Teach the Reporters Well

In Japan a decade ago, I found a great coffee cup. It looked like it was misshapen, and had “misteaks misteaks misteaks” imprinted on it. It also stood on a row of shelves with 1,000 identical cups.

The fact is we all make mistakes. I made one last week, in a piece on SIC codes. Six or seven readers, including Rick Dettwyler at the Hillary Co., Carlos Pelay at Yupi.Com, and Kara Swanson at Micron thoughtfully wrote to say SIC is being replaced by a new system called NAICS (North American Industry Classification System).

The new system does cover several types of Internet businesses, especially in the new category 514191, “Online Information Services.” Its use is far from universal the codes can be as long as ten digits, compared to the three to four used in the old SIC scheme. NAICS is also being revised for 2002, your input is welcome on that, and in my own review, I noted a lot of Internet businesses (like web stores) still aren’t dealt with properly.

I love getting these kinds of notes, although editors see them as evidence of sloppy work on my part. Maybe it is. I looked up the SIC system on Google, and an explanation of NAICS was readily available at Yahoo. (When you enter “SIC Codes” you get the NAICS Association.)

But there’s a larger point I want to make, regarding the nature of journalism in this new century.

My point starts with a column by Richard Cohen of The Washington Post that hacked me off for what was then an unknown reason. Cohen, a political writer, moaned that he gets 1,000 emails a day, mostly from morons he called “E-Knee Jerks.” Therefore, he’s glad the paper doesn’t publish his email address as he concluded in answer to one critic who found his box hard to reach, “I have one word for you, Mike: Delete.”

Cohen doesn’t get it. If your email flow is that heavy, hire an intern. But inside that stack of 1,000 daily notes may be ten, or five or one that will start a story, correct an impression, or offer real insight. If you’re not searching that stack for those notes and accepting the brickbats with the laurels, you’re shirking your duty.

Education reformers have a saying, “Out with the sage on the stage, in with the guide at the side.” By that they mean teachers should no longer lecture from the front of the room. The material can be presented, and mastery can be tested in many engaging (and automated) ways. No, a teacher’s place is beside each student, seeking that teachable moment, trying every possible approach until the eyes light up like fire and the kid “gets it.” In that moment, says my brother (a high school math teacher, I’m proud to say) it’s all worth it.

Journalists have the same problem. We pontificate. We stand on mountains of paper (or electronic ink) and claim the mantle of authority. In fact, we’ve just talked to some authorities people like you and learned from them.

Richard Cohen would be the first to admit he’d make a lousy senator (even a lousy Senate candidate). I freely admit you don’t want me running your web business. We’re dilettantes. We only know what our sources tell us. And you’re our sources, as surely as those we choose to call on the phone and quote are our sources. You may not be “experts,” but you know a lot (at least about NAICS). And if we’re not listening and are close-minded, what are we doing here?

In the 21st century, journalism must become a dialogue. You only learn when you change your mind. Feel free to write me any time.

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