Wednesday, August 25, 2010...9:00 am

Why is “I” now the most important letter in journalism?

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Regular readers of Freelance Unbound will know some of the problems a journalism lecturer faces when it comes to assessing student work. But aside from the relentless inaccuracies in spelling, grammar, punctuation and argument, one of the most notable qualities of student writing is its self-indulgence.

“I” dominates the writing of students. It’s not long before a third-person news story switches to a first-person reaction to it. Whatever story they write, it’s as if the most important thing about whatever dull piece of writing has been assigned to them (a local news story? Boring!) is their own feelings about it.

It’s understandable. Youth is, by its nature, obsessed with itself and its dealings. And younger writers have a much narrower frame of reference to understand the world than more decrepit ones. It’s an experience thing – which is also about experience in the process of writing, as well as the business of living.

Maybe it’s also about aspiration. Most student journalists are obsessed with music, sport and celebrity, so maybe a lot of the writing reflects a sublimated desire to actually be famous.

Journalism is not about the journalist

But it’s not journalism. Journalism is about reporting and understanding the world – not a forum for a journalist to tell readers what he or she thinks about the world. That would imply that the journalist is as interesting as the story they tell – which is clearly not the case nearly all the time.

Yes, there are exceptions. The writer who first brought the journalist into the story as a participant rather than an observer is probably Hunter S Thompson. But Hunter S Thompson’s personal experiences riding with a California Hell’s Angels chapter are actually worth reading – after all, that’s not something you do every day. Most student journalists (indeed, most journalists) simply don’t have interesting enough experiences to be able to write real gonzo journalism.

It’s a real problem. So what’s to be done?

First – a disclaimer. Freelance Unbound is infested with the first person pronoun. This site reeks with self-important wittering. So the fact that it could feature a blog post complaining about the rampant presence of the first person in journalism is ironic, to say the least. But this is a blog, for heaven’s sake. That’s exactly what blogs are for. So – welcome back, me. At least I’ve carefully avoided using the first person up to now.

My plan was to challenge returning students in October to spend a whole semester without using that personal pronoun in their writing. In solidarity, I would pledge to remove the “I” from Freelance Unbound for the duration. Together, we would walk the path of true journalism, rather than self-promotion.

It was a great plan. But the past few weeks have revealed a key flaw.

The all-seeing I

A recent brush with the weekend supplements has threatened to undermine this worthy project. Article after article featured not only an interview with whatever celeb of the day was deemed newsworthy by the features editor (Kylie, Vidal Sassoon, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo actress Noomi Rapace), but also the relentless presence of the writer themselves.

A recent Saturday Times magazine’s feature on Vidal Sassoon starts with the author in a cab driving to Sassoon’s house in Los Angeles: “As we climb higher and higher up Mulholland Drive into Bel Air”. Further on, the journalist notes: “When I ask why he has so much art on the premises, he looks aghast.” (Probably at the fact that the journalist thinks he’s as important as Vidal himself.)

A few pages further on, Kevin Maher’s interview with Noomi Rapace ticks along quite nicely in the third person until, in response to her account of a dysfunctional adolescence, he writes: “I ask her if she’s traced the roots of this extreme behaviour.” Well, who else would be asking? You’re the journalist for heaven’s sake. And it’s your byline on the feature. So obviously it’s you asking the questions.

It never stops. Sathnam Sanghera’s interview with V.S. Naipaul on the next page reveals that the “prospect of meeting VS Naipaul fills me with a strange combination of excitement and trepidation”. As if anyone cares.

It’s easy to dismiss all this as celebrity froth (even, or especially, when it’s in the Times). Celebrity reportage is always self-indulgent. Surely this cult of journalistic personality can’t have reached the serious business and political coverage of, say, the Financial Times.

Oh dear. It has.

Take “When Hugo met Oliver” – the cover story of the FT weekend magazine for June 19/20 2010. It’s an account of a tour of South America by American film director Oliver Stone and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to promote South of the Border – an account of the rise of socialism across the continent. As such, it’s a prime example of a news feature – a feature article that is essentially news-based and should focus on its subject, not its writer.

But no – for some inexplicable reason, author Matthew Garrahan pops up regularly as one of the players in the story. He’s there in the standfirst: “Matthew Garrahan joined them to talk movies, politics – and the death of capitalism”.

Aside from the oddly gleeful reference to the death of capitalism, which is a reflection of the FT’s continuing drift to the left, it’s telling that, even here, Garrahan has been elevated to a player in the drama, not just an observer (note that he’s talking, not just listening). Journalists always “join” their subjects to talk about the story – it’s what journalism does. But in decades past journalists tended to fade into the background with their notebook, letting the subject hog the limelight.

Not here though. Matthew Garrahan can’t seem to keep himself out of the frame of the story. He kicks off:

I am sitting on the floor, back against the wall, of a cramped, stuffy room of a Caracas hotel, waiting for Oliver Stone.

Well, that’s all very well for scene-setting. But it goes on and on. “I’m in Venezuela to follow Stone on the first two legs of his grand tour across South America”; “I have been promised a rare interview with Chavez”; “I will also see Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador” etc etc.

It’s as if Garrahan can’t keep his focus away from himself. “Why shouldn’t Venezuela follow its own path under a leader who was democratically elected?” asks the article, reasonably enough. But the response is “Under graying skies, I pondered this on the drive from the airport”, as if the writer is a kind of modern De Tocqueville, whose thoughts are as weighty as the leaden skies that colour his prose.

No incident is too trivial for the gonzo touch: “While I wait for the call from the presidential palace, [political fixer] Fernando Sulichin and I drink coffee in the hotel”. In fact, quite a lot of coffee seems to be drunk:

The meeting with Chávez is scheduled for 4pm, but by early evening we still haven’t heard anything. I order a double espresso…

Finally, the meeting with Chavez happens. And to prove it, there’s a riveting account of the first words exchanged between El Presidente and the intrepid journalist:

“What is your name?” Chávez says in faltering English, his voice strong and deep.

“Matthew,” I reply.

“Machu?”

“Matthew. Like Matteo.”

“Si, si. OK, Matteo.”

This is beyond banal. Why on earth should anyone care about this stuff? Why is it infecting the journalism that used to pride itself on its rigorous ability to stay outside the picture?

We are all diarists now

One reason could well be the medium you are reading now. The rise of online writing and the blog format has driven the diarisation of journalism. And while some journalists have not easily embraced the informal personalisation of their craft (see, for example, the impeccably journalistic ‘blog’ of former Press Gazette deputy editor Jon Slattery), it seems others have plunged right in – allowing informal blog style to shape the rest of their work.

Age and experience will play their part. The longer you’ve spent writing old-school reportage, the harder it will be to break those habits. But, as noted here often enough, journalists are getting younger as older and more expensive hacks are pensioned off to cut costs. That means a generation of journalists whose experience of writing has been conditioned by the easy informality of web forms.

Everything’s a cuttings job

But there’s another, even more important reason. Easy access to online information and the reluctance of publishers to finance primary reporting means that all many, many journalists do is sit in front of the computer rehashing other people’s work. It’s a lot cheaper and, crucially, it’s a lot easier. It actually comes as something of a shock to many journalism students that they can’t just write a feature about their favourite celebrity or England’s prospects in the World Cup from internet snippets and their own, all-important opinions.

In fairness to them, however, if they ever manage to find work in this business, a lot of their day-to-day activity might be exactly that – rehashing and filtering the slew of existing online information.

This is exactly why many journalists must be so keen to insert themselves into genuine reportage – it’s so rare nowadays. To have actually been in South America, meeting Hugo Chavez and speaking with him in person, is so far removed from the usual journalistic experience that it’s worth reporting on as well. “Look, I’m actually here, not cutting and pasting this from Google! This is fantastic!”

My audience knows me

There’s also a certain inevitability about the slipping of the journalistic mask. In the old days (even just a decade ago), a journalist could spend much of a working life barely interacting with their audience. Letters to the editor, depending on the publication, could be few and far between. Journalists spewed out their words into a void.

Today, however, journalists exist in a relationship with readers that has been transformed by digital technology. We are bombarded with reader response in a way that was unimaginable not so long ago.

And that means we are exposed in a way that was also unknown to previous hacks. We are accountable and visible in ways that mean it is much more natural to write as individuals talking to individuals.

Stand out in the crowd

Finally, it’s worth noting that newspapers are competing with a slew of online news sources and have to use whatever means they can to stand out in the market.

One tactic is personality. If news is something you see on Google or Yahoo in snatched headlines, how can newspapers respond? By filling themselves and their supplements chockful of personal opinion and diary columns – ironically mimicking the blogosphere that traditional journalism so derides.

Will this cult of personality spread even further to the news reporting that was always at the core of journalism? Probably – this correspondent suspects the days of distant, third-party reportage will soon seem as quaint as newspapers themselves. Not that you should care what I think…

4 Comments

  • Nice thought piece Simon. It raises a lot of very interesting questions.
    I don’t have a problem with an interviewer injecting themselves and their thoughts into a piece. The musings of somebody like Lynn Barber are usually much more engaging than the latest Hollywood himbo/bimbo she has been sent to spend 15 minutes with.
    You could even argue that Matteo’s ‘what I did on my holiday’ piece in the Times is a way of bringing to life what could be a dry run through the politics of South America. If he’s gone too far, then it’s down to the editor to rein him in a bit.
    The personal angle definitely has its place, although it should be used sparingly. I think you are right to ask your students to save us – or rather you – from their opinions and concentrate on creating a story that holds water, as well as the attention.
    As CP Scott put it: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
    Or more cruelly: “Nobody cares what you think.”
    Ironically, it can be one of the hardest things to get somebody to talk about themselves as a case study for a feature, particularly if the subject matter is a bit negative – money problems, health issues etc.
    Or sometimes it isn’t – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11060841

  • I think the key problem is that writers are losing the discipline of being able to inject their personality into a piece of writing without talking about themselves. That, plus the communication changes we are seeing, is driving this change.

    Journalists need to be able to tell when their participation in a story adds to it, rather than intrudes…

  • Really good piece, made me chuckle.

    It seems that it’s just as much an issue in broadcast journalism too. All too often an interview with a high profile politician or celebrity will be spoiled by a shot of the journalist nodding inanely.

  • Yes – I find the ‘noddies’ a bit irritating too. Though I think they may serve an additional function of masking over the edits…