Reinventing the Newsroom

Transparency, Motive and the Sausage Factory

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, The Journalist as Brand by reinventingthenewsroom on July 2, 2009

A while back, I touched on my belief that greater transparency in newsroom processes (within responsible boundaries) would make readers think more highly of their newspapers, not less.

This can be a hard sell in journalism, where transparency can run counter to deeply held ideas about how the craft ought to be practiced: Fair, accurate and professional work emerges from a rigorous process of interviews, research, testing hypotheses, fact-checking and editing, with false starts and dead ends and mistakes excised before publication. From a more-practical perspective, there’s the old saw that if you want to keep eating sausage, you’re better off not seeing how it’s made.

But by keeping the workings of the sausage factory secret, we allow readers to fill in the blanks in ways that are inaccurate, unfair and unhelpful to our profession. Take the question of motive. Talking to newspaper readers or getting their opinions through comments or other forums, I was often disturbed by their certainty that reporters and columnists approached every story with a preset agenda, and that agenda had been dictated by the paper. To be sure, I worked for the Wall Street Journal Online, and a lot of people incorrectly assumed (sometimes approvingly, sometimes not) that the Journal’s legendarily conservative editorial page also dictated the paper’s news coverage. But it wasn’t just politics at work: Many a story was viewed as part of some larger campaign waged by press barons.

A few years ago, I wrote a “Real Time” column wondering how booksellers on Amazon made money selling books for a penny. It was a fun column to research and write, and it left me simultaneously impressed by the doggedness of booksellers who actually made money this way and struck by the irony that for many of them, penny books weren’t a business model but an unintended and unwelcome consequence of a business model.

After the column ran, I was directed to a raging discussion of the article and the larger issue on a message board reserved for Amazon sellers. “It now seems the WSJ is placing blame on AMAZON and ebay for this problem of USED books causing a final depression in overall book market for publishers and authors,” one seller wrote, adding that “they must be getting letters from Authors, etc.  claiming foul play.  Industry conventions must have this problem of depressing prices by self motivated book sellers as a number one topic.”

Wrote another poster: “The WSJ can be very sneaky, and is probably exposiing these sellers motivation by letting these less than humble people dig their own graves. This is better than Desperate Housewifes.  Now I have to go to the library everyday to catch the next WSJ -vs- the used book business episode. The future of the USED book business is being played out in the WSJ – how fun is that.”

It was briefly a thrill to imagine myself as a secret agent in a clandestine war within the publishing industry, except I knew what my agenda for the column had been, and it wasn’t quite so lofty. In fact, it was the same one that motivated me every week: to have a column. Sure, I was happy that the story had turned out to be intriguing and proud that the column was pretty good, but mostly I was relieved that I had a couple of days to recharge before looking for the next column. And that was it. I hadn’t been summoned to some Dow Jones star chamber and given marching orders, or briefed by a shadowy cabal of publishing titans. My life wasn’t that interesting; I’d sat and typed and emailed and talked on the phone and tried not to procrastinate too horribly and hoped the story would work.

This isn’t to say reporters and papers can’t have agendas, of course — our most-dangerous biases are the ones we can’t see. But in this case the agenda and the motive were figments of paranoid booksellers’ imaginations. Mostly that was because they saw everything through their own narrow lens. But part of the problem was that news organizations were so closed. My column, like nearly all newspaper stories, “stood for itself.” And that helped imaginations run wild.

So how would a more-transparent process have changed things? Before the column came out, perhaps not much — for competitive reasons, I doubt I would have announced what I was working on. But later, a lively give-and-take with readers in a variety of settings might have made things different. (My co-writer and I offered a weekly roundup of edited emails called “Real Time Exchange,” and I did write a follow-up column after hearing from a bookseller who made a lot of money selling penny books. But the dialogue was a lot closer to letters to the editor than to a true discussion.)

If I wrote the Amazon column today, I certainly would have tweeted it, shared it on Facebook and hoped that it sparked an interesting debate among readers — readers whom I’d try to make part of a community around my column. Today, I’d figure out a way to post to the Amazon seller boards — in 2005 I was still caught up in the mentality that journalism was something orated from the mountain to readers, instead of a conversation. And I hope I’d see the column as part of an ongoing story, one that had begun long before I offered my take on it, and would need to be chronicled afterwards.

As part of those efforts, readers would have got a sense of me as a person and not just a mysterious byline. They would have learned what stories interested me and what topics I like to explore. And they probably would have guessed that no self-respecting star chamber would admit me.

3 Responses

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  1. Megan said, on July 3, 2009 at 10:13 am

    I’ve often felt that part of the confusion re: newspapers’ motivation stems from the fact that Everyman doesn’t understand the difference between the editorial page/outlook section and regular news articles. When I was editorial editor at my college paper, I can’t tell you how many letters to the editor we got about editorials that said “I thought newspapers were supposed to be unbiased!” (And we couldn’t figure out an appropriate way to start a conversation about the issue in the newspaper, constrained by some of the issues you mention above.) A label of “editorial” or “outlook” or “column” may seem obvious to newsy people, but the majority of Americans really don’t get that that is supposed to mean: “this is separate from our news coverage and should in no way be seen as influencing the angles of our news articles.”

    Here’s a question — why do newspapers do editorials, especially those in which the editorial board takes a stand in favor of a candidate or against a proposed ordinance or whathaveyou? Take that out and a lot of the confusion would be alleviated. There could still be an Outlook section allowing external contributors, which is IMO less confusing to readers. Instead of explaining over and over how the system works (which also assumes readers would accept the explanation), removing the reason for a lot of the accusations of bias would make a big difference.

    That said, I’m not sure how popular the editorial page is these days. I suppose if it’s really popular, then this idea would never fly.

  2. reinventingthenewsroom said, on July 6, 2009 at 8:34 am

    It’s a good point: We have a system that makes sense to us (“We’re unbiased except those one or two pages in the back of the first section, which are obviously different — and how dumb are you, Mr. Reader, that we have to keep explaining this?”) but not to readers (“At the end of the News section I flip to pages that you yourself admit are biased, so why do you get all huffy when I ask why I shouldn’t think the rest of that section is biased?”).

    I’m inclined to say that the reader’s point of view is fairly logical, and the newspaper point of view faintly crazy.

    Put another way, if you tossed 100+ years of newspaper tradition and started over (which is what a lot of papers are doing, one way or the other), would you include an editorial section? There are some interesting choices beyond the half-apple, half-orange way we do it now:

    * No editorial section. People can get opinion all over the Web; they need more of it from the local paper like they need another movie reviewer who happens to be based locally.

    * The paper is written from a clearly defined, unapologetically held point of view, trading supposed objectivity for transparency, with the editorial section part of that POV.

    Maybe people don’t like either of those starting points, but they seem clearer than the way we do it now.

  3. donfry said, on July 6, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    In 25 years of attending news meetings, I never heard a decision made on economic grounds, yet readers seem to think that all decisions are “made to sell newspapers.” News organizations should explain how they do things, although readers would probably find such discussions improbable. Newspapers are weird creatures.

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