December 8th, 2008

Why not writing a story is innovation

by

Discussions about journalism innovation usually focus on technology: Twitter, RSS, Flash, Django, data visualization, and all the other cool stuff that’s making online news so rich.

But there’s an equally important conceptual aspect of journalism innovation. Newsrooms have to rethink the kind of stories they cover and the way they tell those stories, or all the new technologies could be wasted on news that readers don’t find relevant or interesting.

To do this, they have to practice innovation-by-omission. That is, they need to stop writing stories that don’t deserve to be written.

Newsrooms no longer have the luxury of wasting resources on non-stories — on “the journalism of filling space and time,” as Jeff Jarvis put it. They no longer have the luxury, in an information-overload world, of wasting readers’ time with non-stories or information readers already know. Readers will simply go somewhere else.

Jarvis offers a mental checklist for journalists to consider before publishing a possible non-story:

if you can’t imagine anyone linking to your coverage — if you can’t imagine anyone saying “this was new,” “this is good,” “this was valuable,” “go here for more,” “I didn’t know this,” or “you should know this” — then chances are, it’s not worth saying and in the link economy it won’t get audience, and so it’s not worth making.

Filler news can take many forms. Jarvis singles out reporting on election and post-holiday-shopping days. John McIntyre flags another persistent form of filler — stories based on dubious surveys — in this post. Jack Shafer never tires of exposing bogus trend pieces.

I would add: many stories based on (or directly lifted from) press releases; one-sentence news like stock market updates, shuttle takeoffs, and incremental updates of previous stories; many politics-as-process stories. Even “important” news can become filler. Crime briefs become monotonous after so many days; the fifth front-page story on the Russia-Georgia conflict isn’t likely to resonate.

Most of these story approaches are so ingrained that it’ll take conscious effort to stop and come up with more effective alternatives. But it can be done.

My favorite recent example of innovation-by-omission is a blog post by Daniel Victor, a reporter at The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa. Back in August, Victor was assigned to cover a campaign “event” that the state Democratic Party had touted in a press release: “local residents would ‘welcome John McCain to Harrisburg by unveiling a new video called ‘Jobs’ at a press event.’ ”

Victor discovered — surprise! — that the event was a news-free attempt to manufacture free publicity for the campaign. (His must-read post recounts the details of this discovery.) So he told his editor there was no story. Here’s how Victor describes the “newsroom tango” that followed:

I argued that there was no story, editor argues it’s worth a short story. I write a short story focusing on the similarities with the DNC news release, and the fact the event was pitched to media as an unveiling but really wasn’t at all. Editor quickly wonders if it shouldn’t be recast as a straight “Dems respond to Mccain” story. I argue phony news events don’t deserve real news coverage. Editor finally sees it my way, the story is spiked, and you won’t read about it in my newspaper.

Thank goodness for that. We in the media can do our part to actually aid the discussion by checking these events out, then promptly ignoring them when they turn out to be duds.

Just because local politicians are speaking, and just because a reporter spent an hour listening to them speak, doesn’t mean we need to report on it.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know if a story is worthwhile without doing some digging, as Victor did. The definition of “filler” will vary from newsroom to newsroom; my idea of filler could be another person’s scrapbook keepsake. What’s important is that newsrooms at least have this discussion.

Once newsrooms better define their idea of filler, it’ll be easier to stop those stories before they start. It’ll also make it easier to come up with better ways of treating certain subjects.

For example, “scrapbook news” — county fairs, local events, awards — could be a place to start experimenting with crowdsourcing. National or world news that has become filler because of the nature of wire coverage could be made relevant through linking. Local political coverage could focus more on how policies will affect readers and less on news-free campaign events. And crime coverage could become more data-driven and be integrated “into a health & safety site, because violence is a public health issue,” as Jane Stevens suggests.

There are many things newsrooms need to do differently to survive the coming years. But one of the foundational changes they must make is to listen to Daniel Victor. Sometimes there’s just no story.

Comments (43 Responses so far)

  1. “For example, “scrapbook news” — county fairs, local events, awards — could be a place to start experimenting with crowdsourcing.”

    Everything old is new again. When I was a kid — the 80s — when I or a group I was part of did something scrapbook worthy, my mom would type up a little announcement about it and bring it to the local twice weekly. Next edition, there it was, almost unchanged. Scrapbooking would ensue. Far from an experiment in crowdsourcing, this is the way it’s done in small towns across the country. The only experiment is how to scale it from a community of 6,000 to 60,000 to 600,000.

  2. @Josh,

    Great post.

    The worst part of this whole situation is that many journalists defend this kind of journalism because they say only they know what journalism is, and if people don’t find what they write to be interesting or worthwhile, it’s because people are only interested in Britney Spears stories. No, the real issue is that many journalists are just lazy, and they think everything they produce is Big J journalism that must be produced whether or not people read it.

    False. Big J journalism is political corruption. It’s not every traffic accident that happens. It’s not every police blotter item or press release from city hall. The problem is that the written word has been the dominate way news has been produced over the years, and it’s a poor medium for most journalism. Every traffic accident should be put into a searchable and sortable database that allows users to create custom charts on the fly.

    Too many papers put traffic fatalities on their front pages every day. Those are not front page stories. Stories about traffic fatalities trends are, however. That’s why putting information into databases is so important. Every day users could get traffic accident trend data customized to their location if news organization just put this information into a database.

    ChicagoCrime.Org proved that police blotter stories were obsolete. Yet, almost every publication still writes up blurbs and stories for each incident, instead of just throwing all that data in a database.

    It’s amazing that news organizations continue to produce filler journalism in this era of limited resources.

  3. Great post.
    Some of the issues taken with filler reporting, might seem old. Questions of newsworthiness have of course long been raised in papers, tv newsrooms and wire services (worked at such for 15 years). Good news is the thin exuses for running witn nonworthy news, are falling dead to the ground once we realize what the web does to news dissemination:

    – The opposition might run a story: All the better, so we don’t.
    – Some might miss it: No, they won’t, unless they don’t google.
    – We might look uninformed. No, we will look smarter.

    Lots of time will be saved for deeper and bettter written, original material. Very important as papers are scaling down. Reporters will be happier, ad space more valuable if not surrounded by fillers, the public will be better informed.

    Unfortunately, in small language markets (like Norway), enough traffic (70-90 per cent for major news sites) is still front page url driven to entice editors and staff to spin other outlets’ stories and nauseam. But this will pass, I hope and think.

  4. [...] Korr har skrevet en veldig interessant bloggpost om hvorfor det er nyskapende å ikke skrive en nyhetssak. I en annen post forsøker han å [...]

  5. I agree with a lot of what you say here. I think the only way we keep readers interested in journalism is by showing them what it’s really worth with good stories, good contextual reporting and being creative with how they organize content online. I want to scream every time we say we have to send a reporter or intern to write the same story written last year about an annual festival.

    One of the problems, however, that small daily papers have to overcome is how, when you have a very small news staff, do you fill (yep, there’s the word) that news hole when you spike a story.

    I think the solutions are in being creative about what content you put in that dinosaur that’s left (why aren’t more papers printing reader galleries, printing good, vetted reader blog posts, etc.?), strengthening connections with people in your community to entice them to share that content, and just giving up some of the print (and somehow magically not driving off what advertisers you have left.)

  6. [...] want to further explore the idea of “scrapbook news” as a way of reframing the crowdsourcing/citizen journalism [...]

  7. As an editor and writer, I highly agree with this post.

    Among journalist friends, my shorthand for the embodiment of traditional media outlets failing to capitalize on our new media paradigm is “the useless 15-inch weather story.” How many reporters are still made to write about the next big cold front, the number of inches of rain it brought to the city, and quotes from people about yesterday’s weather? Won’t a quickly riffed cutline suffice now, with links to a page of data on a site? Isn’t it time to welcome good reader photos on the weather and let photographers continue work on bigger ideas? In the face of bankruptcies, isn’t anyone willing to try?

    Hurricanes, locust plagues and other cataclysms don’t apply here. But do people think that papers have the ability to start self-correcting, or are many doomed because they refuse to move beyond functioning as creatures of habit?

    I am really glad to tap into this vibrant dialogue about what we can do to save our important profession. Thank you for providing it.

  8. Matt — Love it. Thoughts about your comment were too long for a comment, so I wrote a whole new post :) The question is, what crazy ideas do you have up your sleeve for scaling this kind of behavior/engagement?

    Pat — Thanks. Though i don’t think the main problem is laziness so much as decades of accumulated practices, traditions, and habits combined with an institutional lack of self-reflection/self-criticism. (Of course the result is the same whatever the reason.) But yeah, you’re totally right that “Too many papers put traffic fatalities on their front pages every day. Those are not front page stories. Stories about traffic fatalities trends are, however.”

    Helge — Also thanks. Those three responses to the thin excuses are perfect.

    Angela — I think “filling the news hole” will probably be the most persistent sticking point. It’ll just be a matter of having enough ideas like yours as an alternative. My ideal solution would involve lots of content sharing — including web material — so papers would never lack for interesting stories in the event of filler-induced empty spaces.

  9. John — Thanks for the nice comment. I also have a weather-related shorthand (it’s an example from TV news, but the idea is the same): the pre-snowstorm report from the grocery store letting everyone know that, yup, people are at the grocery store buying milk and bread and toilet paper — just like they did before the last snowstorm, and the one before that, and the one before…

    As for whether papers can self-correct, my belief has been that they can — it’s just going to take a lot of self-criticism (which newsrooms aren’t so great at) and peeling back layers of accumulated bad habits. But my worry lately is that some papers won’t have the chance.

    Right after publishing this post yesterday, I posted on Twitter: “I must say, it feels profoundly weird writing about the nuts/bolts of journalism when things like http://tinyurl.com/5eo2es are happening.” Because yeah, I believe it when I say things like “one of the foundational changes [newsrooms] must make is to listen to Daniel Victor. Sometimes there’s just no story.”

    But at the same time, it’s like — another of the foundational changes newsrooms must make is to not go bankrupt and vanish next week.

  10. [...] That is, they need to stop writing stories that don’t deserve to be written. Read the rest of this post Print [...]

  11. Good examples of needless effort to avoid a sin of omission – I can’t otherwise explain such similar and similarly uninspired articles – are these from the Times and Daily Telegraph.
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article5270092.ece
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/primaryeducation/3540852/Learning-by-heart-is-pointless-for-Google-generation.html

  12. [...] on Publishing2.0 yesterday, Josh Korr argued against content producers producing content – or at least, against journalists writing [...]

  13. [...] meaning the few that I get around to writing). So you should check out a couple recent posts: Why not writing a story is innovation, and how “scrapbook news” can help reframe the discussion about citizen journalism and [...]

  14. I might add that as the Internet becomes THE place to get news, Web sites are fighting more and more to keep users on the homepage, clicking related links, coming back for more articles etc. I am writer at a start-up (www.findingDulcinea.com) and I know that we recognize our future is dependent on bringing added value to everything we publish. Uniqueness, and proper application of the innovation you mention, are integral to success in the world of new media and Web 2.0. I’ve shared this story with my editor and other writers here. Thanks.

  15. Josh makes a point but there is nothing “2.0” about it. Basic Journalism 101 goes to great length to describe what is and isn’t news, and is a discussion closely tied to ethics.

    JOsh’s definition of “what isn’t news” is dangerous and is everything that is wrong with journalism today. According to this person, it’s not a story if other websites won’t link to it. HOW STUPID IS THAT. It doesn’t take into account the biases and agendas of the wild wild west that is the internet, and Josh obviously can’t see that because he’s insulated into his community of self-important bloggers.

    The original Watergate story (two idiots breaking into a small campaign headquarters) would never have been “linked” to death or popular. It was buried near back of the paper. Two real reporters with ethics simply did their due diligence and followed what they believed was a news story (not necessarily important) and the rest is history.

    This article is too clever by half and it should be more about ethics and real fairness (in conglomerate news and the net), not a bunch of dirty 18 year olds in their underwear typing away on a laptop in mommy’s basement determining what news is… and getting off on telling news organizations what it is. But then again…. an article on ethics wouldn’t get linked to death, right Josh?

  16. [...] Publishing 2.0’s Why not writing a story is innovation: “Newsrooms have to rethink the kind of stories they cover and the way they tell those [...]

  17. If bogus trend pieces are getting links (even if they are “exposure” links) then wouldn’t you want to write more of them in a link economy? I suppose that’s potentially pitting the brand against the link. But bad press is good press right? hmmm

  18. I’m surprised this discussion doesn’t acknowledge the origin of ‘fillers,’ reporting of non-stories, scrapbook items, etc. They serve[d] a purpose, they have a value. Total page count is a newspaper publisher’s daily gamble, is entirely dependent upon ad sales, and newspapers have [had] to be ready to print minimum and maximum column inches, forever. That symbiotic relationship between advertisers and publishers was the cornerstone for many of prints’ seemingly ‘unnecessary’ habits and traditions (pull-out sections, special editorial editions, etc.)

    The web has changed that relationship, virtually overnight. And we are coming very close to eliminating the advertiser – the middleman – entirely, to get to our readers.

    Publishers have been freed to focus on quality over quantity. But is it a gift or a burden?

    Any discussion of the death of print, the migration to crowdsourcing, the citizen-reporter, must acknowledge its economic impetus.

    Let’s not pretend that any of these concepts were introduced with the desire to improve the quality of content, or the work-habits of journalists, in mind.

  19. Hey, why is my post not being approved? what are you afraid of? the strength of so called “internet journalism” is the freedom of everyone’s ideas and the raw exchange of viewpoints, even when it conflicts with the poster’s. There is no profanity, just a conflicting viewpoint. why not air my views? Is this publishing 2.0 to you?

  20. Quoting Patrick Thornton:
    “It’s amazing that news organizations continue to produce filler journalism in this era of limited resources.”

    Problem is, in this era of limited resources, filler journalism is all they *can* produce.

    When MEs and AEs are more concerned with how much time people spend actually sitting at their desks than what they produce (not to mention that the guy sitting next to you just got laid off last week), there’s no avenue or impetus for making the kind of stand Daniel Victor did.

    Don’t get me wrong: he looked at the situation and determined, correctly, that the story assigned was not news. *That’s* what’s really missing today…the gatekeeping function of news organizations.

    Just because something happens doesn’t make it news, no matter how much the (how I hate this word) blogosphere wishes that were true.

  21. I agree with this post, but the question remains: How do we get there? As Angela said in comment No. 5, how do you fill a newshole when you spike a story? We can talk about the idea of “filling” a newshole being antiquated, but the fact is that if your reporters started spiking stories tomorrow because they feel it’s not worth writing, then you’ll end up with blanks in your newspaper, or you’ll end up filling it with some other crap that you won’t have otherwise put in your paper. Of course, then there is the whole issue of quotas and performance metrics based on how much you write, not how much you didn’t write because it wasn’t worth writing.

    I think if newspapers successfully make the transition to web-only operations, then this issue will more or less take care of itself. With no set newshole to fill, there will be no more need to write “filler”. Also, that change in the dynamics of a web-only news operation will necessitate changes in performance metrics. So, it still comes back to being able to establish a financially viable on-line business model. It’s like a row of dominoes.

  22. [...] Why not writing a story is innovation – Publishing 2.0 – "(We) need to stop writing stories that don’t deserve to be written." [...]

  23. g. — Bogus trend stories are a uniquely pernicious form of filler. I don’t think they arise from the same economic origins that Lisa Duggan identifies as the original impetus for many kinds of filler. They persist because, as you note, they do get attention. Readers often don’t see them as filler (at least judging by most e-mailed lists or chatter around the office).

    So arguing against bogus trend stories can sometimes mean arguing against giving readers what they want. And yeah — in these times of chasing every link and eyeball you can find, who wants to do that?

    But I would say that it’s one thing to give readers what they want; I have no problem with papers printing celebrity news and other assorted fluff, as long as it’s part of a mix of news and info. It’s another thing to give readers something that’s interesting but, well, bogus.

    The problem with celebrity news (if you think it’s a problem) is that it’s unimportant. The problem with bogus trend stories is that they’re intellectually lazy and, on some level, dishonest.

    All of which is to say, I agree that the attention these stories get will make it particularly hard to snuff them out.

  24. [...] http://publishing2.com/2008/12/08/why-not-writing-a-story-is-innovation/ [...]

  25. Right on, though this reminds me of the operating theory held by a former editor of mine, a pretty old-school type.
    He always urged his young charges to “Write stories that don’t suck.” By this he meant”If a story sucks, don’t waste your time, or the readers’, on it.”
    This isn’t “journalism 2.0″ or anything really all that innovative. It’s just good newspapering.

  26. Advertisers need to think the same way, however I wonder how brands will make this transition? Can they discipline themselves to focus on the core? There is an absolute necessity in this age of excessive information that publishers, brands, companies, individuals focus on curating the best, rather than recreating everything. With the Internet being the massive copying machine that it is, it is time for
    us to think differently about what delivers consumer value.

  27. John Zhu:
    Good points. Fillers may be the most economic way of providing a flexible amount of input for an undefined amount of space, because they can be discarded at little cost. Except: when printed, there’s a loss to the brand.

    Agree that they may be hard to get rid of. Maybe there is a silver lining to present crisis, though. Papers that survive, will have (had) to scale down no. of pages. Since they also have a website, they can concentrate on only writing good stuff. If ads demand space, it will still be published on the web. If ads shrink, take your fillers from the website.

    I agree with this post, but the question remains: How do we get there? As Angela said in comment No. 5, how do you fill a newshole when you spike a story? We can talk about the idea of “filling” a newshole being antiquated, but the fact is that if your reporters started spiking stories tomorrow because they feel it’s not worth writing, then you’ll end up with blanks in your newspaper, or you’ll end up filling it with some other crap that you won’t have otherwise put in your paper. Of course, then there is the whole issue of quotas and performance metrics based on how much you write, not how much you didn’t write because it wasn’t worth writing.

    I think if newspapers successfully make the transition to web-only operations, then this issue will more or less take care of itself. With no set newshole to fill, there will be no more need to write “filler”. Also, that change in the dynamics of a web-only news operation will necessitate changes in performance metrics. So, it still comes back to being able to establish a financially viable on-line business model. It’s like a row of dominoes.

  28. Sorry, leftovers in my comment. Pls disregard two last paragraphs; not mine.

  29. Congratulations on discovering “editing”…it’s something we dinosaurs in the don’t-get-it, dead-tree media have been practising for..oh, a couple of hundred years.

    As we say in dead-tree land…you can tell the quality of a newspaper by what gets left on the spike.

  30. John Z./Helge/Angela — I’ll give some more specific ideas about how to fill space vacated by fillers in another post. But in general, this kind of transition would only be effective if it’s thoroughly discussed and planned out.

    Like most of the major conceptual or structural changes that newsrooms still have to make, figuring out an alternative to filler won’t work if it’s done in a one-off fashion. It has to be a holistic re-assessment.

    That kind of discussion would cover things like: Why do they run filler in the first place? What might they do differently (either not cover certain things at all or cover them in a different way)? What is their view of what news is? What are the protocols for anyone involved in the story to say at any time in the story process, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t do this”? How can a reporter be judged more on the quality of work than on the quantity of it? (This is needed to address John Z.’s important point about performance metrics).

    Once a newsroom answers those kinds of questions, finding alternatives to filler becomes less about flailing when a story is spiked on deadline — because much of the “spiking” will come in the form of stopping stories earlier in the process, or not starting them in the first place. And the larger discussion would ideally also lead to ideas about new sources and story approaches that could help the newsroom quickly come up with non-filler replacements when a story is spiked on deadline.

  31. [...] Josh Korr suggests that many media outlets and journalists, bloggers are included in that description, need to: …practice innovation-by-omission. That is, they need to stop writing stories that don’t deserve to be written. [...]

  32. [...] Josh Korr suggests that many media outlets and journalists, bloggers are included in that description, need to: …practice innovation-by-omission. That is, they need to stop writing stories that don’t deserve to be written. [...]

  33. [...] Why not writing a story is innovation. If you read any other j-blogs, you’ve already been pointed to this very-interesting piece by Josh Korr. This is a reminder to go read it. [...]

  34. [...] Source: publishing2.com [...]

  35. [...] Source: publishing2.com [...]

  36. [...] Why not writing a story is innovation – Publishing 2.0 Down with rewriting and publishing press releases (and other such nonsense)! [...]

  37. [...] Why not writing a story is innovation – Publishing 2.0 Daniel: Down with rewriting and publishing press releases (and other such nonsense)! [...]

  38. [...] Why not writing a story is innovation & Crowdsourcing, citizen journalism, and the lesson of scrapbook news [...]

  39. [...] vivo” por aí O homem que inventou a internet Publicidade on-line e seu impacto sobre o webdesign Porque não escrever uma história é inovar Terceirização de jornalistas pela [...]

  40. [...] week ago Josh Korr wrote a great post at Publish 2 vilifying the media for their tendency to make a story out of literally everything. [...]

  41. [...] why not writing a story is innovation – publishing 2.0 (tags: journalism newspapers news media innovation technology linking future publishing economy via:mento.info) [...]

  42. [...] 3-  Il faut se poser la question si demain le titre disparaît est-ce que les gens ont accès aux  mêmes types d’informations avec le même genre de traitement ailleurs? Si la réponse est oui, c’est que l’on est sur la mauvaise pente. Et pour le moment, la réponse est oui pour la Libre et pour le Soir (il y a évidement des chouettes papiers ou de supers initiatives comme les ukulélés session, mais il s’agit d’annexe, pas d’un projet global) . Et pas besoin d’en dire plus je viens de tomber sur ce billet  qui le fait à ma place : Why not writing a story is innovation. [...]

  43. Josh,

    Your post was great — I’m a journalist who left a newspaper a few months ago after 14 years to work for an online-only nonprofit news operation, and I was thinking just the other day how liberating it was not to be required to do the usual we-must-do-this stories on holiday mall traffic tips, holiday travel outlooks, rounding up panels of undecided voters to respond to the presidential debates, etc. Year after year after year, it’s the same story. (Does the average person really read that stuff, and if they do, do they get anything out of it that’s different than what they’ve gotten every year for the past five years? Does anyone not know by now that the malls are crowded on the day after Thanksgiving?)

    But Angela and Lucas have very good points. Small papers have space to fill, and sometimes they don’t have the resources/experience/training/leadership to do “Big J Journalism.” And Lucas (who, unfortunately, I don’t think I ever got introduced-to in all my years in Nashville, but I certainly recognize his byline) is dead on when he says that, due to all the cutbacks and general penny-pinching, there’s not time to do Big J Journalism. If you’ve got an editor standing over you (and 3 editors behind them), making you crank out at least one “enterprise” story a week and 2 or 3 dailies to boot, you’re not going to have time to solve the world’s problems. Keeping the dry-erase planning calendar filled with centerpieces for 1a and 1b for the next two weeks is what you’re being paid to do and what you’ll be evaluated on, not solving the world’s problems.

    Newspapers may be going away in some big cities, but not in the smaller ones. For them, the question is, how do they innovate with what they have and still put out the newspaper?

    Jennifer Peebles
    Deputy Editor
    Texas Watchdog
    http://www.texaswatchdog.org

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