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Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin

Posted: May 29, 2009 03:27 PM

'Playing it Safe' Is Killing the American Newspaper

What's Your Reaction?

We're all in a state of despair these days over our inability to monetize our journalism online the way we've been used to doing in print.

A big part of the problem is that we're doing a really poor job of connecting buyers and sellers on our newspaper Web sites. Solving that problem should be the top priority for the folks on the business and technology sides of our business.

But some of our shortcomings are purely journalistic. We need to come to terms with the fact that one reason we're having such a tough time is that we are still fundamentally failing to deliver the value of our newsroom to Internet users.

Our reporters and editors are curious, passionate, and voracious discoverers and devourers of information; talented storytellers; and smart people with excellent bullshit detectors. As long as human beings are curious about each other and clamor for trusted information, there's a place for us out there. The Internet hasn't changed that; in fact it's increased the market for what we've got: The Internet highly values people who know things, who can find things out, who can distinguish between what's important and what's not, who can distinguish between what's true and what's not, and who can communicate succinctly and effectively.

But we're hiding much of our newsrooms' value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations. While the dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story still has some marginal utility, it is mostly a throwback at this point -- a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community. (For instance, it's the daily delivery cycle of our print product that led us to focus on yesterday's news. And it's the focus on maximizing newspaper circulation that drove us to create the notion of "objectivity" - thereby removing opinion and voice from news stories -- for fear of alienating any segment of potential subscribers.)

The Internet doesn't work on a daily schedule. But even more importantly, it abhors the absence of voice. There's a reason why opinion writing tends to dominate the most-read lists on our "news" sites. Indeed, what we've seen is that Internet communities tend to form around voices -- informed, passionate, authoritative voices in particular. (No one wants to read a bored blogger, I always say.)

If we were to start an online newspaper from scratch today, we'd recognize that toneless, small-bore news stories are not the way to build a large audience -- not even with "interactive" bells and whistles cobbled on top. One option might be to imitate cable TV, and engage in a furious volume of he-said/she-said reporting, voyeurism, contrarianism, gossip, triviality and gotcha journalism. But that would come at the cost of our souls. The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously -- not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.

Obviously, we do some of that already. But I would argue that even then, we do so in a much too understated way. We stifle some of our best stories with a wet blanket of pseudo-neutrality. We edit out tone. We banish anything smacking of activism. We don't telegraph our own enthusiasm for what it is we're doing. We vaguely assume the readers will understand how valuable a service we're providing for them -- but evidently, many of them don't.

Shout it From the Rooftops

While we legitimately want to keep partisanship and polemics out of our news coverage, we need to stop banishing our humanity and the passions that made us become journalists in the first place. When we find a great story, why shouldn't we shout it from the rooftops? Web sites like the Huffington Post and Drudge succeed not just because they so intelligently aggregate the most eye-catching items from others, but because of the palpable joy they take in plastering a big headline across their homepages. That they prosper largely by linking to our work is not lost on us, but is too often leading to the wrong conclusions. It's not that we shouldn't let them link to us, it's that we shouldn't cede our passion to anyone.

And rather than play it safe, we should be brave enough to call things as we see them, and not be limited by the conventional wisdom or political triangulation. Indeed, playing it safe is often transparently bogus -- and boring, too boot. I would also argue that the notion that by hiding our voices we are maintaining political neutrality is a fig leaf. Much of what we do is inevitably political; choosing what we write about, who we quote, what ideas we take seriously and which we disdain and ignore. Making political decisions through triangulation -- trying to stake out a safe middle ground between the two political parties -- is still making a political decision. It's just often a not very good one.

Those who argue that truth-telling has become too political for us to engage in need to reexamine why they are in this business. Our job is to expose and combat lies and propaganda, not pass them along for fear of appearing partisan. That seven in 10 Americans at one point believed that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks is a profound indictment of our reluctance to champion the truth when it is under attack. We should consider it a key part of our job to differentiate for our readers between things that are true and untrue, arguable and inarguable.

The high priests of the church-state separation may take offense, but the fact is that there's long been a confusing continuum in journalism ranging from straight news to opinion. And I suspect our hairsplitting distinctions have been lost on our readers. In the Internet age, the answer is not censoring ourselves in the name of obscure in-house rules, or trying to put inscrutable labels on everything. The answer is for us to call things as we seen them, and be up front about it.

So let's keep a stable of true "opinion" writers -- whose job is explicitly to take sides and polemicize on controversial issues. But let's allow the folks on the "news" side to give members of the public the kind of analysis they're craving. That means putting things in their proper context. It means not being afraid to explain that one position on an issue is better supported by the facts than the other, when that's the case. It also allows for the advocating of basic human and journalistic values. I don't think that conveying outrage over nondisclosure of public records -- or children going hungry, or torture -- disqualifies someone from calling themselves a news reporter. In fact, it's what people expect from us -- and are probably disappointed that they don't get.

The Extraordinary Value of Beat Reporters

If we believe our newsrooms have value, then the greatest prizes are the reporters who know and care about their beats. In 2004, not long after I stepped down as editor of washingtonpost.com, I wrote two essays in the Online Journalism Review about my hopes for online newspapers, my frustration at the pace of change and my belief that beat reporters could be our secret weapon online. I argued then -- and I still believe now -- that if we can better exploit and market the deep, full-bodied understanding that beat reporters have of their areas of expertise, we hugely increase our value proposition to our readers. So we should celebrate our beat reporters, and take advantage of online opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge.

Knowledgeable beat reporters aren't just stenographers, they are translators, educators, referees and analysts. If we've got people in our newsroom who really understand how a certain city or county works, or who are experts in certain policy areas, they should be sharing and showcasing their expertise in live discussions and blogs; should be answering reader questions and composing FAQs, should be on Facebook and Twitter, should be publishing and allowing readers to contribute to their beat notes, and should be writing and updating primers on key players and key issues. And much of the material they create for online should end up in the paper as well -- quite possibly instead of the dry incremental news stories they currently produce. They should essentially become the anchor for a community of people who share an interest in that beat. And by making it clear that our beat reporters are not faceless drones, but knowledgeable and accessible figures, we can reconnect with readers who may otherwise decide they may as well go somewhere else for their news.

A renewed emphasis on beat reporting would be good for our newsgathering efforts overall, as well. It would remind us of the value of keeping experienced, knowledgeable, well-sourced journalists covering the same communities or topics over time; and it might encourage us to revisit our beat structures for the new era, as well as create mini-beats for urgent topics that we otherwise only cover reactively.

My Five-Point Plan for Reconnecting With Readers

So much of what we do, we do because it's always been done that way. But here are a few examples of how writing for a new medium can encourage us to rethink things we do that make us seem boring and aloof.

Embrace transparency. Daily newspapers are notoriously non-transparent, an old habit that at least in part stems from our lack of space. We historically haven't had the column inches to "waste" on an explanation of how we got a story, or what the problems were in reporting it, or to defend it once it's attacked. We just "let the story speak for itself." Space seems to have been at a particular premium in the corrections box. But the Internet both demands and facilitates transparency. We should be much more willing to admit errors and explain ourselves -- with a guiding principle being that the more people understand how we operate, the more they will trust us.

Raise unanswered questions. The daily newspaper paradigm is all about reporting what we know. But sometimes, the most important things are the things we don't know. I would like to see reporters routinely append a list of important unanswered questions to their stories. Not only would that engage readers, but it might put more pressure on sources to divulge what they know.

Stop the stenography. Part of effectively calling the B.S. is not covering non-events. Some press conferences and public meetings don't generate anything worth writing about. Conversely, sometimes the news is not what it initially appears to be. If a source tries to sell us some outrageous spin, perhaps that's the story right there. Readers will thank us for our honestly.

More accountability journalism. Reporters should be doing watchdog stories on every beat, not just ones that have "investigative" in the title. Accountability journalism differentiates us and reminds readers online and off of why journalism deserves some of their attention every day.

Unleash our readers' voices. In addition to collecting readers around our voices, we should make sure our readers can find theirs, too. And when they are saying something worthwhile, we should make sure our readers are heard, as well. To that end, we should move aggressively to adopt best practices in mass Internet participation. Our goal should be a system that allows good ideas, relevant personal stories, informed opinions and perhaps even consensus on some issues to bubble up to the surface -- and even into our reportage.

In conclusion, if our newsrooms don't change, our future is pretty bleak. It's my hope that the answer is not smaller newsrooms, or reinvented newsrooms, but newsrooms where our dedicated and hard-working editors and reporters don't hold back in the name of anachronism and inertia, but deliver their full value to the next generation of readers.

This essay originally appeared, in four parts, on the Nieman Journalism Lab Web site.

 

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