Fri, 09 Oct 2009 18:55:00 +0000

I was going to write a long piece about the Washington Square News/NYU Local/Sergio debacle. But I think my job — writing 4,000 words a day — has given me Carpal tunnel. So instead, I’ll post this video that best illustrates the NYU Local/WSN situation:

That cuts about 500 words off what I was going to write.

I am graduated now, so it shouldn’t concern me. But I address this because I want to engage in the dialogue about journalism, while also protecting a publication that strives to teach it.

EDIT: Oh, and despite my attempts, this is long.
EDIT 2: A friend/Local writer pointed out that some of the links of this story didn't work -- ironic, eh? Apparently Blogger doesn't like it when I try to code in my own links. I manually type the "a href" code about 500 times a day, so it's just habit.

MY FIRST TERM as editor of WSN, I hired a freshman named Sergio Hernandez to be our assistant news editor. He was eager and willing. I loved the way he reported his stories — thoroughly, smartly. Over the next few years, however, Sergio and I would both agree that things were not so smooth for him. We can both take blame for that.

I graduated and Sergio now interns at Gawker. But last weekend, Sergio — while still a senior staff writer at WSN — wrote a blog post on his personal website calling the current editors “arrogant” and “stubborn” while saying he’s not impressed with what they’ve done.

There was hoopla, then more hoopla and then he was fired.

Many of Sergio’s criticisms are valid. Sure, it was passive aggressive, but I can deal with that. There are other things, however, I cannot overlook.

He writes as if he is an outside critic looking at the paper, justifying it by saying he is hardly part of WSN anymore. The technical response to that is: Yes, you are still part because you have a title at the paper.

But the real response is that it illustrates a lack of accountability.

The product WSN has today isn’t only the work of the current staff. Its evolution, its culture and its success also has to do with the past employees of the paper. Sergio was a part of that — a bigger part than most. (His personal e-mail address, in fact, still has the acronym “wsn” in it.)

Staff members can talk and criticize WSN all they want. In fact, WSN columnists have done so in the paper itself. But those staff members cared about the paper and worked to improve it. They earned respect and clout by humbly working hard and respecting others while doing it.

But if you point fingers, while doing little internally to fix the problems, that is a detriment to the newspaper and its staff members. There is no reason for the paper to employ you any further.

This whole “Fight Club” simile is characterizing the situation inaccurately. He and NYU Local say he was fired for publicly criticizing the paper. But he wasn’t kicked out because he talked about it. He was kicked out because he continuously wouldn’t fight — then he blogged about how they were fighting incorrectly.

But what was most disappointing was the tone of the piece. It treats WSN coldly.

One of my goals as editor was to foster an environment that pushed people to care for each other. I wanted WSN to be a place where everyone, regardless of talent, gets a chance to be a great journalist and make friends. As much as people treat WSN as a newspaper, it’s also an important organization for new students to meet people and find some footing at this huge school. We never required experience or even talent. In fact, I always said I’d rather have a talentless reporter who is devoted to us than a talented one who isn’t. I know not everyone is treated this way — not everyone sticks and becomes best friends with everyone. But I’d like to think that, even today, most people find it to be a friendly place.

I talked with Sergio about this. I told him there are people who cared about him at the newspaper. He knows this. In fact, he has spent a lot of time there. Sergio has, for years, eaten lunch in the newsroom; made copies and faxes in the newsroom; and, above all, been close friends with many people who devoted a lot to that paper.

By characterizing the paper as an cold, unreceptive, anti-progressive place, which it isn’t (more on this later), he is discouraging others from enjoying what he saw in the paper as a freshman — and perhaps taking away an opportunity that has offered so much to so many, including himself.

EVERYONE’S a media critic these days.

This proves true in a recent NYU Local post that criticizes WSN for how it doesn’t link to Local when they have it first. It was inspired by Sergio’s post and turned into an open letter by Local’s Lily Q. It is a sentiment long held by Local.

But unlike most WSN stabs, though, this isn’t simply Local bothering WSN. Instead, Lily brings up some strong philosophical points. They are, however, misdirected.

I contend that WSN has never taken a story from Local without re-reporting it — or “making is theirs.” (Lily disagrees.) But that’s not the disagreement. The disagreement is whether WSN should link and attribute stories first reported in Local, even if WSN re-reports them.

Traditionally, once you make a story yours, you stop attributing the story to another source. For example, when The New York Times got the Eliot Spitzer scoop, other outlets sourced the Times until they could get their own sources and confirmation. Then they stopped attributing the Times.

Lily, however, said her battle — as a self-professed “journalism geek” — is to have media outlets retain the original source in their stories. Perhaps she would agree to drop the attribution after a certain time. But if an outlet reports it first, she wants others to say something like, “as first reported by NYU Local” — even if the story is re-reported.

There is a lot of gray area here.

Scenario 1: A car accident. One publication will always get it first. Do the rest of the outlets have to mention the source, even if they simply got there a few minutes later? Or what if a newspaper hears about the accident on the radio and runs over to report it themselves?

Scenario 2: The governor’s office leaks a press release early to just one publication. Do the rest of the outlets have to attribute the first one — even after the press release is sent to everyone?

Scenario 3: The mayor in a small Kansas town is accused of hiring prostitutes. You write a story about how similar his story is to Spitzer’s story. If the other publications do their own reporting, do they have to credit you for first pointing out the similarities?

I think, right now, all this is a judgment call. It’s hard to say one thing is right or not.

For now, most outlets don’t link or attribute other publications when they can re-report it.

But here’s how I would treat it today — I can’t speak for tomorrow or yesterday: If reporters uncover a story with extraordinary reporting and work themselves into the narrative of the piece, they deserve a mention in stories from other outlets. But if a story is entirely re-reported, with the first publication pointing the arrow for the following outlets, then I don’t see why the original source should be acknowledged.

THE TROPHIES of news organizations shouldn’t be that they uncovered a story — it should be that they continue to uncover stories. They shouldn’t grovel for attributions and links to make readers come to them. Instead, they should attract readers because of their reputation for producing strong journalism.

The trophies of aggregating organizations should be that they link to the first — then best — outlet for news, and do so with a keen eye for interesting and relevant matters. If the information is presented well (snark, good writing, smart analysis, etc.), then there is a winning formula. (I am not demeaning this kind of work at all. In fact, this is kind of my entire job as a professional.)

Problem is, the lines are getting blurred and both sides want each other’s trophies.

All that said, Lily’s post came as a criticism of WSN. Instead, it was a statement on the direction Lily feels journalism should go.

She thinks the progressive way to teach journalism would be to link and attribute the source that first gets a story. I think, one day, that might be the right thing to do. But, for now, it’s all up in the air so criticizing a single newspaper for following tradition is, in my opinion, misguided.

TO CLEAR OUR HEADS of this crazy jumble — and put life into perspective — I want to tell a story. It was what this week’s Life of Alvin was supposed to be about.

A few nights ago, my dog and I were looking for a place to pee — for her, not me. During our search, we encountered a homeless guy. He looked a lot like the Penguin from “Batman Forever.”

I tried to hurry past him. But Rainbow — my 10-year-old peekapoo — ran in front of him and stared right up the guy’s nostrils. What do I say to that? Sorry that my dog is staring at you for looking like a Batman villain”

But this guy stopped waddling down the sidewalk. He stared at Rainbow and smiled. “The puppy likes me,” he said.

I THINK it’s important to discuss all these things but, in the end, they should not distract us from the things we write about. We should allow few of us to immerse in the ideas and theories about ourselves — the media — and the rest of us should immerse ourselves in the world we cover.

But, for what it's worth, the situation did push me to think.

And lastly, I definitely have Carpal tunnel now.