Despite deep shifts in the business of journalism, life on the beat is relatively unchanged.
Question: How has media changed over the course of your career?
Barrett: I can’t imagine that it would have changed more in some ways. The advent of the Internet has really changed many aspects of how journalism operates as a business. The most pronounced and the most painful aspect of that is the very distinct migration of advertising dollars from traditional print and broadcast journalism over to the Internet. Advertisers have lost the old time religion – the sense of confidence that the way you sell your products is by putting them next to traditional print journalism, or interspersed within broadcast journalism. And their new religion is that the way you sell things is on the Internet. Now that’s an exaggeration of course, because most of the dollars are still flowing toward the more traditional media in absolute terms. But in terms of the growth, all of it is shifting over toward the Internet. So that has caused great and mighty institutions to shake and shudder; newspaper chains that only 10 years ago were real titans to crumble and disappear right in front of us; and all of the big institutions to question how they can go forward as profitable businesses. Having said all that, on the actual doing journalism side, what I do on a day-to-day basis hasn’t much changed at all. I see my path as having really just continued. I’ve tried to continue to do the kind of serious traditional and, in more recent years, long form journalism that I set out to do from the beginning. And the tools I used – I don’t know whether my various employers would be happy to hear this – are the same tools I’ve always used: a pencil, pen, pad, and a very old-fashioned, I assure you, tape recorder. And I transcribe all my own notes. And I stare at them, and I go back and forth through them, and I start tapping things out. Yes it’s on a computer now. And when I started out in college I used to use a typewriter. Do you even know what that is, a typewriter? You heard of that? When I was in college we used to type. When I got my first full time journalism job at the Washington Monthly, which was a . . . which continues today – a small political magazine in Washington – we had typewriters. And one of my early sort of extra-curricular assignments from my boss there, Charlie Peters, was, “Go out and get someone to buy these computer-things,” because we had no computers in 1985 at the Washington Monthly. I had to go out and knock on the door of philanthropists, and finally found a very generous guy to give us $5,000 so we could buy two K-Pro PCs. But the way I do my work hasn’t changed much since 1985.
Question: How do you deal with the information overload?
Barrett: I’m not saying I’m not overloaded with information. I do feel we’re overloaded with information. But when you get down to doing the work you really . . . My view is you’ve gotta focus in on your subject. And you focus in the same way. You sit down with people and you talk to them