Paul Henry naked...

and the sav­ing of jour­nal­ism

Idealog - - CONTENTS - Vaughn Davis

A COU­PLE OF IS­SUES back, I wrote about the par­lous state of jour­nal­ism, the emp­ty­ing out of news­rooms, and the rise and rise of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­part­ments.

Since then, Camp­bell Live has been re­placed by (last time I looked) an in­nu­endo-laced cook­ing show ( juicy breasts!), Mi­hin­garangi Forbes has quit Maori TV af­ter man­age­ment killed a story she had been work­ing on, and Fair­fax has laid off (al­beit with plans to mostly lay back on) most of its ed­i­to­rial staff.

Call me Nostradamus. ( You know… that six­teenth cen­tury French dude who may – or may not – have been able to pre­dict the fu­ture.)

On the face of it, you’d think all that hap­pen­ing would have only in­creased my alarm and strength­ened my belief that leav­ing jour­nal­ism to the am­a­teurs – peo­ple like me – is a more or less ter­ri­ble thing.

But then I saw Paul Henry naked and it changed my mind.

He was sit­ting on a couch, perched next to a girl in a cheap Los An­ge­les ho­tel. The cof­fee ta­ble in front of him was strewn with emp­ties and fast food wrap­pers. And OK, he might have had a towel around his waist, or maybe a robe. But there was more Paul Henry on dis­play than many an­i­mals and small chil­dren might be com­fort­able with.

I saw all this on my TV, watch­ing a preview of a movie he ap­peared in re­cently called The Desk. De­spite my skills as an ad guy, I haven’t con­vinced many peo­ple to watch it. But you should. It’s very good and here’s why.

Its di­rec­tor and writer is a for­mer New York Times jour­nal­ist called An­drew Gold­man. He’s Paul Henry’s big­gest fan (or he was when they made the movie). And while the movie is os­ten­si­bly about Henry, it’s just as much about the state of main­stream media and pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ism in the USA.

It’s not re­ally spoil­ing the movie to re­veal that Gold­man’s ca­reer at the Times ended badly. His job was to write one fea­ture in­ter­view per week. (I know! In Amer­ica that’s an en­tire job with which you can pay a mort­gage and feed your chil­dren!) Trou­ble was, while that one job was great for pay­ing the bills, it came with con­di­tions. Tweet some­thing ironic or of­fen­sive about an au­thor and you find your­self on the car­pet in front of the editor. Ask a curly ques­tion to an in­ter­view sub­ject who also hap­pens to be a ma­jor advertiser and you find your­self on the pave­ment.

For Gold­man, what he per­ceived as Paul Henry’s un­tram­meled free­dom to say and do what­ever he wanted seemed very ap­peal­ing, and led him down the path that ended in mak­ing a movie fea­tur­ing a barely clothed Paul Henry on a couch.

While the couch scene is the film’s en­dur­ing im­age, it’s Gold­man’s story that caused me to re­think my po­si­tion on am­a­teur jour­nal­ism. There he was in a dream job, be­ing paid well to in­ter­view in­ter­est­ing peo­ple. But re­ly­ing on that job and its reg­u­lar pay cheque came with more con­straints than free­doms. Af­ter a year of do­ing ev­ery­thing he could to avoid of­fend­ing read­ers, he pissed off an advertiser and was out the door.

That can’t hap­pen to an am­a­teur. We don’t work here; we can’t be fired. Maybe, then, the am­a­teurs aren’t just in­evitable, but es­sen­tial to the fu­ture of jour­nal­ism.

Think of it as Su­per­man in re­verse. Rather than Clark Kent oc­ca­sion­ally duck­ing into a phone booth to pull on his tights and save the world, the fu­ture of jour­nal­ism lies in Su­per­man pop­ping on his geeky glasses and now and then do­ing a bit of writ­ing. Some­times there’ll be money in it; some­times there won’t. It doesn’t mat­ter when you’re Su­per­man, right?

Not re­ly­ing on jour­nal­ism for a liv­ing can mean writ­ing to change minds, even the world, with­out wor­ry­ing about who you’re piss­ing off.

Yes, Su­per­man will need to take his part-time jour­nal­ism gig se­ri­ously; read­ers de­serve the same eth­i­cal stan­dards whether the writer is a pro­fes­sional or not. But that’s not an im­pos­si­bly high hur­dle. And even if it was, he could leap it in a sin­gle bound.

Vaughn Davis farms goats, flies aero­planes, builds brands, hosts a ra­dio show and tweets @vaugh­n­davis. He once landed a big aero­plane on a sheet of float­ing ice in Antarc­tica but that was ages ago.

OK, he might have had a towel around his waist, or maybe a robe. But there was more Paul Henry on dis­play than many an­i­mals and small chil­dren might be com­fort­able with.”

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