The survival of quality news calls for a new approach to writing and reporting. Inspiration could come from blogging and magazine storytelling and also bring back memories of the 70’s New Journalism movement.
News reporting is aging badly. Legacy newsrooms style books look stuck in a last Century formalism (I was tempted to write “formalin“). Take a newspaper, print or online. When it comes news reporting, you see the same old structure dating back to the Fifties or even earlier. For the reporter, there is the same (affected) posture of effacing his/her personality behind facts, and a stiff structure based on a string of carefully arranged paragraphs, color elements, quotes, etc.
I hate useless quotes. Most often, for journalists, such quotes are the equivalent of the time-card hourly workers have to punch. To their editor, the message is ‘Hey, I did my my job; I called x, y, z’ ; and to the the reader, ‘Look, I’m humbly putting my personality, my point of view behind facts as stated by these people’ — people picked by him/herself, which is the primary (and unavoidable) way to twist a story. The result becomes borderline ridiculous when, after a lengthy exposé in the reporter’s voice to compress the sources’ convoluted thoughts, the line of reasoning concludes with a critical validation such as :
“Only time will tell”, said John Smith, director of the social studies at the University of Kalamazoo, consultant for the Rand Corporation, and author of “The Cognitive Deficit of Hyperactive Chimpanzees”.
I’m barely making this up. Each time I open a carbon-based newspaper (or read its online version), I’m stuck by how old-fashioned news writing remains. Unbeknownst to the masthead (i.e. editorial top decision-makers) of legacy media, things have changed. Readers no longer demand validating quotes that weigh the narrative down. They want to be taken from A to B, with the best possible arguments, and no distraction or wasted time.
Several factors dictate an urgent evolution in the way newspapers are written.
1/ Readers’ Time Budget. People are deluged with things to read. It begins at 7:00 in the morning and ends up late into the night. The combination of professional contents (mail, reports, PowerPoint presentations) and social networking feeds, have put traditional and value-added contents (news, books) under great pressure. Multiple devices and the variable level of attention that each of them entails create more complications: a publishing house can’t provide the same content for a smartphone screen to be read in a cramped subway as for a tablet used in lean-back mode at home. More than ever, the publisher is expected to clearly arbitrate between the content that is to be provided in a concise form and the one that justifies a long, elaborate narrative. The same applies to linking and multi-layer constructs: reading a story that opens several browser tabs on a 22-inch screen is pleasant — and completely irrelevant for quick lunchtime mobile reading.
2/ Trust factor / The contract with the Brand. When I pick a version of The New York Times, The Guardian, or a major French newspaper, this act materializes my trust (and hope) in the professionalism associated with the brand. In a more granular way, it works the same for the writer. Some are notoriously sloppy, biased, or agenda-driven; others are so good than they became a brand by themselves. My point: When I read a byline I trust, I assume the reporter has performed the required legwork — that is collecting five or ten times the amount of information s/he will use in the end product. I don’t need the reporting to be proven or validated by an editing construct that harks back to the previous century. Quotes will be used only for the relevant opinion of a source, or to make a salient point, not as a feeble attempt to prove professionalism or fairness.
3 / Competition from the inside. Strangely enough, newspapers have created their own gauge to measure their obsolescence. By encouraging their writing staff to blog, they unleashed new, more personal, more… modern writing practices. Fact is, many journalists became more interesting on their own blogs than in their dedicated newspaper or magazine sections. Again, this trend evaded many editors and publishers who consider blogging to be a secondary genre, one that can be put outside a paywall, for instance. (This results in a double whammy: not only doesn’t the paper cash on blogs, but it also frustrates paid-for subscribers).
4/ The influence of magazine writing. Much better than newspapers, magazines have always done a good job capturing readers’ preferences. They’ve have always been ahead in market research, graphic design, concept and writing evolution. (This observations also applies to the weekend magazines operated by large dailies). As an example, magazine writers have been quick to adopt first person accounts that rejuvenated journalism and allowed powerful narrative. In many newspapers, authors and their editors still resists this.
Digital media needs to invent its own journalistic genres. (Note the plural, dictated by the multiplicity of usages and vectors). The web and its mobile offspring, are calling for their own New Journalism comparable to the one that blossomed in the Seventies. While the blogosphere has yet to find its Tom Wolfe, the newspaper industry still has a critical role to play: It could be at the forefront of this essential evolution in journalism. Failure to do so will only accelerate its decline.