Latest journalism experiment: Replace reporters with poets

Failing U.S. newspapers could give this a try: On June 10th Dov Alfon, the editor of Haaretz, the Israeli version of the New York Times, gave his reporters the day off and sent 31 of the country’s top novelists and poets out into the country to report the news. Out went the stale voice of unachievable objectivity. In came the subjective voice of the first-person. It wasn’t the only journalistic horror perpetrated on the paper’s delighted readers.

All of the new “reporters” filed their stories with photos of themselves and their subjects and/or sources, as in “Look at me here interviewing Defense Minister Ehud Barak!” There was also high-flown commentary and irony.

Daniel Estrin described the experiment at Forward:

Among [the] articles were gems like the stock market summary, by author Avri Herling. It went like this: “Everything’s okay. Everything’s like usual. Yesterday trading ended. Everything’s okay. The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines, dinners are waiting in place… Dow Jones traded steadily and closed with 8,761 points, Nasdaq added 0.9% to a level of 1,860 points…. The guy from the shakshuka [an Israeli egg-and-tomato dish] shop raised his prices again….” The TV review by Eshkol Nevo opened with these words: “I didn’t watch TV yesterday.” And the weather report was a poem by Roni Somek, titled “Summer Sonnet.” (“Summer is the pencil/that is least sharp/in the seasons’ pencil case.”) News junkies might call this a postmodern farce, but considering that the stock market won’t be soaring anytime soon, and that “hot” is really the only weather forecast there is during Israeli summers, who’s to say these articles aren’t factual?

What was the response from the journalists who were replaced for the day? By now the humorlessness self-importance of the embattled members of the Fourth Estate have become cliche:

The next day, Haaretz’s usual staff reporters were back on the job. Yossi Melman, Haaretz’s commentator on security and intelligence issues, emphasized that he liked the experiment, but said, “It would be very difficult to replace journalists with authors and run a newspaper. We are trained; we know how to do it. For them, you know, there is a tendency to elaborate.”

The man behind the experiment, however, was less dismissive.

[Editor] Alfon sees things otherwise. “I think it is a humility lesson for journalists,” he said. He kept five writers in the newsroom in case of breaking news, but nothing big happened. So the authors’ accounts prevailed, gripping stories were printed and dozens of readers called in with praise.

“Thirty-one writers decided, what are the real events of the day?” he mused. “What is really important in their eyes? They wrote about it, and our priorities as journalists were suddenly shaken by this.”

You could substitute that “thirty-one writers” with “thousands of bloggers and Twitterers” and have an open-eyed account of where journalism as a whole stands today, no matter how horrified ye-old journalists are at the reality.

Hat tip to aspiring Chicago novelist and poet Eliza Fogel.

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