Greg T. Spielberg

What a day for the New York Times. Why tapping college professors is a journalism company’s top priority

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Manhattan solstice by Soy Boy. Courtesy of Streetwater. SW

At dinner tonight, we were talking about journalism models and what I keep coming back to is Time as an example for a poor model. Time can be filled with fantastic writers each week, and business would boom. Simple as that. Bloomberg’s first issue of Businessweek included a story by Michael Lewis. Why doesn’t Time get Michael Lewis? Or Malcolm Gladwell? Time Inc. can pay the best writers — one each week — to headline issues.

They can also get college professors who are masters of topics and can turn out a 1,000-word story in a week. Adding flavor might be the a problem, but that wouldn’t be too much trouble for an editor that’s being handed a beautifully synthesized package of facts. College professors work largely off recognition, too, and as Art Markman a cognitive scientist at UT-Austin told me, his issue is getting the word out there to large numbers of people.

The New York Times had three fantastic stories today, two of which were written by college professors. Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, writes about the meritocratic, inclusive nature of WASPs. Camille Paglia argues that flibanserin, female Viagra, won’t spice up an American woman’s sex life that’s been killed by sanitized working environments, androgynous genders and the lack of mystique between sexes. She’s wrong, but sparked great conversation today for me today. Paglia is a professor at the University of the Arts in Philly.

(The third story about the arrest of deep-cover Russian spies living as American citizens isn’t written by professors, but is a must-read and only the beginning of 500 stories from various outlets.  It’s written by a Scott Shane and Charlie Savage with reporting by Benjamin Weiser, Nate Schweber, Kenneth Change, Andy Newman, Colin Moynihan, Mark Mazzetti, Yeganeh June Torbati and Abby Goodnough.)

Utilizing college professors to write articles is, to me, the No. 1 priority for journalism companies.

1) They have deep knowledge about specific topics and can write coherently on a narrow angle. Feldman frames a religious-cultural issue through the selection of Supreme Court justices, a timely lede corresponding with Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings. He has an upcoming book about FDR’s many justices and uses an anecdote from Roosevelt in 1939. Very rich. Feldman then ties Supreme Court justices with Princeton, a longtime WASP bastion. He’s the first person (to me) who points out that if Kagan were confirmed, it would make three straight Supreme Court selections from the Ivy League School. (Alito Class of ’72, Sotomayor Class of ’76, Kagan Class of ’81.) Feldman provides contextual color for the pre-Alito days by quoting Hemingway. He writes:

“When Hemingway described Robert Cohn in the opening of ‘The Sun Also Rises’ as a Jew who has been ‘the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,’ he was using the shorthand for a character at once isolated, insecure and pugnacious.”

Feldman’s whole story is rich, thoughtful and tight. He makes a compelling case for the Protestant inclusiveness, which is entirely different than the idea of WASPs as homogenous and elitist. He’s simply more powerful than 99 percent of journalists, and writers like this should be unrolled daily by major journalism companies.

Same goes for Paglia who is granular as hell and doesn’t blanket-statement anything. She has time to think and loves doing it. Contributing to a lady’s libido death is (in order of appearance): bourgeois proprietary, censorship, repression, Victorian prudery, the priggish 1950s, careerist technocracy, elite schools’ ideological view of gender as a social construct, the discreet white-collar realm, sanitized office space, office space androgyny, family life, men’s clothing, over-familiarity, simplified Hollywood plot lines, filmmakers, cartoonishly pneumatic superheroines, an appreciation for efficient bodies, rock’s superego. “Lust,” she sums up, “is too fiery to be left to a pharmacist.”

2) Professors are cheap. A professor is already paid, so a journalism company really doesn’t have to offer anything more than exposure. Michael Lewis and Gladwell are still journalists and have to be paid like great ones.

That’s a strong proposition: powerful writers a journalism company can pay at beginner rates in exchange for providing massive exposure to a professor’s thoughts. This, to me, is a central tenet of strong journalism companies in the future.

  1. Carlo Rotella, an American Studies professor at Boston University, has a great story about James Schamus of Focus Features in the NYT mag.

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