A Note To Readerland

Commentary

In 2001, I began writing a weekly column that appeared solely on the rather undistinguished venue called the Internet. I had racked up nearly 20 rather undistinguished years in journalism by then. But I didn't have even a vague inkling about the Big Lesson I would come to learn over the next 400 columns. It is a lesson that has some modest value to other journalists and newspeople in this time of our great dismay.

My lesson is similar to that most basic bromide of American commerce: The customer is always right.

This doesn't quite mean for journalists what it means for car salesmen; you don't say whatever it is the customer wants to hear in order to sell a newspaper or a television or a radio broadcast. Many news outfits have tried this approach with various forms of tabloid or pandering news. It occasionally nourishes the corporate ledgers but rarely the journalist's soul.

I mean something different — something that is not simple.

I mean that I have learned that my best columns will generally get the most readers. The readers are almost always right. The columns I think will get the most traffic rarely do. So don't pander, don't insult your customers, but listen to them. And know them: There is no one-size-fits-all mass journalism anymore, so know and respect your specific customers.

I mean that I have been wildly humbled and enormously educated by "the people formerly known as the audience." The people in Readerland have always been able to talk to me about my online columns either through e-mail or comments. This didn't happen when I was a television producer and reporter. I am by far a better journalist for it, a clearer thinker and a more careful arguer. I have been able to test and refine ideas over time through dialogue. That is a blessing, not a threat.

I mean that for every column I write, there are scads of people in Readerland who know far more about what I am writing about than I do or ever will. They are experts or people who live with issues I only visit. I learn from them after every column, I use them as sources and resources, and they are embedded in my conscience as I write and edit.

I mean that many rules and dictates we have created to guard our craft are at risk of becoming guards of our guild. We have kept "the audience" off our "platforms" in the past because they may say dumb things, commit errors of fact or be uncivil. These are understandable concerns. But taken too far, they are a kind of intellectual protectionism for our own special authority as journalists: as if only we can say dumb things, commit errors of fact or be uncivil.

But allowing readers to talk back and share the stage has improved us. It has changed our notions of balance, of how much we share about our decision making, about how we treat what other organizations are reporting and so forth. All for the good, I believe.

There are problems facing journalism that will, I fear, remain unsolved for years. For example, capital is fleeing the business of gathering and reporting news around the world, while it flocks to businesses that can profit from processing the news gathered by other suckers. There is no obvious "business model" for journalism as we have known it for the past 75 years or so. There is a lot of journalismlike "content" out there on TV and the Web that seems toxic by the measures of capital-J Journalism. Indeed, it is unclear to me that the commodity traditionally called journalism is still valued by a nation increasingly unbound from community, geography, writing and history.

But I do believe my Big Lesson, in the end, will make for better journalism and better journalists. And it will make journalism a better vocation, a higher and more honest calling.

I originally named this column after a collection of essays by a professor I studied with, wrote about and deeply admired as an intellectual and a human being, Isaiah Berlin. His book called Against the Current is a collection of essays about some of the lesser known philosophers in history who all rebelled against the spirit and authority of their times. Many of these thinkers argued for things Berlin found absurd or evil, but he was still able to see the world from their perspectives, an exercise he used to be modest about the virtues and clarity of his own perspective.

I called my column "Against the Grain" — a more American phrase — to honor Berlin and all my other favorite teachers (some of whom happen to be long-dead authors). I also did it to remind myself always to try to see the subjects I tackled from a perspective other than my own; usually, I tried to think about how my various teachers would come at an issue. Little did I know that the best teachers would end up out there in Readerland.

I have some new chores at NPR now, and so this will be my last weekly "Against the Grain" column. I reserve the right to revive it someday or write an occasional piece under the old heading. I am grateful to the bosses and colleagues who have indulged me along the way. To the few regulars out there, thank you so much for joining me.

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