Howard Ziff on the varieties of local journalism

Howard Ziff

Last summer I was interviewing New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen for my book about the New Haven Independent and other community news sites. He told me I had to read an essay by Howard Ziff on the difference between the “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” styles of journalism. So I did. It was brilliant, and I ended up quoting from it in my book.

More on that in a moment. Ziff, who founded the UMass Amherst journalism department, died on Tuesday at the age of 81. This obituary, by Nick Grabbe of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is particularly good, and is well worth your time. Also recommended: the obit in the school paper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. I’m sad to say that though I know a number of people in the UMass journalism department, I never had the pleasure of meeting Ziff.

To get back to “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” journalism — in the 1980s, Ziff wrote an essay called “Practicing Responsible Journalism: Cosmopolitan Versus Provincial Models.” After talking with Jay, I managed to find Ziff’s essay in a hard-to-locate book called “Responsible Journalism,” edited by Deni Elliott.

Ziff helped me understand my own experience in journalism. I spent the first part of my career as a community journalist — as a Northeastern co-op student at the Woonsocket Call in the 1970s, and as a staff reporter and editor for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn in the 1980s.

In Ziff’s view, community journalism — provincial journalism — was more about being part of the community than it was standing apart as objective, disengaged observers. Some of the people I worked with, especially in Woonsocket, were folks who had grown up there, who didn’t go to college, but who had the wit to find a job that kept them out of the mills.

They were good reporters. But they were not plotting a career path that would take them, say, from the Call to the Providence Journal and then to the Washington Post. If they were going to leave the Call at all, it would be to work for the local chamber of commerce, or for a Rhode Island elected official.

Ziff’s idea was that this was “provincial” journalism, and that it was neither better nor worse than “cosmopolitan” journalism — it was just different. And the practices that cosmopolitans sneered at — accepting junkets, being slow and cautious in covering stories that embarrassed the community — actually made a great deal of sense for a provincial institution like the local newspaper. Ziff wrote:

When we turn, however, to principles and responsibilities that are more specific to the vocation of journalism, we find that those that apply to the cosmopolitan, professional model do not necessarily apply to the provincial model. In the first instance we are concerned with responsibilities and ethical considerations that can act as moral regulators of the autonomy upon which we insist for journalism as a profession, and not surprisingly we come up with principals such as objectivity and disinterestedness. In the latter, we set as our goal service to the community and province, and will often find that our moral obligation is to be subjective and compassionate.

Ziff lamented the transition of even smaller, community-based newspapers from the provincial to the cosmopolitan — a change he attributed to the rise of corporate chains that bought up locally owned dailies and staffed them with careerist young people with no ties to the community:

It is a great sadness of American journalism today that however diverse their geographic background and polished their skills, so many journalists are valued because they are interchangeable; they put themselves behind the word processor in whatever city to which they are called by corporate employers. The unique value of each person and each region is thus endangered by a system of replaceable parts, and we are in danger of losing sight of the simple truth that the fact that you cannot move a Mike Royko from Chicago or a Jimmy Breslin from New York is a sign of their towering strengths as journalists.

And, in fact, professionalism — that is, cosmopolitanism — may have something to do with why the newspaper business is struggling so much these days. I know that Howard Owens, the publisher and editor of The Batavian, a small, for-profit news site near Buffalo, holds that view. I don’t discount it either, though I think the business pressures that are harming the news business have more to do with corporate debt, technology and cultural change than they do with professionalization.

I brought up the essay on Twitter the other day after learning that Ziff had died. Jay asked me to send him a copy of it, and I realized I couldn’t find it. But I know where I can make another one, and I’m going to do it as soon as I’m able.

Howard Ziff’s work will live on in many ways. For me, it’s through an essay he wrote a quarter-century ago that observed how the news business was changing, and what was worth preserving about a time-honored model that was just then beginning to pass from the scene.

Advertisements