Tom Junod despre jurnalism, reguli şi poveşti

Nu e un secret că Tom Junod e scriitorul meu preferat. Spun scriitor şi nu jurnalist pentru că Junod are o relaţie ambivalentă cu acest termen. Prin preferat înţeleg următoarele: când apare ceva nou de Tom Junod pun totul deoparte şi mă apuc să citesc. De ce? Pentru că îmi oferă garanţia unei experienţe memorabile şi unor trăiri puternice. Deseori, modul în care omul filtrează realitatea face ficţiunea modernă să pară un simplu exerciţiu de imaginaţie.

N-are rost să continui – mai bine îl las pe maestru să vorbească. Ce urmează este textul integral al unui discurs fabulos ţinut de Junod la Missouri School of Journalism, în martie 2009. Tema este viitorul poveştilor într-o lumea twitterată, dar această descriere grosieră nu face decât să submineze experienţa lecturii acestui discurs.

După ce terminaţi de citit, nu uitaţi să spuneţi cum a fost.

* Tom Junod s-a năcut în 1958 şi scrie în prezent pentru Esquire. A câştigat două National Magazine Awards şi a fost finalist de alte zece ori, cel mai recent pentru un portret făcut lui Steve Jobs. Citiţi cu încredere şi textele lui despre Norman Mailer, cuvântul “crimă”, băieţii răi şi gura lui Hillary Clinton.

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Tom Junod’s Keynote Speech
Missouri Association of Publications annual meeting
Missouri School of Journalism, March 2009

Hello everyone.  Thanks for having me, and thanks, John, for your kind introduction.

You know, I have to admit, I’ve been agonizing over what to say here today.

Not because of a lack of anything to say, not because there’s not much to talk about, and not even because I didn’t go to journalism school and have been railing against J-schools in general for so long and so hard that I feel slightly disingenuous standing here and addressing you from this podium on the invitation of one of the most highly prestigious ones.

No, I’ve been agonizing because, well, we live in momentous times. If anything, there is too much to say, and I’ve found that rather than standing against the values imparted by J-school educations – as I have always told myself that I have – my 22 years of writing for magazines have made me rather more conventional than I think I am.  I have always complained about journalism and its restrictions, I have always looked at journalism – both its vaguely defined sense of rules and regulations, and its rather arrogant self of itself as a profession, instead of a trade – as a problem to be overcome, rather than a religion to be practiced.  But now that the whole thing is threatened, it turns out that I like journalism quite a bit.  You could even say that I miss it pre-emptively.

And, of course, that’s what I’ve been agonizing over, that’s what I’ve been asking my friends, both in out and out of the business: what do I say to a bunch of young people who are studying to do a job that, in two or five or ten years, may very well not exist, at least in a form that would be recognizable to anyone who practices it today?  What do I say to people who are practicing journalism, honorably, but without any assurance that they’re part of a “viable business model”?

I assume that you’re willing to sit here and listen to me talk because you’re interested in my job – either hearing about it, or, better yet, having it.  And I’m not going to lie to you – writing long-form journalism for a national magazine is a great job.  The other day, my daughter, who is five, went to a birthday for one of her friends.  And after a while, the Dads started hanging around with each other, as Dads tend to do at these things, and one of them asked me what I did for a living.  I told him, and he asked, “Do you like it?”  I said, “I have the greatest job in the world.”  And I have to tell you – this guy blanched.  He said, I’ve been asking that question all my adult life, and I’ve never heard anyone say what you just did.  So yeah, I have a great job.  The problem, as we all know, is that pretty soon, it might not exist.  In some ways, it already doesn’t – try getting a contract at a national magazine.  They’ve stopped handing them out, pretty much.  Or they’re handing them out at market prices, and it’s a very devalued market indeed.  A friend of mine was recently told by the magazine where she works – a national magazine of prominence and apparent success – that she wasn’t going to have her contract renewed, because they weren’t renewing any contracts.  Then she was told that there had been a change of heart and mind: the magazine had decided that she could keep her contract, at a slightly reduced rate – indeed, at 25 percent of what she had been making.  Deal with it.

Now, I know you know this.  And I know that you hardly need to hear more of it, from me.  And – really, truly, seriously – I don’t want to depress you.  I wasn’t invited here to bum you out.  And so the question that I agonized over, as I was preparing to come here and talk to you, was this: do I mention the elephant in the room?  Or do I somehow ignore it, and talk to you about the niceties of story selection and story structure and regale you with amusing anecdotes about the glory days of celebrity journalism and the time I got in bed with Nicole Kidman?  And so, when I first took a crack at this keynote, that’s what I did, that’s what I started doing.

I have a very personal take on journalism, derived from my insistence that journalism should be personal – indeed, that we’re only deceiving ourselves if we say that it’s not.  I figured that if I expounded on that, I could connect it somehow to the elephant in the room – I could connect to the way technology is making journalism at once personal and impersonal, in strange recombinant ways that could be the subject of a book, rather than simply a keynote.  I figured that maybe, just maybe, if I described myself, and described what I do, I could at least describe part of the elephant, sort of like the blind man in Plato’s parable, while not depressing you while focusing on it directly.

But then I went out to LA, and something happened out there that I felt that I should talk about.  LA is a weird place for an epiphany, but somehow I keep having them out there, sometimes by force.  Indeed, I had never done a piece of nonfiction writing until I visited LA when I was just out of college and working as a salesman, and I got robbed, at gunpoint, in my hotel room.  I didn’t know nonfiction existed, and that plain experience demanded witness.  But after it was over, and I survived, I had no place to put the experience, except on paper, and so I wrote an account of the robbery.  I became the writer that I am today, thanks to a drug addict with a 45.

What happened the other day was less traumatic, but still counts as inflicted epiphany.  I was on assignment for Esquire.  I was watching the new Terminator movie, with its director, a fellow named McG, who had previously directed the Charlie’s Angels movies. I was having a great time.  McG was more than hospitable, and he kept insisting that he was showing me more of the unfinished movie than he was supposed to.  He kept on saying that he was going to get in trouble for doing so.  I was running tape recorder…well, not a tape recorder exactly – a digital one.  I had two digital recorders with me, and I was also recording parts of the interview on my iPhone.  I was taking notes on a notepad and I had my laptop with me, in case I needed to take notes on that.  I had never before gone into an interview backed up by so much technological redundancy.  But McG kept looking at the digital recorders.  There are several surprises in Terminator IV, and he did not want them revealed. Finally, he said, listen, you’re not going to screw me, are you?

Now, I have heard this question many times in the course of my time as a journalist.  It’s sort of fundamental to the whole journalistic process.  People you’re writing about always want to make sure that you’re not going to screw them, that you’re not going to write something unkind.  But McG couldn’t care less what I was going to write about him.  He trusted me on that score.  What he was afraid of was my machine.  What he was afraid of, specifically, was the possibility of my recording a snippet of dialogue from his movie, and posting it on the Internet, for millions to hear.

He was not simply being paranoid.  Or maybe he was – but he had good reason.  During the filming of his movie, somebody had taped Christian Bale going off on his director of photography, and literally millions of people had listened to it.  So I told him what I’ve told any number of people I was going to write about – that of course he could trust me, that of course I wasn’t going to screw him.  But the conversation had already had its effect, and its effect was to make the story I was going to write seem slightly irrelevant.  I was assigned to write an essay about the Terminator movies for the June issue of Esquire.  I haven’t written it yet, but I believe I’ll do a good job.  And maybe, if I’m very lucky, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people will read it, and say I did good job.  But there’s nothing I could write that could inspire the response I’d get if I posted a bunch of purloined dialogue from the movie on the Internet.  It was a matter of analog v. digital, man v. machine.  It was a matter of distribution by truck v. distribution by viral multipliers.   It was a matter of having an audience of ten thousand, versus having an audience of ten million.

Now, you have to understand.  I am not a journalistic purist.  I am not a journalistic prude.  I did not – have I said this? – go to J-school.  I never learned the rules.  I learned how to interview people by working as a salesman when I got out of school, by selling handbags in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.  I learned how to write by keeping my own journal.  I did not go into journalism because I believed it was a respectable profession, but rather because it turned out to be the only thing I could do really well.  And so I’ve gone at this business with certain core beliefs:

One: That, with any luck, Journalism is really not quite a respectable profession.  There’s an old Woody Allen joke: “is sex dirty?  Only if done right.”  That’s journalism to me.  If it is not quite the oldest profession, it is, at its heart, a very flawed and human one, and therein lies its interest and its glory.

Two: That journalism is no better than the people who practice it.

Three: That questions of so-called bias and objectivity should be set aside in favor of simple human fairness.

Four: That journalists should be free to respond, in a very human way, to the people  they are writing about – that, indeed, that stories should represent that response.

And five: that there are no rules.  More specifically, that every story demands its own set of rules, just as it demands its own voice, its own structure, etc. etc.

Now, as I read these beliefs back to you, it strikes me that these are not exactly Luther’s 95 Theses.  They’re not exactly revolutionary.  In practice, though, I have to tell you: they’ve gotten me into a lot of trouble.  Remember the movie “Animal House”?  Remember when Dean Wormer starts going into the list of outrages committed at Faber College – “Who put a truckload of Fizzies into the Faber College swimming pool?” and at every turn, he’s answered, “Delta House, sir?”  Well, that’s sort of how I feel about my journalistic career.  I’ve won some awards, and I’ve written a few stories that might have a chance of being read some years from now.  But I’ve also been the guy who put the Fizzies in the Faber College Pool.

Who outed Kevin Spacey in a story that led to Mr. Spacey calling for a Hollywood blacklist against him?

Who described what Mister Rogers looked like naked?

Who wrote an entire essay on the sexiness of one Hillary Clinton, thereby making himself the unfortunate subject of one of Maureen Dowd’s Sunday columns in the New York Times?

Who was blamed for breaking up Tom and Nicole’s marriage, after he conducted an interview of Nicole Kidman in his bed at a hotel room in Sydney Austrailia?

Who wrote an entire profile of then-Nebraska-head-coach in mock biblical verse, and a profile of some hip-hop stars in 7000 words of rhymed couplets?

Who made up large portions of his profile of REM lead singer Michael Stipe?

And who, just last summer, wrote a profile of Angelina Jolie that is known far and wide – translation: on the Internet – as the Worst Celebrity Profile of all time – so that, indeed, if you google my name and the words, Worst. Celebrtity. Profile. Of. All. Time.  you’ll get innumerable blog hits?

Well, the answer, as we all know, is: Delta House, sir.

But really, it hasn’t been all fun and games.  If I’ve pissed people off – and believe me, I have – I’ve tried to do so for a purpose, and that purpose is freedom – an avowal that I have the freedom to do my job as I (and, of course, my editor, and Esquire’s editor, David Granger) see fit.  You know, years ago, the big controversy in Journalism was about the New Journalism – the use of fictional technques in the creation of nonfiction.

Well, I’ve always seen New Journalism in a pretty simple, practical way – I’ve always seen it as an effort to make sure that the best stuff you have in your notebook doesn’t stay in the notebook, but rather winds up on the printed page.   And so I’ve always tried to practice it in my own way, and I’ve always gotten ticked off when I hear people say, “Oh, what happened to the New Journalism?”….and oh, hell, I’ve always gotten ticked off, in general, and have spent far too much of my time and mental energy railing against those who, to my mind, have tried to make journalism a respectable profession – like law! or medicine! – in order to justify their expensive Ivy League educations.  I’ve spent too much of my time and energy railing against what I call the axis of cultural respectability – the combined forces of the New Yorker, the New York Times, and NPR – and anyone who else who favors an institutional voice over an individual one, and thinks they can boil journalism down to a bunch of handy rules that can be taught at a prestigious journalism schools and…and…blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Because, you see, these questions, these fervent concerns, are somewhat irrelevant now.  They’re at least five years old.  The battle between the New Yorker and Esquire wasn’t won by either of them, though in the matter of National Magazine Awards and cultural prestige, I’d have to concede the New Yorker has the edge.  No, the Battle between the New Yorker and Esquire was won by Gawker.  And not even by Gawker.  Perhaps I’m a little paranoid myself, after sitting with McG and watching a movie about a near future overrun by very efficient machines, but I’d submit that the battle that I’m talking about here was won by technology itself – the so-called new medium of the Internet that has made everything a free for all.

Now, I have to tell you: it’s a little strange, standing up here and sounding a cautionary note.  I am not a cautionary person.  I am, indeed, a pessimist by thought but an optimist by temperament.  And there’s a part of me that welcomes the unfettered freedom of the Internet – hell, it’s what I’ve been fighting for, in my own way, for something like 20 years.  I have made my own peace with technology from the time I started writing, trying to capture the rawness unleashed in the early 90s by zines – those self-published thought experiments made possible by Xerox machines – and then, later, the informality of emails.  I have also had the good fortune to work for an editor in David Granger who is as impatient with the constraints of magazine journalism as I am, and who sees the present time as an opportunity to remake and reinvent as much as he sees it as a challenge and as a crisis.

In fact, two summers ago, long before the bursting of the housing bubble, David Granger called a bunch of us in to New York and presented us with a challenge.  He took us out to dinner, where, in the middle of the big table, were two ketchup bottles.  One was the traditional glass Heinz ketchup bottle. The other was the Heinz plastic squeeze bottle.  He picked up the glass bottle and said, Okay, this bottle is the classic – this bottle is what everybody thinks of when they think of a ketchup bottle.  Then he picked up the plastic bottle, and said, But this bottle is the future.  Not only that, it’s the present.  It’s already the future.  If you go to the supermarket, you’ll see that there are five of these for every one glass bottle already on the shelves.  The battle between the glass bottle is over, and it’s won by the plastic bottle.  And it’s the same way with the magazines.  Right now, magazines, Esquire included, are working really, really hard to stay the glass bottle.  But we have to work harder, to figure out how we’re going to become the plastic squeeze bottle, how to make ourselves into the plastic squeeze bottle.  Then he looked at us and said, Any ideas?

Poor David.  He must have had his own epiphany at that moment.  Because the people he invited to sit around the table and think about the future in terms of glass bottles and plastic bottles weren’t just glass bottle people – they were writers.  And so, one after another, the answer David got to his provocative question was: “I dunno.  Longer stories?”

Well, David’s a hardy, stubborn sort, and he survived our massive lack of imagination to imagine a future of his own.  He is absolutely committed to the idea that magazines have a place in the future, but that in order to secure a place in the future magazines will have to make better use of the precious space allotted to their pages, and that in order to do that, magazines will have to make accommodations not only to technology but also to what’s euphemistically called “the business side.”

He is already doing that, with Esquire – I don’t know if you saw our October 75th anniversary issue, but it featured a technological innovation on the cover called e-Ink. Right now, it was little more than a blinking display, but it seems to have real potential to put new technology on the dead-tree pages of an old medium.  And I don’t know if you saw our February issue, with Obama on the cover – but it featured an ad under a hidden panel that apparently got David in hot water with the American Society of Magazine Editors.   More than anyone I know, David Granger, bless him, is a believer in magazines, and a believer in writers, but he’s not going to wait for the permission of either writers or magazine editors to remake Esquire into a more efficient, and more relevant, ketchup bottle.

But when I think back on that night in New York, when David presented his writers with the ketchup bottle challenge, I think that writers might be stubborn, might be benighted, might be a little slow, but they have a point.

I mean, why shouldn’t the future of magazines include longer stories?  If it’s freedom that we’re talking about, why not the freedom to do that?  After all, stories are very important, aren’t they?  Humans have been telling stories since the dawn of time – indeed, there’s even an argument made that telling stories is such an essential human activity that it makes us human.  You put a child to bed, she says, “Daddy, tell me a story.”  You go to a preschool, or even a nursing home – it’s all the same, after about five minutes, you’ll hear the words “Once upon a time.”  You read fiction, you hear  about the importance of story.  You read nonfiction, you hear about the importance of story.  You try to convince your agent that the idea you have could become a fiction or a nonfiction book, you hear about the importance of story.  You sit with McG and watch Terminator Salvation, you hear about the importance of story.  Stories are everywhere.

Except, in one place.  The Internet.  There are no stories, in the brave new medium.

There are opinions, sure – opinions are the Internet’s equivalent of the stimulus package.  There are opinions by the trillion.  And there are journals, people telling you what they’re up to.  And there’s Christian Bale, going off on the director of photography.  But there are no stories.  Stories about other people, I mean.  Narratives.  Long-form journalism.  It does not exist, in the Brave New World, except as outgrowths, as overflow, from the magazines and newspapers that defined the Brave Old World.

Now I’m not going to answer why this is, because that’s really a whole ‘nother speech.  I think it has to do with the fact that narrative stories begin with the assumption that there’s such a thing as private experience, and the Internet begins with the assumption that there’s not.  But, like I’ve said, that’s a whole ‘nother speech.

What I’d rather look at right now is the opportunities that are there to create our own ketchup bottles.  Because that’s what the Internet is supposed to be about.  It’s not about David Granger turning Esquire into a new kind of ketchup bottle.  It’s about everyone creating the ketchup bottle that suits them best.  And the ketchup bottle that I’d like to see created is a ketchup bottle very close to the ketchup bottle that I’ve been pouring, very slowly, over the last twenty years.

A ketchup bottle that finds a way to tell narrative stories about other people over the Internet, not as a way to keep journalists employed, but rather as a way to keep our humanity alive, no matter how efficient and enticing and high-speed the technology.

A ketchup bottle where all the stories are, by definition, what stories should be and the best ones have always been – personal – and where there are no rules but the old-fashioned human ones of compassion and fair play.

And a ketchup bottle where the New New Journalism is not, and I repeat, NOT, about a snippet of data, in the form of either a photo or a piece of dialogue, surreptitiously captured and then posted for a theoretically unlimited number of curious ears or prying eyes.

But there’s going to be a New New Journalism, folks.  There already is.  As David Granger says, the plastic ketchup bottle has already won.  The battle lines are now all about what’s going to be inside it.

You know, I saw something the other day, posted on a friend’s Facebook page.  In between posting about how hard it was for him to get out of bed that day, and how good the bacon was that he had for breakfast, he managed to post this quote by a British journalist and poet named James Fenton.  He even managed to provide a little introduction:

“This is from the forward to his book All the Wrong Places, which also includes this historically reductive but nonetheless astute assertion about the “rules” of modern journalism: “The rules … were invented, decades ago, by horrible old men obsessed with the idea of stamping out journalism.”

And so here’s Fenton, who doesn’t believe in the rules, but who believes in reporting:

“By reporting, I mean something that predates journalism—the fundamental activity. Those ‘narratives’ of previous centuries, which found publication as pamphlets or in magazines, often had their origin in some natural, functional activity. An English merchant in Lisbon writes to his mother to tell her of his experiences in the earthquake. A member of a missionary society reports to his London office with an account of the macabre and piteous deaths of two of his fellows. A ship’s captain gives an account of a remarkable, hazardous voyage.

“In these examples, the mother wants news because she is a mother. The missionary society needs the details, perhaps edifying, of its members’ last moments. The owners of the ship need to know what happened to their investment, and why. This is reporting in its natural state.

“Journalism becomes unnatural when it strays too far from such origins.”

Now I believe that when I first started this keynote – and yes, I know, it’s hard to remember back that long – I said that my life as a nonfiction writer began when I had a gun pressed to my temple as I was relieving myself in a Los Angeles motel room.  It would be tempting to say that my life as a nonfiction writer ended when I sat in an editing suite in a Los Angeles studio and realized that now I was the guy with the gun, and the gun was not my wits or my words – none of those trivially human things – but rather a little digital tape recorder not much bigger than the proverbial stick of gum.

But it doesn’t feel that way.  Because as sobering as that realization was to me, and to McG as well, those sober feelings were overwhelmed and laid to rest by the feeling of optimism that true freedom brings.  That true choice brings.

And we do face a choice, ladies and gentleman.

The choice of whether the Internet becomes a means by which we learn more about others, or by which we tell others about ourselves.

The choice of whether the new media becomes the means by which we go back to journalism’s primal origins – of testimony and witness and, yes, provocation – or by which we succumb to a kind of technologically enforced solipsism.

The choice whether to use our new found freedom to tell the stories we want to tell, or to let our machines tell the stories for us.

The choice of whether the Internet becomes the place where storytelling goes to live – and, indeed, to be reborn – or where, against all odds, it goes to die.

Now, I’ve already made my choice, though maybe it’s not a choice I’m free to make, since I’m an old guy, and for all my posturing as a rebel, I’m MSM through and through.  I have about half the dialogue of the new Terminator movie on a digital recorder, and could make a big splash on the Internet by posting it.

Will I?

Of course not, and not only because I assured McG that I wouldn’t.  I won’t because I’d rather write a story about it, a story that, with any luck, will be as good or as bad as I am at that moment when I’m writing it – that will be personal, and human, and funny, and mean-spirited, and generous, and true.  I will try to squeeze the ketchup out of the existing bottle because hey, I’m a journalist, and that’s what I do.

The real choice, it seems, will be with some of the people in this audience, who are coming into the business as the business falls away, who are learning the rules at a time when all rules are off.  Journalism students, people on the business side, people who are interested in creating new media “properties”: you are where the future will be written – or not – because you are the people who are starring in your own Terminator movies, in which the technological future will hold a place for human stories, and human values, and will be personal, instead of impersonal….

Or not.

And so, no I won’t tell you the secrets of the new Terminator movie.  I’ll let you find out for yourselves.

Okay, I’ll tell you one thing, but you have to promise not to tell anyone else.

Humans win.

Thank you.

Comments

6 Responses to “Tom Junod despre jurnalism, reguli şi poveşti”

  1. horea on July 1st, 2009 5:57 pm

    fain!

  2. Mihaela Iancu on July 1st, 2009 11:56 pm

    De foarte multe ori, cand nu e bine, il citesc pe Junod si cred iarasi. Merge de fiecare data.

  3. hoinariela on July 3rd, 2009 5:16 pm

    excelent!

  4. Poveştile care ne u(r)nesc : A Scrie on July 8th, 2009 10:11 pm

    […] Tom Junod, scriitorul meu preferat de astfel de poveşti spune că optimismul e rezultatul libertăţii; în special al libertăţii de-a alege. Iar Internetul e întruparea acestei alegeri; ne oferă tuturor capacitatea de a crea conţinut şi de-a ne face simţită prezenţa. Întrebarea e, cum spune şi Junod, dacă-l vom folosi ca să aflăm ceva despre alţii sau doar ca să spunem ceva despre noi. Vom folosi noi tehnologia sau ne va folosi tehnologia pe noi? […]

  5. Lectură de weekend: The Falling Man : A Scrie on September 11th, 2009 7:25 am

    […] Junod, dacă aţi uitat, este omul care are următoarele de spus despre jurnalism. September 11, 2009 | Filed Under Lectura de weekend, […]

  6. Calin Cristescu on September 13th, 2009 3:38 pm

    nu am reusit sa citesc un intreg articol plin de “I”-uri (“Eu”-uri)… cel putin deocamdata. In schimb as citi de nu stiu cate ori “Cius” scris de Geo Bogza, cumva o “addenda” la “Privelisti si sentimenta”

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