I hate reading newspapers: Why print newsrooms need to embrace (some of) the Internet’s values

“To me, the most important trick is to deeply inculcate the joy of Internet journalism, without losing (actually restoring to some degree, after recent cutbacks) the great editorial values and breakthrough journalism of the Post. Fusing the old-media storytelling and news-integrity values that I learned at the Post with the Internet values of speed and personality — and, well, some level of fun at the right times — is critical. 

In other words, make it clear that it is possible to do great journalism in an Internet way — even more possible because you’re freer and, most of all, readers want to read it that way. That entails inspiring the staffers of the newspaper to create content that is — as it has been — accurate, ethically sound, of high quality, but also much more compelling, and delivered in a way that modern customers want to consume it….

Except in some cases, that is simply not happening at the Post, where the Internet still — still — feels like an afterthought. As much as I like Wonkblog, for example, I love Nate Silver so much more….Think of that: I. Love. Nate. Silver. You need to find more reporters and writers that readers love again, for all the right reasons, and not because they can string together a clever listicle..”

Kara Swisher of All Things D in an open letter to Jeff Bezos, discussing his purchase of the Washington Post.

 

If you haven’t read it, go check out Kara Swisher’s excellent post. It’s a devastating portrait of an industry playing King Canute; only in this version of the tale, Canute believes his own hype and thinks he can resist the tide. 

In her post, Swisher talks about how the attitude of WaPo newsroom – at which she worked – to digital:

“It was there that I also first saw the extraordinarily stubborn resistance by old media — which still exists like some super-barnacle that will not detach from a sunken ship — to what the digital age meant. It happened every day — other reporters playfully mocking me for using email so much or for borrowing the Post’s few suitcase cellphones, or major editors telling me that the Internet was like the CB-radio fad, or sales people insisting that the good times would never end for newspapers as long as there were local businesses that needed to reach consumers.”

It reminds me of my own experiences, first in launching The Muckraker blog and then its companion magazine, The Muckraker Report (which launched yesterday).

 

For years, journalists have sneered at bloggers (I’m loathe to even make the distinction between the two). Their sin? Injecting themselves into the story. In journalism, that is seen as a cardinal sin. Before reporters were sneering at bloggers, they were sneering at the gonzo crowd.

For me, this debate can be settled with one question: Do you enjoy reading newspapers?

I read the newspaper every day. I don’t do it because I enjoy it. I do it because I have to know what’s going on for my job. Its “hard news” style – universally taught on journalism courses – is so boring that I have to force myself to sit down and read it. 

By contrast, I enjoy reading AllThingsD. And NSFW

I fucking hate reading newspapers.

 

This is a secret I’ve carried around for many years. I actually feel ashamed to admit it. I’m a journalist; why would I hate the medium that spawned me? It’s like rejecting my own mother.

I didn’t always hate reading newspapers. Once upon a time, I read local news every day because there was nothing else competing for my time. Twitter didn’t exist (and I didn’t join it ’till 2009). I didn’t have a Pocket queue full of  tales to get lost in. There were no Longreads. My Kindle hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had my iPhone. There was a stack of paperback books on my bedside table but that was it.

I had no concept of how the web could be used to create amazing stories (obligatory Snowfall link). 

I enjoyed reading the newspaper because I didn’t know how much better journalism could be. 

 

News writing  in newspapers – and traditional newsrooms – is stale. It’s formulaic. 

In journalism class, I was taught:

1) Your lede is 20 words long, no more. Communicate the gist of the story in that sentence

2) Introduce the most important details next

3) Then introduce your quote

4) And then a nice contrarian quote from someone else to balance 3) out.

 

Constraints constrain creativity. And that leads to boring copy that no one wants to read.

 

When it came to launching The Muckraker Report, I knew I wanted to do things differently. I’d read a piece I’d written six months before and it bored the shit out of me. The investigation itself was of huge important yet it’s meaning had been lost in dry, dull writing: “X happened. Y happened. Here’s the documents to back it up.” It was “hard news”, exactly how I’d been taught to write it. It didn’t work.

My writing on The Muckraker has always been a bit edgier but it still bored me. It didn’t matter how big the scoop was or how important the story; I was losing the reader halfway through by numbing them with details.

So, with Issue 01 of TMR, I sat down to write a narrative rather than a story. I would take the reader on a grand tour through my memory, a bit like the Pensieve in Harry Potter. Rather than tell them what happened, I would show them, framing it through my eyes as a reporter.

 

Now, immediately, the purists will shout, “THAT’S NOT JOURNALISM! TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE STORY!” This overlooks the fact that the first-person narrative is just another storytelling technique. It’s not about turning the reporter into a heroine. It’s about making the reader remember the story a week after they’ve read the last line.

Take this scene:

 

“Years later, I found out. The details are sketchy but around 12 months before she died, she was raped. Every day, after school, she had to walk past her rapist. He would pretend they’d never met. She was a child and he was an adult. If she told the truth, who would believe her?”

 

When I sent the first few paragraphs of the story to Andy Boal, the first thing he said was: “Have you written any more yet? I really want to read the rest.” It was the first time a reader had ever said that to me. I knew I was doing the right thing. 

 

I’m not saying that ditching the hard news style is going to save journalism. Yet people would care about journalism’s survival a lot more if they actually enjoyed it. Hell, they’d probably even pay for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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