What Brad DeLong means by journalists 'trying their best' by mattsteinglass
May 7, 2010, 5:05 am
Filed under: Economics, Media, Uncategorized

I understand Brad DeLong’s frustrations with journalists failing to get complicated stories about economics and economic policy right. I don’t know anything about the specific cases in which he feels some reporters at the Washington Post weren’t trying to get it right. But as a broad response, I would have to say: for most of us, the level of detailed and scrupulous reportage which he expects on every story entails an amount of work that almost no journalistic institution in the world will pay us enough to do, anymore.

This isn’t really a complaint; it’s more of an observation. The quality of reportage, both financial and otherwise, is going to keep going down. And it’s going to keep going down because there isn’t a market for quality reportage. It doesn’t pay any more to interview 10 sources for an article than it does to interview 5 of them. And it doesn’t pay any more to come up with an interesting or accurate way to tell a complex story than it does to resort to a well-worn format such as “there’s a heated debate over”, present one side, present the other side, come back to somebody saying there’s a heated debate, ends.

It’s not so much that the answer to the question “why oh why can’t we have a better press corps” is “because no one will pay for one.” I’d say that the question should be “why oh why can’t we have better reporting”, and the answer is “because no one will pay for it”.


12 Comments so far
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Just to be blithely negative, another way to improve reporting would be for more widely-read non-journalists like Dr. DeLong to be consistently critical of reporters and reports. In other words, keep reporters insecure for their jobs on a shoestring and abuse them.

Comment by citifieddoug

DP, at some point what happens there is that people who have other viable career options leave the profession. However, given that the economy seems to be in the process of eliminating the whole “viable career options” thing, you may be right that this could work.

Comment by Matt Steinglass


What’s the difference between your argument and, for example, a teacher who says they don’t get paid enough to spend time at home planning effective lessons, or working with students who need help after school? Journalists, like teachers, play an important role in our society – so important that journalism is the only profession protected by the Bill of Rights. With responsibility like that, sometimes you have to above and beyond the minimum requirements to do the job right. And if the quality of journalism was better, people might actually decide to spend a buck on a newspaper once in a while.

Maybe the reason financial reporting has become so poor is that nobody understands anything that’s going on in the financial world. I certainly don’t.

Comment by arto

arto, every single journalist I know is going well above “the minimum requirements to do the job right”. I handle two reporting strings and two blogs. Every day, I produce two to three articles on Vietnamese news and two to three posts on Democracy in America. I file at least one longer feature story per month, and I do about four magazine-length pieces per year for various outlets. I also have two radio strings, but I’ve had to give them up because at the end of the day/week I have no time left. I do this in order to make a salary that in the US would put me in about the 60th percentile. Fortunately I live in Vietnam, where the cost of living is low. My American colleagues are not so fortunate.

People in this profession are right at the edge of making a decent living, if we work as hard as we can, all the time. The way we can propel ourselves into making a pretty solid living is to produce more: more blog posts, more freelance features, maybe a book. Higher in-depth quality doesn’t pay. Greater quantity does. Hence.

That said, while I think some form of merit pay is needed, I also think teachers need to be paid more. I think we should fund this by paying financial professionals and military advisors and corporations less. I’m also hopeful that merit pay would actually contribute to teachers getting paid more; if people were allowed to pay more for quality, perhaps they would.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Oh — but you’re also right that nobody understands what’s going on in the financial world, including, it’s become clear, financial professionals. It’s been four days and they still can’t figure out why the Dow dropped 1000 points in, what was it, 1.5 minutes?

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Actually, Matt, I can explain that one. A butterfly in China took a sudden left. Goldang Chinese butterflies, anyhow.

Comment by citifieddoug

I see Matt’s point, as I live it. I’ve been doing a lot of original reporting for my book on retail – and I read 3 papers a day, listen to a number of financial shows, read several business magazines…and haven’t seen some of the stuff I’ve dug up in any of them. Either (possible) reporters are lazier than ever; busier than ever and/or their editors are demanding less substance. Only because I have the room of a book and the time (as I did) to read more than 8 other books for background have I even begun to understand some of the complexities. Much financial/business reporting now is shockingly, hopelessly shallow.

Freelancers are stretched to breaking point with fees that have been *reduced* in recent years (as have story lengths) so a 2500 word story, say, for a major national magazine that once would have paid $7,500 is now maybe 1500 words and paying $3,000. The math of less pay for more/same work means we all have to work more quickly — and therefore less in depth. Matt is right. There is no additional pay for excellence so mediocrity takes over.

I know several young freelance journalists in the U.S, suffering serious health issues from overwork, trying to make up lost income. It’s no joke.

Comment by Caitlin Kelly

Good points, Matt. It surely doesn’t help your cause that “news” is so accessible now, with 24-hour cable networks, and information available via cell-phone at any time. Why bother reading an in-depth report when you can get the general idea just by watching Anderson Cooper talk about it for 30 seconds on CNN? Unfortunately, I think you can get more in-depth reporting from “The Daily Show” than you do from most of the actual news networks.

As a teacher, I love the idea of merit pay (especially since I consider myself a pretty decent teacher). But I have yet to hear anyone suggest a fair and practical way by which to judge which teachers deserve merit pay and which do not.

Comment by arto

[…] Andrew Sullivan, reporter Matt Steinglass up to answer Brad DeLong’s perennial “why oh why can’t we have a better press […]

Pingback by Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » Systemic failure

So we do not have much to brag about. Destroying our planet is offsetting to us all.

One would expect a consensus and a coarse of action.

Why is our expectation violated? What pushes us into inactivity?

Solutions do not emanate from a monetary economy.

Verifiable evidence clearly shows, that a monetary based economy blocks solutions.

The emergence of a remarkable, resource based, link, economy that shines a beacon on non-monetary value presents.

An ultimate reboot is at hand.

As we speak, scientists are in the process of transforming skin cells into functional neurons.[take a few seconds to brood about that]. The current, ego oriented, antiquated system, seems quaintly out of place in the technological world of today.

A consensus is filtering it’s way through.

I expect we will have something to brag about. TICK -TOCK

Comment by imeasure

[…] Steinglass explains away some faults in […]

Pingback by 5-10-2010 The Day in Review | F i a t Lux

Sorry, but I ain’t buying it, and I’m barely 16 months out of the newsroom after 30 years in radio, print and online.

It is certainly true that market forces are a drag on quality. But money is not what makes the Washington Post op-ed page suck ass. Lack of money is not what makes reporters adhere to narratives that either are well past their sell-by dates or were never true in the first place. Low pay is not what makes reporters write stories, and editors let them into the paper, that don’t explain 1) what the news is and 2) why I should care. Low pay is not what causes reporters to make unsupported factual assertions. I see all of that and more in the Post, the Times and many other major-league news outlets all the freakin’ time, and you cannot convince me that money is the only problem.

The problem also is that people either don’t know how to do the job, don’t care about doing it well or are, philosophically or literally, on the take. Money alone doesn’t come CLOSE to explaining the level of crap I see in mainstream American journalism.

Comment by lexalexander

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