The Digital Journalist
Why I Write for The Digital Journalist

by Ron Steinman

I am a relative newcomer to The Digital Journalist. My first piece appeared April 2003. Since then, over the next 33 issues, I have contributed 37 pieces to the magazine. They have been on everything related to journalism as well as the trials and tribulations of all media.

Out of the news loop for several years, writing books and making documentary films, I had been looking for a home for my ideas but I did not know where to go. It was difficult to break into publications, either online or in print, where well-established writers already were in residence. I did not want to write a blog because I did not think I had that much to say. My ego was in check; I had no need to fill it further. However, I wanted a structure similar to the one I had had all through my professional life -- deadlines, form, and purpose.

Let me drop back a few years. Until my editor at the University of Missouri Press told me about The Digital Journalist in early 2003, I did not know it existed. I was not a devotee of the Internet. I used the Web for research, for staying updated on news, for checking the weather and getting sports scores. On my editor's advice, I looked at the site and liked what I saw. Here was a community of journalists serious about their work, and though specific to photojournalism, the magazine seriously cared about all aspects of the profession. It was not a blog. It was a solid newsmagazine run by journalists who cared about journalism. I liked the idea that it contained pieces about how journalism in the modern age happens. These pieces had substance, the photos were sharp and interesting, and, more importantly, working journalists contributed to the site. It had a serious tone and I liked the idea that it was a mix of the practical and the theoretical. I decided I wanted to be part of The Digital Journalist. But how would I do it?

A germ of an idea came to me about what I might contribute. I contacted Dirck Halstead, whom I had met in Saigon, and he agreed to publish parts of the introduction to my memoir, "Inside Television's First War," about how NBC News covered the war in Vietnam. After the piece appeared, it was good to see myself in print, though only in cyberspace. After my first long piece, Dirck offered me a column. Originally, I thought I would contribute sporadically, not every month. I had no thoughts about what I would write. Ideas I talked to friends about became columns. I found a home for feelings that had been percolating inside me about the state of broadcasting, about TV, film and photography, even about books, and especially about coverage of the war in Iraq. Once I started writing and contributing, there was no turning back. I have no regrets.

There is another reason, which comes with a trip back in time. At Lafayette College, I started as pre-med and, much to the consternation of my parents, I dropped that after a year and decided to major in history, concentrating on the Renaissance and Reformation, Tudor Stuart England, the French Revolution, and as a subtext, intellectual, social history and a bit of philosophy. I thought I might be a writer, but my skill was far below my dreams. Having tried to write for the college yearbook, I suffered my first rejection. Whoever turned down that piece made the right decision. In college, I wrote fiction and even a play with no success, all rightfully long lost to the dust heap.

After graduating from college, I started on a master's at NYU in mass communications. On completing a third of the requirements, I dropped out. I had perhaps 20 jobs, some as briefly as two weeks, before I went to work in the mailroom at NBC 18 months later. A few friends and I tried to publish a weekly literary and socially aware newspaper in East Harlem, but we failed. I still wanted to write and I continued to turn out short fiction, a novel and poetry. Somewhere in my files, I have a pile of my many early rejections. It was in the era of the typewriter. I recall the long hours of typing and making carbon copies, before submitting my work to what I then thought were surely callous editors.

I helped create a film society for which we rented documentaries from the WPA days in the 1930s, from foreign countries, and many other sources -- an excellent experience that taught me the beauty and virtue of film. While delivering mail for NBC I decided I wanted to make films similar to the ones I screened every week. But my promotion from the mailroom to the copy room at NBC News intruded in an unexpected way. I entered the world of journalism through the back door and went on to get the best on-the-job training possible. The rest, as they say, is history.

Journalism had become my profession. I moved out of the copy room and wrote for radio and TV news shows. I became a field producer. Over time, I ran three foreign news bureaus where my only writing was cables and background reports. I had a long career in broadcast news at NBC, including senior producing stints and management positions at home and abroad. Later at ABC, I produced and wrote documentaries for cable. My desire to write creatively no longer mattered. Real life took me to places and showed me a life I never knew existed, and, in many ways, what I saw was more exciting than what I tried to imagine in fiction. Today my critics believe I am still trying to write fiction. They tell me directly that I should "get real," because they disagree not only with what I write, but how I write it. I take those fierce criticisms as a compliment. And now, after those years as a journalist I am finally able to focus on writing. Since the late '90s, I have published three non-fiction books, all of which remain in print.

The daily pleasure of even part-time hard news is still with me. It is a part of me that I take pride in. Writing for The Digital Journalist does not quite solve that need, but some days it comes close. Today I write regularly and I have far more ideas than this monthly can accept. The first draft of a column takes me three to five hours to write. I then put it aside and allow it to gestate. I look at the column again when the mood strikes. I make a change here and there. Events sometimes overtake a column or an essay, and, when they do, I try to adjust the pieces to make them as current as possible. Or I discard the piece as having no value to my readers. When I think the piece is ready, and when a deadline looms, I send it in.

It may be heresy to some, but it is worth saying: I do not believe in the so-called Internet style of writing. It is often so simple that many articles look the same on paper, and, when I read them, they sound the same in my head, as if from a mass-produced sausage factory. As a writer, you must hear the words you put to paper. Individual style comes from the spirit you bring to the page. I believe the reader should do some work to get the full meaning and essence of a piece. Otherwise everything you read will have about it the feel of a third-grade lesson book, as much on the Web already does. The simplicity of Internet writing makes much of it boring and difficult to care about.

Unlimited space is another problem when writing for a Web site. Too many sites allow the writer to go on forever. We know that reading blogs is an endless endeavor. Most of the pieces on The Digital Journalist, thankfully, do not go on without end. Fortunately, though on the Internet, the old model of print in newspapers and magazines still prevails with this publication. It is a good model and a challenge to keep from writing everything you know every time pen goes to paper. That requires discipline and knowing when to stop.

I continue to read newspapers and magazines online and off, and to watch TV news. I respect the reporters who cover the news every day and help get me the information I use for my columns. My loss would be great without those who find and report the news. The culture would lose because of the infinite darkness that would follow if the people who gather the news did not exist. This is not heartening. Being able to watch this ever-changing world closely enables me to turn an increasingly critical and disappointed eye on an often-fragmented media, one often devoid of ethics and one that has no sense of purpose other than to make money and get ratings. Many news operations are second-class, especially local TV news. It is increasingly the same at the networks. Blame the excess of mammon on the conglomerates that run all news businesses and you might be right. Blame it on the people who today choose news as a career, and you might be right. Blame it on the rapidly changing landscape of news, and you may be right.

All that is fine with me, for now. It just gives me more to write about in a venue I am proud to have as a home for my ideas.

© Ron Steinman

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on "Today" and wrote and produced for "Sunday Today." At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner Award, a National Press Club Award, an International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television Awards and has been nominated for five Emmys. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of "The Soldiers' Story," "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.