3 Reasons Students Should Not Follow the Joe Weisenthal Reporting Plan

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Roughly two weeks ago, New York Times Magazine published a profile of Joe Weisenthal, a fresh-faced, workaholic, social media whiz who serves as a writer and deputy editor at Business Insider. Upon its online posting, the instant reactions from the journalism cognoscenti seemed to be admiration and disbelief about his insane work ethic and supposed conquering of today’s nonstop news cycle.

These reactions are not wrong, just incomplete. There is a ton to respect about Weisenthal on spec. He has become a major player in his coverage area at a relatively young age seemingly through sheer hard work. And he excels at many elements of news reporting 2.0, including audience collaboration, multi-platform engagement, personal branding, and real-time reporting.

But if the profile is accurate, many of his professional routines and achievements also sadden and repel me. Step back, and read the profile again. While lauded in the Times as a leader of the new wave of all-star newshounds, he is not a role model I would hold up for my own students.  In fact, in a number of areas, he literally embodies the opposite of what I want them to strive for.  Three examples are below.

He almost never separates himself from his work.  

The Times piece describes Weisenthal as “someone so absurdly passionate about the latest economic data that he forgoes sleep, night life, and the company of his wife.” Passion is fantastic. Obsession is unhealthy.

His bosses express on-the-record concerns about him burning out. He “rarely stops fidgeting with his cellphone.” He tweets about doing nothing on Friday evenings or the weekend but working. The photo featured in the screengrab above is an actual shot of him working in bed while his wife sleeps, an almost-daily occurrence. A snippet from the profile: “When [his wife] really needs his attention, she said she sends him a tweet.”

There is even one odd reference in the piece about his penchant for using the restroom “much more often than the average 31-year-old.”  I’m not sure what that means exactly. Is it because he’s so high-strung he gets constant diarrhea? The bathroom is his only real escape? Even his bladder is a distraction to be overcome or multi-tasked? Overall, it doesn’t seem like Weisenthal has conquered the news cycle. He is a pathetic slave to it. As one commenter wrote beneath the profile, “Wow, that sounds like a terrible, depressing life. He’s welcome to it, but you couldn’t pay me enough.”

Bottom line: I teach my students to love their work and work hard, but not at the expense of having a life or a regular urinary tract. I also teach them to value time off and stepping back– it can be incredibly restorative for the mind and inspire bigger picture thinking and new ideas.

He is wrong and sensational a lot. 

According to the piece, “Some of what he writes is air and sugar. Some of it is wrong or incomplete or misleading. But he delivers jolts of sharp, original insight often enough to hold the attention of a high-powered audience.” Is this the standard we’re now holding up for success? Feel free to be “wrong or incomplete or misleading” or sappy or insignificant, as long as you also practice halfway decent journalism often enough to get on people’s radars.

In part, Weisenthal is hamstrung by his chosen field and the writing he is expected to provide– involving lots of predictions and subtle and overt commentary. There is also of course some value in publicly working through new data and breaking news, going back-and-forth on what it all means, and coming to a final solid conclusion. But the simple fact, according to the Times, is that he is inaccurate as often– and possibly more– than he is right.

He is also frequently sensational, again an offshoot of the outlet at which he is employed. One fun irony: He is quoted telling the writer that the stock market is not actually headline-driven, less than 300 words after being described as working for a site that features posts almost always “wrapped with a loud, blunt headline.”

Bottom line: I teach my students to be accurate and thorough much more often than they are wrong or incomplete, almost always in fact– even when overseeing a blog or publishing a bunch. I also teach them to produce journalism that is evenhanded and content-driven, not simply loud, blunt, and headline-driven.

He writes too much, and not enough. 

Weisenthal apparently publishes 15 blog posts and 150 tweets a day. I give him credit for apparently seeking news in between the lines at times by spotting quietly-emerging phenomena and reading through reports and data that others most likely scan or ignore. (His best quote: “It’s from the subtleties that you start to see the trends.”) But quantity often only works to lessen quality.

He writes a ton, but even his longest entries run only a few hundred words. And the piece portrays him as so constantly stressed about being first to post, he races to get something, anything, online, reporting be damned. Think of how powerful his journalism work might be if he channeled his laser-focused-energies on a longer-form piece or took the time to wrangle up a ton of sources before simply rushing to post, post, post.

Bottom line: I certainly teach my students to join the online conversation and to recognize the advantages and expectations of publishing and sharing more.  But I also urge them to not lose sight of the fact that time can work for us, not just against us. At least every once in awhile, remove yourself from the rush and use the time you have been given to do your job to build deeper, more impacting stories.

To learn from the work and life of someone I do want my students to emulate, check out this excellent analysis of Anthony Shadid’s reporting by UPIU’s Krista Kapralos.

Comments
12 Responses to “3 Reasons Students Should Not Follow the Joe Weisenthal Reporting Plan”
  1. Unfortunately, the economics of online news sites mean that people with the extreme skills of Mr Weisenthal are what online news teams require. It’s more of a reflection about the poor economic foundation for online news than anything else.

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