I could spend a lifetime of study and meditation to parse that question, and still find more to parse. Who gets to define what “matters?” Is the work not a value in and of itself? Is the primary purpose of journalism to change things? If so, what things and, again, who gets to decide? How do we measure change?
Those are rabbit holes I have neither the time nor wisdom to go down when the question is posed. I acknowledge that the frustrations are real. There are few concrete ways I know of to track immediate stories to instant action. Even the famed Watergate investigation, when there’s no doubt that The Washington Post’s coverage led to the awareness of a nation and the resignation of a president, spooled out over several months.
So I try to answer the question with what I know sounds inadequate but is what I believe: Despite modern metrics, we can’t know what impact our work has. We need to tell the stories not just for any response we get, but as a way to connect the dots to the past and archive events for the future.
I thought of that belief several times as I listened to the second impeachment trial of former President Trump. The Democratic House managers laid out a harrowing case against Trump, backed by never-before-seen videos of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol interspersed with clips of the former president’s speeches and tweets. Even so, acquittal was never really in doubt. Translation: Nothing will change. And if nothing changes, why bother?
The necessary job of bothering
But isn’t it our job, as journalists, to bother? To question and probe and, yes, to archive — even, or maybe especially, in the face of intractability? How else with truth be given a voice?
I’m going to draw on a comment from impeachment coverage by CNN’s chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny, who was quoted Feb. 11 in The Poynter Report by Tom Jones:
“We do not know if this is going to change any minds, but a couple of things here. Yes, this was a presentation for the jury — those 100 senators sitting in the chamber, Republicans and Democrats alike. But it’s also more than that. It’s a presentation for history, for the ages to chronicle this … Trump era and that insurrection in greater detail than we’ve ever seen before.”
I don’t pass this along as an argument for the prosecution or against the defense. I hold onto it instead as an important reminder that the work we do matters — and matters vitally — even if it doesn’t seem to change anything in the moment. Metrics are one thing; history is another. Without knowing history, we know nothing.
NOTE: A version of this post was first published in the Nieman Storyboard newsletter.