December 8th, 2008

Why not writing a story is innovation


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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Carl

    Congratulations on discovering "editing"'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 can tell the quality of a newspaper by what gets left on the spike.

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

  • 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.

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