Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Regular readers of this blog (and my Tweets and Facebook updates) may have noticed that I vanished from cyberspace about three weeks ago. The reason was a fateful call from The Washington Post that has led to my becoming Education Editor, after a decade as a reporter there. No one is more surprised--or thrilled, or surprised that I'm thrilled--than I am. But the shift has been so abrupt that some explanation may be in order.
First, I'm still working on my book project with Harvard AIDS researcher Daniel Halperin, and given that I don't have to show up at the Post newsroom until my book leave ends in early September, we have three months to complete at least an initial draft of the manuscript. Second, my interest in all things about AIDS and Africa is undiminished. I still obsess about Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, and whether all the billions being poured into the AIDS War are being used well. This blog will continue to discuss those issues.
But my unexpected discussions with the Post's new Local Editor, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, awakened something in me that I was trying to ignore: American newspaper journalism is in grave trouble, and I was on the sidelines in the battle to save it. I watched the Tribune Company hack two-thirds of the muscle out of the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun, my father's longtime professional home, and lay off my extraordinarily talented brother, Scott, from the Los Angeles Times (despite a run of good evaluations). So the personal stakes were certainly clear to me.
Yet even more I worried that the loss of our newspapers meant the loss of a shared narrative about our nation. The best papers are the daily diaries of their communities, and having lived and traveled in parts of Africa that lacked strong newspapers, I could see what happened when citizens and their leaders didn't agree on even the most basic elements of what was happening in their societies.
All papers, even the best ones like the Post, surely have failings but for decades they have been places where we meet, we talk, we chew over difficult issues, we exult in human achievement and lament human failing. Maybe cyberspace is becoming that, but from here it seems to created ever-more fractured conversations as it empowers new voices, diminishes others, and spins continually outward into new terrain. The center does not hold. Even the idea of the center--a place where straight-up news gathering is regarded as something akin to a calling--is feeling more quaint and antiquated by the day.
Offered the chance to rejoin a newsroom that's trying to save something so dear, I leapt at it with my usual manic fervor. That's why I've been out of touch for awhile. As one of my new editor colleagues said to me: "If we're going to go down, we might as well go down fighting."
That doesn't mean that the Post is in imminent peril. By most measures, the Post is the healthiest of the major American newspapers. Yet there's no ignoring that if we don't figure out how to make real money on the web, all newspapers are doomed.
I did, in applying for this job, gently mention to my new boss Emilio that I had virtually no background in either editing or education. But I also once knew nothing about Virginia politics, or D.C. politics, or AIDS, or any number of African nations. And I did already have a sense that schools and universities are so central to our societies that they should be a continuous source of great journalism, even if they have not always been so in the past.
As I began to assess my new team of reporters, it quickly became clear that the Post had a deep stable of talent ready to push harder and deeper into the subjects our readers care about. Probably the most difficult challenge we face will be mastering the new journalistic forms that the the web makes possible and, for those news organizations that survive this transition, ultimately demands of us.
So that's what's happening. I'm becoming an editor after 16 years as a reporter, foreign correspondent and (fingers crossed) an author. I can't think of anything right now that sounds more fun, or more important.
Posted by Craig Timberg at 2:45 PM