Making Whoopee

When it comes to the gathering and selling of news, fun is a deeply serious matter.

Is anyone in journalism having fun any more? This may strike you as a frivolous question, but when it comes to the gathering and selling of news, fun is a deeply serious matter. The best work in this business has generally come from people with a certain upbeat, rollicking, world-is-my-oyster spirit.

Where is that spirit today?

I've been perusing a recent report titled "Journalism's Crisis of Confidence," an account of a one-day forum sponsored late last year by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This was one of those very well intentioned, lately very frequent events where Senior Members of the Profession rue the decline and fall of journalism as they knew it. The report opens with a discussion of 2005 as "simply the worst of times" for the news business, with network news audiences dropping, "pink slips by the hundreds" at newspapers, and so on.

You know the litany. "Journalism" is now just a synonym for "desperation."

At one point in the report, Norman Pearlstine, the former editor-in-chief of Time Inc., floats the idea that perhaps journalists should be licensed. "Licenses help breed confidence in certified financial planners and chartered life underwriters, who tend to get more respect than people who simply sell life insurance," says the report, paraphrasing Pearlstine.

Before you vomit, know that when a Carnegie moderator asked how many in the room liked this idea, "not a single hand went up—not even Pearlstine's."

Phew. They weren't serious. And yet the air is full of notions like this, if not quite so explicit. The best way for the news business to dig itself out of the hole it's in, many believe, is for it to get more professional, more indubitably respectable, more serious.

All of which will efficiently kill off whatever fun remains in this journalistic life, and sometimes I think there's not much. Reputation matters, and pink slips are tragic. But the beating heart of the trade, the true source of all our best energy and the reason people have always paid money for our work, has nothing to do with earning a membership card or riding some financial gravy train to 401(k) nirvana. It's about playing around, doing mischief, having adventures, taking risks, undermining the powerful, and chortling darkly the whole time.

On good days, I believe there's still plenty of this. The "fun list" I keep in my head runs from The Wall Street Journal, which manages, despite its corporate ownership, to project an air of fun almost every day; to Slate, celebrating its 10th year of mischievously cerebral writing this month; to the Drudge Report; to some of the better public radio stations; to countless blogs. We talk about the difference between bloggers and mainstreamers as if it were just a matter of attitude: Bloggers have pluck. But the more important difference may be that while mainstreamers cry in their beer—or their herbal tea—about the sorry state of journalism, those troublemaking bloggers are, in the finest tradition of hackdom, simply having a blast.

I also have days when I think the bean counters have won and journalists really are becoming chartered life underwriters. On one of those days recently, I happened to have a lunch date with Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post.

So I asked the great man: "Is anyone still having fun in journalism?"

He shot me an incredulous look. I don't have the exact words he said, but they were roughly: "You're starting to sound like some dull, middle-aged fogy." It's a great myth, Bradlee continued, now in full testosteronic growl, that life in this business was more fun back in the '70s or in some other mythical past. "Things don't change that much."

When I retold this story, one friend noted that Bradlee's perspective is inherently skewed: Everyone he sees is having fun by definition, because they're around him. But that's a quibble. This 84-year-old man, the personification of journalistic joie de vivre, says the fun ain't over yet, and the crybabies of modern journalism have still got a lot of living to do.

Anyone want to take him on?