Cutting Through the Noise of News

By Mary K. Zajac

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alum_duvoisinMarc Duvoisin ’77 is one of those enviable people who discovered his vocation early on. Perhaps it was the omnipresence of print in the four or five newspapers his family had delivered daily to their New Jersey home. Or the example of his mother, a freelance writer and a stringer for newspapers, poring over headlines and absorbing stories. Or his self-proclaimed fascination with seeing his own byline that led Duvoisin, now managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, to launch his journalism career by publishing a newspaper for his third grade class. “[Journalism] was my goal from early childhood,” he says of his 30-plus years in newspapers. “I never had a doubt or a moment’s hesitation.”

Duvoisin’s classroom paper was the first in a series of news writing gigs that began with The (Bergen) Record in Hackensack, New Jersey, and included 20 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer (including a four-year stint in the Middle East reporting the Iran-Iraq War and the bombing of Libya). Duvoisin moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to become the assistant managing editor of the LA Times and was named managing editor in July 2012.

Despite his clear career ambitions, Duvoisin chose Johns Hopkins even though the university did not offer a journalism major or any journalism classes. Instead, he majored in humanistic studies and followed what he describes as the more common preparation for journalism in the 1970s: “to try to become well read and kind of cosmopolitan [with the hope that] you would bring that to your writing.” Courses with Humanities Center faculty such as William Freehling, John Highham, and an intensely memorable seminar on Tristram Shandy co-taught by Richard Macksey and Samuel Weber, says Duvoisin, taught him “how to sustain an argument, how to argue a point with passion and precision.”

As a staff member of the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, Duvoisin put theory into practice. He recalls the office as the de facto center for a small but serious group of future writers, including publisher and writer Russ Smith and music critic J.D. Considine, who were inspired by former News-Letter editors like Russell Baker, Alger Hiss, and Richard Ben Kramer (whose self-penned News-Letter style guide Duvoisin discovered one night while rummaging through the office’s ancient metal desk). The News-Letter staff, says Duvoisin, would spend late hours in the office talking about writing. “Journalism was very sexy at that time,” says Duvoisin, pointing to the popularity of the book (and film) All the President’s Men, with its glamorous depictions of reporters and newsrooms breaking the Watergate scandal. “There was a wonderful culture and wonderful kind of excitement in the air about writing,” he says. “Even though there was no journalism program [at Hopkins], people wanted to be writers.”

Today’s media climate, concedes Duvoisin, bears little resemblance to Hollywood’s version of The Washington Post (or even the News-Letter, for that matter). As managing editor, Duvoisin oversees all news departments, though the challenges of a continuous news cycle fueled by electronic and social media add another layer of urgency to news reporting. “There’s no longer that rhythm that my generation grew up with, where you’re aiming towards the evening deadline,” says Duvoisin, who responds to email within minutes and tweets several times a day (he also plays piano and reads about physics to decompress). Instead, the 24/7 news cycle creates more of an on-demand service. “[Readers] don’t wait for us to bring the news to them,” he says. “They come to us.”

Like most news organizations, the LA Times is determined to find ways to improve readers’ online experience—through additional content including video, photo galleries, interactive graphics, and searchable databases, along with a redesign to make the site more visually engaging—and to convert that growing readership into a revenue base via online subscriptions.

Still, Duvoisin doesn’t forecast an imminent demise of print media, mostly thanks, he says, to educated baby boomers who continue to want the “tactile experience” of a newspaper. Nor does Duvoisin predict an end to journalism as a viable career, though he acknowledges that the traditional vocational path of journalists—working in a small paper and moving up to larger newsrooms—“has broken down along with the revenue base of the industry.”

“Writing for pay is a much more challenging proposition than when I got into the business,” says Duvoisin, citing fellowships, internships, and training programs, including ones offered by the LA Times, as the new model of journalism apprenticeship. “What’s inspiring is, despite difficulties, people are still drawn to the business and determined to make their way around the obstacles.”

There’s little question that media platforms will continue to evolve, yet Duvoisin stresses the value of unique, well-written content—from investigative scoops to deeply reported narratives—over what he calls the “commodity news” available from a multiplicity of sources in more or less the same form. “We help people cut through the noise and make sense of the world,” he says. “And that is valuable. Enduringly valuable.”