Conservatives love to hate Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist who wrote his last political column on Sunday. But they owe him an accolade or two for recognizing what the relentless production of opinion was doing to his writing. (Other pundits, please copy.)
"That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambitious conclusion," he wrote in his farewell to rage and all that. He's moving to fresh adventures at New York magazine, where he hopes to rediscover nuance, which he displayed in thoughtful abundance in "Ghost Light," his memoir about growing up in Washington, D.C.
His exit from the newspaper coincides with a report from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, which documents the radical changes going on in the industry known as media. If Rich's bite of humble pie expresses the way a good writer's curiosity can deteriorate in producing polarized outrage for print, the Pew report tells how the Internet has captured the market for news, something we've known for a while. It's not a good omen for good writing.
Old-fashioned gatekeepers who check for facts, clarity, restraint, missing attributions and misplaced commas -- gatekeepers formerly known as editors -- are rapidly being put out to pasture unless they can find a way to grow greener grass on the Internet. Not easy, not likely.
Flexible print journalists, however, don't have to become like the displaced monks who filed away their quills and carefully drawn manuscripts when the printing press replaced them. Pew reports that online news hires may have matched the numbers of laid-off newspapermen for the first time since newspapers began an accelerated economic descent into their own recession a decade ago. Not only are more people getting their news on the Web than from newspapers, but for the first time, more money was spent for advertising online than in newspapers.
"In a world where consumers decide what news they want and how they want to get it, the future belongs to those who understand the audience best, and who can leverage that knowledge with advertisers," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew project. "Increasingly that knowledge exists outside of news companies."