Washington Post Reporter Terry Neal Goes Back From the Future

With impending doom hanging over print newsrooms like the boulder preparing once again to chase Sisyphus down the hill, reporters should be praying for online salvation, right?  Not so at the Washington Post (registration required), where online “Talking Points” columnist Terry Neal is leaving his web-only world to become the paper’s Maryland local government and politics editor.

First, a disclaimer: Terry and I attended j-school together at Missouri. He went on to a major newspaper in Florida and later to the Post, while I went to a mid-sized Scripps-Howard paper on the West Coast and had to string for The Associated Press so I could pay rent. Terry also had good looks and a hot girlfriend (who I was secretly in love with and who also worked at the Post), but I’m not jealous. Much.

Anyway, why would a seasoned journalist leave the Post’s online operation? Not only is journalism (and revenue) moving to the Internet but the Post is arguably one of the most innovative of the old gray guard – after all, not many newspapers have an Official Mashup Center, much less know what a Mashup is.

Terry put it this way in his final column:

 "In some ways, I remained a traditionalist, which is why I look forward to returning to the newspaper. Despite the changing media environment and predictions of doom, newspapers aren’t going to be dead anytime soon. Most mainstream media news sites continue to get the vast majority of their content from newspapers."

Nevertheless, Terry acknowledges that the Web has and will continue to change the news business.

“(The Web) already has given stodgy old newspapers a way to compete in the 24-hour news cycle. Since I came on in 2002, The Post has created the "Continuous News Desk" staffed by about a half-dozen people whose primary responsibility is to cover breaking news for washingtonpost.com. The two sides, I believe, will continue to feed off of and complement each other in mostly positive ways.”

He’s right – the relationship between print and online will become more symbiotic, more identical than incongruent. And he’s right that newspapers won’t be dead anytime soon, though many will die and all will change.

Journalism as ‘Parliament’
My favorite observation from the column, however, is Terry’s metaphor for the relationship between newspapers and the Internet:

“If journalism were Congress, the Internet would be the House, the newspaper the Senate. The former is faster, younger, less stodgy, less arrogant and less beholden to tradition. The former is slower, more deliberative, older, perhaps a bit wiser, less emotional, and resistant to the fads, whims and follies of the masses — as James Madison put it, "a necessary fence against…fickleness and passion" of the lower chamber, or in this case, of the Internet and blogosphere.”

Great imagery, albeit too limiting on the Internet side of the metaphoric aisle. Internet journalism today is more like a Parliament, with multiple parties and factions. Mainstream media with online news operations, online-only media, bloggers, citizen journalists, pseudo journalists, pundits and crackpots all vying for a piece of the information pie. Perhaps this is also what drove Terry back to the friendly confines of terrestrial news, as evident by this passage from his farewell:

“I’ve learned a lot in the three-and-a-half years since I took this job. I’ve learned that a lot of intelligent, thought-provoking dialogue and content is produced online. I’ve also learned that there are a lot of nasty, intemperate, judgmental people out there seeking to co-opt cyberspace for partisan and ideological purposes. There are some great, whip-smart and entertaining bloggers out there. And then there are a lot of hacks claiming to be independent, who have turned out to be nothing more than extensions of the public relations arms of the two major political parties.”

No matter what the reason, I am sad to see Terry go. And since Terry had the dream job and the hot girlfriend, I thought it only fitting that I give him the last word as well:

“This job was almost always fun and entertaining. And I’m glad I did it. Not everyone agreed with everything I wrote, but too bad. That’s life. You can’t please everyone all the time. Thanks for your words of wisdom, support and encouragement over the years. Most of all, thanks for reading.

“And I’m out … for now.”

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