so respectful, it's sort of, "Gosh, I wish you guys wouldn't be so touchy." And I think if you look at civil rights movements or the rise of different groups, there is a point at which certain terms become loaded. You call somebody an "artist" and it's like, "What do you mean by that?"
ROY: What? It's the equivalent of a racial slur?
MONICA: Well, differences become touchy, because differences have been a way to sort of lump people together and marginalize them. You may have no ill intent at all but you do have to be aware of the fact that for some people, they're going to think you do because they've heard it before with bad intent. I don't know how much of the burden of accommodating that sensitivity falls on the side of visual journalists and how much falls on the side of editors and writers, but it's to everyone's benefit to be cognizant of how these things can be interpreted. Just to carry the civil rights thing a little farther, there's the phenomenon of rising expectations, and even when the number of entries to the SND contest grows and even as photo departments add people and add equipment and become more powerful, it makes people want more. It makes people want parity, you know? We don't just want progress. We want parity. I think that's an understandable human thing. And the good news is that business may overwhelm all of these dynamics. We may be forced to work together in a really collaborative way and not have it be who's on top, who's winning. If you read the Readership Institute stuff, collaborative cultures put out better newspapers -- from the readers' standpoint.
ROY: I believe that. But I also see the viewpoint that you've described as an obstacle rather than as a engine for the kind of change you're talking about. And if I just build on your analogy with marginalized cultures, my sense is that the language that you were using to describe that, the language of "rights" and those people who have had their rights either taken away or in this particular case never granted see themselves as victims of an oppressive culture, a dominant culture. It could be a dominant white male culture or it can be a dominant journalism word culture. What I find a little frustrating and befuddling is why the tremendous accomplishment and evolution in the last two decades in visual journalism would make people feel marginalized. I also worry that in order to achieve partnership -- we've talked about this in another context -- you want to take something away from me or, to make it less personal, that you folks think that to achieve parity, you must have something that I have, and I have to give it up. I don't think those are the grounds for a successful marriage of minds and disciplines.
PAUL: What would it be that the word people would have to give up?
ROY: I have an answer, but he asked you, Monica.
MONICA: In the most practical terms, if you're going to have more shared storytelling, that means a sharing of time and space. That means if there's a total of 20 hours to be spent processing a story -- I'm just making that up -- and really to do decent work you have to have 12 hours and I have to have 8 hours, don't take 14 hours because you've taken 2 hours from me. There is a time issue and a space issue, you know?
For very practical, very human reasons, of course, in many newsrooms when a story runs long -- for whatever reason and maybe it's a great reason -- maybe the story needed to be longer, a photographer's work is often jettisoned because it takes longer to cut a story than it did to throw out a picture.
And the crime is not just: "Oh, my gosh, the photographer's work ends up on the cutting room floor." It's: "What is the reader missing?" Those things have to be balanced.
PAUL: So you're looking at a future of where there is more parity in time and space.
MONICA: I completely agree with you that there needs to be more of a sense of shared ownership. We all need to consider ourselves journalists. I just think that there's been damage done, and it has to be healed, it has to be repaired.
I think in some places it is being repaired; it's slow, it's incremental.
When I was a visual leader in the newsroom, I said we've got to celebrate every damn little success because it's easy to forget.
There's a lot of residual stuff to overcome. There are a lot of people who haven't come along. There are a lot of times when, just out of habit, a reporter forgets to tell you there's a big story. That's all residual, part of the old way, and you have to remember that you are making progress or that stuff will overwhelm you and you'll think you're not making progress. We're making progress slowly.
ROY: Now I see a difference. Where I think we could share some common ground is in better planning.
MONICA: Oh yeah. No question.
ROY: So a partnership or teamwork or collaboration requires at least some dismantling of assembly models of production. You don't have to look very far for models. I mean the magazines of the 1930s and 40s, if you were a writer, they expected you to come up with visual ideas that would both give the publication time to work and think about them but also to give you as a reporter and a writer a greater sense of what the whole story was all about. There are probably models of collaboration in making movies and television shows and theatrical productions. I mean we can learn from all of those.
ROY: Part of that planning should be making sure all the different and associated crafts have the appropriate time to construct the cathedral. That the stone masons and the stained glass makers, you and the wood carvers all have equal access to the finished project in a time frame that's appropriate. It's a great burden on the middle managers.
MONICA: Or maybe, it puts a great burden on everybody. Maybe we should make it everybody's job.
Next: Monica and Roy discuss how they want to be treated in the newsroom, and both start to question their assumptions.