Posts about article

The orthodoxy of the article, part II

Frédéric Filoux willfully misrepresents me so that he may uphold the orthodoxy of the article. He will be disappointed to learn that we agree more than he wishes. Here is what I am really saying about the article.

First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value. Do most articles do that today? No. Go through your paper in the morning and tell me how much real value is added and how much ink is spilled to tell you what you already know (whether that is facts you learned through Twitter, the web, TV, radio, et al or background that is reheated more often than a stale slice in a bad New York pizzeria).

How many articles are rewritten from others’ work just so a paper and a reporter can have a byline? How many predict the obvious (every story about an upcoming storm, holiday, press conference, or horse race election)? How often do you see a local TV story with any real reporting and value instead of just someone standing where the news happened 12 hours ago telling you what you and he both read online already? Too many articles passing themselves off as professional journalism are crap and I say we can’t afford to do that anymore. I say we should treat articles with veneration as a luxury.

Second, I am also promoting rather than devaluing background when I say it is best linked to. The background paragraphs in an ongoing story generally do one of two things: they bore and waste the time of people who have followed the story or they underinform the people who have not been following the story. Background graphs were a necessity of print but online we can improve background immensely, investing the effort in truly valuable and long-lasting content assets that give richer and more helpful background on a story. I’ve worked with smart folks at news companies imagining how we could provide multiple paths through background: here’s the path to take if you’re coming to the story as a virgin; here’s a track to take if you’ve missed a week; here’s a track from one perspective; here’s one from another. If someone else did a great job explaining the story or elements of it, we should link to them. Filoux calls that oursourcing. I call that linking. We do that nowadays. This is why I’m eagerly watching Jay Rosen’s project in creating explainers, which is an even richer form of background.

Third, in this entire discussion of the article, I am valuing reporting higher than repetitive retyping. As our resources become ever-scarcer, I say that we must devote more of them to reporting than to articles that add little: asking the questions that haven’t been asked and answered, finding people who can add information and perspective, fact-checking.

But I have angered the gods, first Mathew Ingram, now Filoux, who also misquotes me when he says I say that: “Tweeting and retweeting events as they unfold is a far more superior way of reporting than painstakingly gathering the facts and going through a tedious writing and editing process.” I say no such thing and dare him to show me where he thinks I say that with a direct quote. That sentence could stand a little painstaking editing itself. I do say that while an event is underway, tweeting is an amazing new tool to hear directly from witnesses, to question them, to debunk rumors, to manage collaborative reporting (that’s what Andy Carvin does in the Arab Spring). It is part of the reporting process. It contributes to articles later in the process (that’s what Brian Stelter was asking his desk to do when he covered a tornado).

The point is that there are many new ways to accomplish journalistic goals to cover news and gather and share information: Twitter, blogs, data, visualization, multimedia…. Jonathan Glick wrote a much more constructive answer to the question I raised about articles, saying that now that they are freed from the drudgery of reporting infobits of news — the things we have already been told sooner and by other means — then the article can concentrate on adding true value: context, explanation, education, commentary, further reporting, fact-checking….

That is the sense in which I say that the article is or often should be a byproduct of the news process. Once the public is informed of the facts through faster means, once we put digital first and print last (© John Paton), then we also no longer need to build the infrastructure and process of news around writing articles. We have to break out of that expensive, inefficient, archaic stricture. We can instead architect news around helping communities organize their information and themselves (that is my definition of journalism) and we have new ways to do that, including new ways to report news and write articles.

I dare to question the assumptions about the forms of news and journalism. That’s my job. Some — including apparently Filoux — might argue that it is the job of a university to impart orthodoxy: This is the way we have always done it, thus that’s the right way to do it, and that’s the way you will do it, students. I abhor that view.

I believe it is my job, especially in a university, to challenge assumptions and to free students to invent new forms. That is one of my hidden agendas behind teaching entrepreneurial journalism: to encourage and support students (and the industry) to break assumptions and invent new forms, because they can, because we must.

I fear Filoux’s still upset with me because I could not bear and dared criticize the discussion on a panel he ran at the e-G8 in Paris. It wasn’t him I was criticizing. It was hearing the same old stuff from the same old people. At a conference on the internet and the future, the past was rehashed once more. I can bear that no more than he apparently can bear my temerity to challenge the holy article.

But in the end, we almost agree. Filoux argues that newspapers should become, say, “biweeklies offering strong value-added reporting and perspectives, and using electronic media for the rest.” Hmmm. He’s saying, just as I am, that articles should be richer and more valuable and that reporting news bits can be accomplished by other means. So where do we disagree?

Intelligence isn’t measured by the inch

Since I’ve managed to piss off some who think I’m killing the article (I’m not; instead I’m raising the bar, arguing that articles need a reason to exist and that reason is to bring new value not old facts), I might as well go to the next stage of Defcon-J and question another sacred construct:

Long-form journalism.

In his smart continuation of the discussion about the fate, need, and requirements for the article, Jonathan Glick says that nuggets of news won’t have to be embedded into articles all the time and that frees journalists to add real value in the articles they write: context, analysis, perspective…. I agree with him except for one thing. He calls this…

Long-form journalism.

I hear that more and more these days from journalists looking for safe harbor for their lengthy ambitions. But I think it’s a terrible description of the form.

Length does not equal intelligence, no matter what Nick Carr says. I know we’ve all read lots of long and stupid things. And I’ve read plenty of smart and short things.

Indeed, it’s harder to be short than to be long. Thanks to my editor’s picking at loose threads in my manuscript, I just cut more than 11,000 words out of Public Parts that I either shouldn’t have written or wrote only to think something through until I found the right expression of an idea.

When I used to write for publications, I tried to write 20% long and then it was in the editing and cutting that I really wrote, exchanging a better word for one only good enough, organizing more efficiently, getting rid of repetition, excising excess. I certainly don’t always succeed but that’s the goal. That’s a key benefit of print (yes, there are benefits): The scarcity of space forces economy of thought. We don’t have that scarcity here online (what I find scarce is time to write).

I dread unleashing writers to believe that they can now be as long as they want and that that is the measure of their quality. Save us! I fear the label alone — long-form journalism, long-form writing — will encourage words for their own sake.

We need another description that better conveys the value and the goal.

Heavy journalism. No, that’s not too enticing.

Thick journalism. Triple entendre.

Perspective journalism. That means the journalist has to have one. Oh, no, that leads to whole ‘nother fight.

Analysis. I never much liked that, either. It says that the journalist can figure out things we can’t figure out. It also for too long has been used to excuse the journalist from the collection of facts.

Value-added journalism. In advertising terms, “value-added” is a pejorative that actually means less value (it ought to be a Britishism). Too bad. I like the requirement the journalist has to add value.

Narrative journalism. No, it needn’t tell a story. I’ve also questioned the notion that journalists are necessarily story-tellers.

Smart journalism. No, that label must be applied only by the reader, never the writer.

Thoughtful journalism. Maybe. That says one must do more than regurgitate to make an article worthwhile.

I fear I’ve failed and I risk going on for too long. What do you think we ought to call it?

The article as luxury or byproduct

A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.

* See the amazing Brian Stelter covering the Joplin tornado and begging his desk at The Times to turn his tweets into a story because he had neither the connectivity nor the time to do it in the field and, besides, he was too busy doing something more precious: reporting. (It’s a great post, a look at a journalist remaking his craft. Highly recommended for journalists and journalism students particularly.) (And aren’t you proud of me for not drawing the obvious and embarrassing comparison to Times editor Bill Keller’s Luddite trolling about Twitter even as his man in Twitter, Stelter, proves what a valuable tool it is?)

* In Canada’s recent election, Postmedia (where—disclosure—I am an advisor) had its reporters on the bus do nothing but reporting, putting up posts and photos and videos and snippets as they went, keeping coverage going all day, maximizing their value in the field. Back at HQ, a “twin” would turn that into a narrative — as blog posts — when appropriate. At the end of the day, the twin would also turn out a story for print, though everything had pretty much been done earlier; this was more an editing than a writing task. I asked my Postmedia friends what had to be done to turn the posts into an article. Mostly, they said, it meant adding background paragraphs (those great space-wasters that can now be rethought of as links to regularly updated background wikis, don’t you think?).

* At South by Southwest, the Guardian’s folks talked about their steller live-blogging. Ian Katz, the deputy editor, said that live-blogging — devoting someone to a story all day — was expensive. I said that writing articles is also expensive. He agreed. There’s the choice: Some news events (should we still be calling them stories?) are better told in process. Some need summing up as articles. That is an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps.

* Of course, I need to point to Andy Carvin’s tweeting and retweeting of the Arab Spring. He adds tremendous journalistic value: finding the nodes and networks of reliable witnesses; questioning and vetting what they say; debunking rumors; adding perspective and context; assigning his audience tasks (translating, verifying a photos’ location); even training witnesses and audiences (telling them what it really means to confirm a fact). What he does never results in an article.

* I’ve been talking with some people about concepts for reorganizing news organizations around digital and I keep calling on John Paton’s goal to keep in the field and maximize the two things that add value — reporting and sales — and to make everything else more efficient through consolidation or outsourcing. As I was talking to someone else about this, it occurred to me that in some — not all — cases, not only editing and packaging but even writing could be done elsewhere, as Postmedia did in its election experiment. I’m not talking about complex stories from beat people who understand topics and need to write what they report from their earned understanding. I’m talking about covering an event or a meeting, for example. The coverage can come from a reporter and in some cases from witnesses’ cameras and quotes. The story can be written elsewhere by someone who can add value by compiling perspectives and facts from many witnesses and sources. It harkens back to the days of newspaper rewritemen (I was one).

Carry this to the extreme — that’s my specialty — and we see witnesses everywhere, some of them reporters, some people who happen to be at a news event before reporters arrive (and now we can reach them via Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare….), some who may be participants but are sharing photos and facts via Twitter. Already on the web, we see others — bloggers — turn these distributed snippets into narratives: posts, stories, articles.

The bigger question all this raises is when and whether we need articles. Oh, we still do. Articles can make it easy to catch up on a complex story; they make for easier reading than a string of disjointed facts; they pull together strands of a story and add perspective. Articles are wonderful. But they are no longer necessary for every event. They were a necessary form for newspapers and news shows but not the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital. Sometimes, a quick update is sufficient; other times a collection of videos can do the trick. Other times, articles are good.

I’ve been yammering on for a few years about how news is a process more than a product. These episodes help focus what that kind of journalism will look like — and what the skills of the journalist should be.

The accepted wisdom of journalism and its schools was that storytelling was our real job, our high calling, our real art. Ain’t necessarily so. The accepted wisdom of blogging has been that now any of us can do everything: report and write, producing text and audio and video and graphics and packaging and distributing it all. But I also see specialization returning with some people reporting, others packaging. Can we agree to a new accepted wisdom: that the most precious resource in news is reporting and so maximizing the acquisition of facts and answers is what we need?

So what is an article? An article can be a byproduct of the process. When digital comes first and print last, then the article is something you need to put together to fill the paper; it’s not the goal of the entire process. The process is the goal of the process: keeping the public constantly informed.

An article can be a luxury. When a story is complex and has been growing and changing, it is a great service to tie that into a cogent and concise narrative. But is that always necessary? Is it always the best way to inform? Can we always afford the time it takes to produce articles? Is writing articles the best use of scarce reporting resources?

In a do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem, if someone else has written a good article (or background wiki) isn’t it often more efficient to link than to write? Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?

We write articles for many reasons: because the form demands it, because we want the bylines and ego gratification, because we are competitive, because we had to. Now we should write articles when necessary.

This new structure changes not only the skills but likely the character of the journalist. These days when I see young journalists talk only about their passion to write and tell stories, I worry for them that they will find fewer jobs and less of a calling. But when I hear journalists say that their passion is to report, to dig up facts, to serve and inform the community by all means possible, I feel better. When I hear a journalist talk about collaboration with that community as the highest art, then I get happy.

Let the record show that I am not declaring the article useless or dead. Just optional.

: Seconds after I posted this to Twitter, Chad Catacchio said that by the time the article is written, its’ not news, it’s history (albeit the fabled first draft).

: If you came to this post via Mathew Ingram’s response, please note that I adamantly disagree with his characterization of what I say. See my comment under Facebook comments at the end of his post.

: LATER: Jonathan Glick has a smart take on this notion, arguing that nuggets of news will be delivered as nuggets, freeing journalists to write analyses, adding their value, without the burden of conveying the latest.

There is nothing sacred about the article for the transmission of news. It is a logical way of packaging information for a daily print run of a newspaper and a useful format around which to sell display advertising. It has survived into the Internet age for reasons of tradition and the absence of better formats. We have come to accept it as a fundamental atom of news communication, but it’s not. Given faster, easier alternatives, the article no longer makes sense to mobile users for consuming news.

News will go one way, into the stream as scannable updates, and analysis will go the other, toward a new long-form business model for writers. I believe it will be a happy divorce.

I like his take except for this notion that journalism will be defined by length. I find “long-form” to be often used in a rather self-indulgent way: I want to write a lot, it says, and I want you to read it all. Now I know that’s now what Glick is saying; he’s saying that one must have a lot to say, a lot to add. But I think we need another way to describe that than by the inch, for I’m sure we’ve all known too many writers who like to write more than inform.

: Amy Gahran has a very nice piece — not just because she agrees with me — whose subhed begins:

he cutting room floor of journalism is a sad place: all those facts, interviews, asides, anecdotes, context, insights, and media gathered during reporting which, while relevant and interesting, just doesn’t fit comfortably into the narrative flow or length/time limits of the finished story.

This doesn’t merely represent wasted time and reporting effort. Many of those scraps are missed opportunities to engage readers and gain search visibility or links…

Well-said. She argues that we need to look at assembling news the way we play with Legos and we need CMSes that will do that (Storify is a start).