Gene Patterson’s final thoughts on journalism: ‘Get over the pain, new stuff happens’

In late November 2012, Eugene Patterson, who died Saturday, prepared his thoughts about journalism in advance of a visit from an old friend. His edited reflections are reproduced here, direct from Patterson’s IBM Wheelwriter typewriter.

Journalists get to originate, validate and illuminate the real news if they carry forward the character of their calling.

How they make the good stuff pay will follow the quality as it always has. Technology’s shift of news to new money models still leaves the key to the vault lying in the gold cache of character. That character leaves journalists to prospect for truth.

Journalists breaking out of the wreckage of old news delivery ways carry in their bones known elements of the character which, in handling news, needs to be.

Be truthful; if it hurts, just say ow.

Be fair; let all speak.

Be ethical; if it feels wrong, it is.

Be careful; get facts right.

Be skeptical; ask, what’s missing here?

Be above conflict; if in doubt, don’t.

Be beyond price; fear no threatener, favor no pal.

Be an example of integrity; people know it when you show it.

Be vigilant; to defend the First Amendment, deliver on its purpose: question authority; watch the empowered; right wrongs.

And be easy in the going; clasp the comical, and dance it around the floor.

We aren’t just saying the Sunday school lessons here while the church burns. We’re fighting the fire. Salvage the steeple, reshingle roof that’s left, and keep a lot of kneelers. Start the annex and pay the preacher frugally to match the faint rattle of the current collection plate. Cut your sackcloth to fit the pattern. Believe in gladsome days to come.

News work in the new era is bound to ask more and pay less until new revenue can rise.

The lower-cost newsroom is likely to be limited to a compact cadre of the expert few, directing a force of carefully chosen free lancers. They used to be called stringers. They had day jobs but earned a little extra by calling in the happenings in their places. They gained hometown stature as correspondents for bigtown media, and their bigtown editors tapped their local knowledge while professionally shaping their stories. The editors verified facts and scrapped junk. This certified it as community journalism, not prattle. Cost was a pittance compared to the expense of fulltime staffers. An elite few of staffers will still parachute in to cover the big ones. But day-to-day expense for people must come down until revenues can revive. Coverage can be kept up by the time-tried means at hand. Giving it up is not an option. Among smaller tragedies, that would leave nothing for the aggregators to curate.

Editors looking to whisk up savings are already syndicating their staff writers’ accounts of events within their states. Thus they cover more of the distant stories at less cost by swapping and sharing their staffs’ work. Sorry, sports: that includes you. For a little competitive pride lost, a lot of sinew in news reach balloons.

Scratching for revenue at newspapers extends through advertising and circulation to the pressroom where commercial printing may put idle iron to use. The country weekly of my Depression boyhood printed individual labels for farmers paying to paste their names on their half-gallon tin cans of syrup when they boiled up a kettlefull at cane grinding time.

Back at the ranch, all of this still leaves some bunks open for the skilled hands who can saddle up and sit the bronc of news that bolts bucking out of the chute daily.

For sure there’ll be hunters (to investigate wrongs), gatherers (to harvest the hay and bale it), explainers (to answer the reasons why), and commenters (to argue for a verdict). They can’t be afforded if they’re numerous. So the few will have to be good.

There’s no room for the ordinary in the future news medium that earns dominance in its community, whatever its delivery system looks like.

Arid acres of jump page stuff will now be continued to a link after a couple of paragraphs. Explanatory journalism is the new spot news. Wired readers are already up to their who-where’s in what happened. They want to know why and how come, reliably. That’s what they’ll buy, along with sensible comment so nimble they’ll eagerly make it regular reading for pleasure. Think Krugman, Dowd, Nocera, and certainly Gail Collins, as you’ll know unless you’re strapped to the roof of a car somebody’s driving to Canada.

Commit to signed columns. They connect a community to a living person, not an inanimate institution. The column is a daily hello, like its view or not. Its mortal sin is to bore. Write a yawner, you’re out of here. Writers of explanatory stories can rival comment columnists for readers’ favor if they excel. Call up personal journalism to reach the reader’s answering heart. Keep arm’s length from the conniver but let the reader come in close.

Opportunities will be ample when the press re-casts this page of its history. Get over the pain. New stuff happens.

We’ve crossed the edge of the information world before and found the horizon still beckons. The fearful saw the end of printed news first in radio, then in television, and here we are, still around answering the new alarms. Open mike talk shows, game shows, gossip and gore blew through before tweets, texts, posts and careless blogs gained primacy at wasting time.

Serious and saleable handling of news is feeling its way slowly but surely to modern means of delivery that will pay the cost of newsgathering. That’s inevitable because it’s essential. And the new product worth delivering has to carry forward its old character whose commandments are graven in the printer’s stone.

This statement by Gene Patterson lives in the courtyard of The Poynter Institute.

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