David Halberstam On Competition

Speaking at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism last month, David Halberstam struck the chord of competition journalists must struggle with. As a newspaper man who started at the smallest newspaper in Mississippi and worked his way up to the New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Vietnam War, he learned that television’s constant stream of images offered “drama and excitement,” but perhaps incomplete reporting. Not that he was criticizing TV, no, he praised it for bringing images and awareness into our living rooms nightly, raising questions among the viewing audience that “we [in newspapers] had the chance to answer if we used our skills properly.”

But, “if we’re to compete, we’d better be very good storytellers.”

There is, I think, craft. …Knowing where to look. Knowing how to build steam. Knowing how to sustain a narrative drive. How to keep a reader interested — this is a real challenge. Everybody’s attention span is short. We are really competing. I mean, it used to be just television. Now it’s 200 channels. It’s four channels of Law and Order. There’s 20 sports channels. And there’s the Internet, there’s the blog — every person is his or her own editor. First you have to get it right. You have to make it accurate. Then you have to learn how to dramatize it, to bring it alive, to find the people and the events that make it real. So you’re not just a reporter, and you’re not just a historian — not in the world we live in with all the competing forms of information. You are a playwright too. You’ve got to bring in the drama.