An Israeli daily newspaper tried a radical experiment – it replaced journalists with literary writers for some editions of its paper. David Secko and Elyse Amend write about the study that followed this experiment to see if other types of writers could handle daily deadlines, chasing truth, and working sources for information the way that journalists do.

An Israeli daily newspaper tried a radical experiment – it replaced journalists with literary writers for some editions of its paper. David Secko and Elyse Amend write about the study that followed this experiment to see if other types of writers could handle daily deadlines, chasing truth, and working sources for information the way that journalists do.

 

When Jack Shafter was laid off as Slate's media critic in late August 2011, he told Mark Lisheron from the American Journalism Review that "everyone is replaceable".

"Had Derek Jeter in his prime been struck down, the Yankees would have found someone, maybe not as good as Derek Jeter, but someone to replace him, and they go on. No one in this business is essential to the mission. Journalists sometimes forget that they don't leave a legacy behind, they're just replaced", Shafter was quoted as saying.

Whether you agree with Shafter's view on our legacy or not, he hits a certain note in a debate over how replaceable journalists are — not just by other journalists, but by an influx of bloggers, citizen journalists, user-generated content, and automated news-story composing algorithms.  

There is a deeper question afoot about the future of journalism and how necessary professional journalists are to the unfolding media landscape.

According the Zvi Reich and Hagar Lahav, authors of the recent study in Journalism, “Are reporters replaceable? Literary authors produce a daily newspaper,” there are two schools of thought on these issues: the “exclusive” school that views journalists as having inalienable skills, and the “delegator” school that views journalists as replaceable and having skills that can be learned by anyone.

Reich and Lahav, from Ben Gurion University and Sapir College in Israel respectively, striked upon a unique case study to add to the “exclusive” versus “delegator” debate from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.   

In June 2009 and 2010, the Haaretz replaced its news reporters with a group of international and Israeli book authors who reported the news for two special editions. It was, as Reich and Lahavput it, "[a] rare research opportunity to study whether news reporters can – or cannot – be replaced inside a mainstream news organization".

Reporters out, literary authors in

With the reporters out, and the literary authors in, Reich and Lahav ask: are the Haaretz journalists replaceable?

Reich and Lahav looked at the stories produced in each special issue, conducted surveys with the staff, and interviewed the literary authors, replaced journalists, and editors involved with the project. The answer they got was “quasi-experimental”, the authors admit.

Firstly, Reich and Lahav point out that the special edition project had some peculiarities, namely that in order to help the literary authors in their new, unfamiliar roles, the newspaper set up a support system to guide them in their news gathering and reporting.

As such, 74 per cent of the stories in the special editions were not initiated by the literary authors, but rather assigned by the editorial department (ordinarily, stories are initiated by journalists at Haaretz, with only 33 per cent of stories assigned by editors).

When it came to fieldwork, the literary authors “used their legs” more than journalists, and gathered information for 69 per cent of their stories through face-to-face encounters or first-hand reporting (whereas journalists typically did this only 29 per cent of the time).

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This seems to suggest that the literary authors were more hands-on and respected what some may see as a strong journalistic standard to gather first-hand reports over relying on a third party in reporting their stories. In fact, when Reich and Lahav surveyed Haaretz journalists they found that 87 per cent deemed the special editions “more interesting” or “much more interesting” than regular editions of the newspaper.

Five weaknesses remain 

However, upon analysis of the stories and discussion with the editors involved, Reich and Lahav were forced to conclude that the literary authors, as non-journalists, had five weaknesses in producing a daily newspaper:

1. They found it difficult or refused to work within single-day deadlines for stories. They viewed these deadlines as not having enough time, whereas journalists often work within hourly deadlines for stories.

2. They seemed to lack the analytical and interpretative skills that experienced journalists possess, particularly in certain beats such as politics. The authors were thus limited to reporting on events that were easily observable.

3. They produced articles that, despite demonstrating superior writing-skills, often fell short of traditional journalistic notions of newsworthiness.

4. Their output was unpredictable, unlike working journalists. This was due to the fact that the authors represented a mostly voluntary workforce that had limited access or established links to news sources. Add to these obstacles an apparent lack in self-confidence while trying to navigate their tasks in unfamiliar roles.

5. They expressed apprehension and showed difficulty – matched by the editorial team’s doubt – in the ability to cover large-scale and unscheduled events.

The fifth point is the most striking. During production of the second special edition in May/June 2010, the Turkish flotilla event occurred, during which six ships sought to break the blockade that Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling to the Hamas regime. Five of the ships were taken over by Israeli commandos without casualties. However the takeover of the sixth ship resulted in a battle between commando soldiers and dozens of Turkish passengers with nine passenger casualties.

The newspaper decided to proceed with the special edition, having authors cover the event, with regular journalist staff covering it for the paper’s website. The output from the authors, however, was deemed less than satisfactory. To quote one production manager commenting on the experience: “I am not sure whether we are crazy or hallucinating.”  

Despite measures taken by the newspaper to compensate for the authors’ weaknesses in newsgathering and reporting, Reich and Lahav write that the process behind the two special editions was largely characterized by problems and challenges.

For Reich and Lahav, the Haaretz experiment demonstrates that the “exclusive” school of thought is partially right: journalists largely remain irreplaceable due to their reporting skills and established connections with news sources. This was seen as particularly true when the literary authors where forced to move away from covering pre-scheduled assignments (which they did successfully) to covering an unscheduled event or attempting to side-step "a smokescreen hiding ‘the real thing'".

As with any good debate, Reich and Lahav's data doesn't fully dismiss the“delegators” school. A number of literary authors were able to produce original news articles for the special editions that were deemed ‘fit to print’ by the editors despite the project obstacles encountered along the way.

Replacements may not all play like Derek Jeter, but some will still help win the game.