Last weekend New York Times editor Bill Keller spoke at Boston University’s 2010 narrative conference, and offered a rigorous defense of long-form stories. (As well as saying the Times wants to “kick the shit out of Rupert Murdoch.” Well then.)
As I’ve written before, I’m on Keller’s side in this one: I maintain that there will be renewed interest in long-form journalism, principally because it’s hard to copy or briefly summarize. Yet, for all that, I think Keller’s attempts to shoot down three “perceived existential threats” to narrative writing missed the mark a bit. (Caveats: I’d expect Keller to be in rally-the-troops mode at such a conference, and I’m not working off his actual remarks.)
Keller’s first threat: the decline of publishing and economic stresses that have shrunk newsrooms and dumbed down copy. His proof that this isn’t true is the Times’ collaboration with ProPublica on its Pulitzer-winning investigative story of death in post-Katrina New Orleans. I’m glad that wonderful story exists, and applaud ProPublica’s work not just to tell great stories but to create great tools for other news organizations. But if I’d told you 10 years ago that the Times would win a Pulitzer in partnership with a non-profit news organization, your reaction probably wouldn’t have been, “What a great new avenue for journalism!” Rather, I bet it would have been something along the lines of “What’s happened that the Times needs to partner with someone?” ProPublica exists because the Sandlers saw that accountability journalism was imperiled.
Keller’s second threat is the idea that people don’t read anymore, a statement made two years ago by Steve Jobs. Keller notes that the Times’ long-form stories are mainstays of the paper’s list of most emailed articles, and gets off a great line to that effect: “Not only has the Web not killed narrative, but it’s pushed it out to people who don’t have home delivery.” Now, laying this at Jobs’s feet is good for an ironic twist, given the hopes people have for the iPad, but it’s worth remembering that Jobs made those comments as part of an attack on the Kindle. Denigrating not just a product but an entire product category is pretty much SOP for Jobs when a new Apple product has reached the twinkle-in-his-eye phase. And while I stubbornly maintain people will read great stories in any medium — ink, pixels, skywriting, cuneiform — it is true that the Web has made people into ruthless readers, with fingers hovering over the back button. As Keller notes, the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook all encourage more intimate, leisurely reading, but they aren’t going to unwind that basic ruthlessness.
Keller’s third threat is that crowdsourcing and user-generated content is degrading newspapers’ authority. Here, I think Keller undermined his case by saying that “if I need my appendix out, I’m not going to go to a citizen surgeon.” That’s a lazy metaphor that Keller’s too smart for: A lot of journalism isn’t surgery. I wouldn’t go to a citizen surgeon, but I do rely on some very talented citizen journalists for my Brooklyn news, and while I like the Times’ Mets beat writer, citizen journalists are my first stop for Mets news. (Heck, I’m one of them.) Those are parts of the Times franchise where professional journalists have been superseded and must share authority, respectively. And saying Wikipedia and Digg can’t compare to a writer’s voice that “no algorithm can imitate” is pretty wide of the mark — people are the engine that drives Wikipedia and Digg.
I don’t mean to make too much of this: I agree with Keller in most respects. But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and only succeeds — regardless of the medium — in the hands of expert practitioners. Newsrooms are smaller, people read ruthlessly online, and plenty of terrific writing and even reporting is being created by people outside the traditional journalism ranks. In championing long-form narrative, we need to keep these things in mind.
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Speaking of long-form narrative, here’s something I wrote at Faith and Fear in Flushing about the untimely death of my neighbor’s brother, and what I discovered sorting through his baseball-card collection. Hope you like it.
Poynter’s Bill Mitchell has a must-read on side-bet businesses that could help news organizations through their current woes.
For those who think this is something new, Mitchell passes along Michael Schudson’s observation that American newspapers got their start as advertisements for printers who made their money printing other things — as well as by offering postal services and serving as general stores. And he notes that today, the Washington Post gets the majority of its revenue from Kaplan, its education business.
Of course, few news organization are likely bets for launching test-prep behemoth, but smaller papers have done well with smaller ventures: The Pocono Record’s editor tells Mitchell that the paper does a nice side business selling reprints of photos taken at sporting events and festivals by the paper’s photographers. (Because the photo galleries are posted online, they also give the Record a nice traffic bump.) An Alaska TV station runs airplane flights and fishing trips. And lots of specialty news organizations offer special reports or host meetings.
Mitchell offers three considerations for news organizations considering such side-bet ventures. At the top of his list: “consistency with the organization’s values.”
Agreed — to which I’d add a wrinkle. To me, the core values of every news organization should include serving as a key member of a community and as a collection point/repository for information about that community. (Though not necessarily the sole such repository or the core of that community.) I think news organizations have accelerated their decline by losing sight of this mission, through cutbacks that have damaged their institutional memory and fetishizing empty traffic numbers that accompanied oft-meaningless “reach.” Some side-bet businesses of the sort discussed by Mitchell would simultaneously bring in more money and reinvigorate news organizations’ role in their communities.
The Pocono Record’s photo galleries bring in money, but I’d argue they’re also a community resource, a digital expansion of “refrigerator journalism” as discussed by Roy Peter Clark in the comments on this post. And I’d say the same thing about other side-bet businesses that connect readers with local businesses, particularly if they’re constructed to make the news organization a valuable middleman.
My folks have a summer house in Maine, and one of their local papers there is the Lincoln County News. Like the Record, the News posts photo galleries from local events and sells reprints. It also has Web forms for submitting events, birth announcements and news of engagements and weddings. For those who think small local papers are just shovelware, there are a lot of great, community-friendly features here. What else could the News do? A next step might be to tie together wedding announcements with local caterers, wedding planners, and the like, link birth announcements with florists, and so on. Tie the food/dining section in with reader reviews and location-based services. Instead of just linking to restaurants’ Web sites, offer to build or improve restaurant Web sites — or any potential advertiser, for that matter. Then the paper gets a cut of referrals. (You’d have to be careful, of course: Restaurant reviews, for example, couldn’t be dictated by business relationships. But bright lines have always had to be drawn, and small towns have always been webs of personal and business connections.)
For a local news organization that built itself out in this way, the business of news might seem secondary on the balance sheet: The organization would be a Web consultancy, photo service, community bulletin board and partner with many local businesses that also had some journalists on staff, raising the question of which business is the side bet. But from one point of view — a critical one for paying the bills — news has always been secondary, the stuff around the ads meant to connect businesses with local customers. All of these connections would support the news organization’s mission of participating in and supporting a community — just as those long-ago print shops provided valuable services to local businesses and individuals, sold useful items, served as a gathering place and even printed some news.
The latest attempt to summarize the challenges facing newspapers and recommend a course of action is out, with the alarm bells being sounded this time by veteran media executive Penelope Muse Abernathy and former McKinsey director Richard Foster.
The study (linked from Bill Mitchell’s overview as a PDF) struck me as a fairly familiar overview, though the writer/editor in me appreciated that it’s admirably succinct, and written with a welcome bite. (And I laughed out loud at the examination of Hindu and Judeo-Christian demises.) Certainly Abernathy and Foster find the right targets and hit them hard.
For instance, they nail the industry’s major disadvantages in the digital era:
- the high cost of printing and distribution
- the loss of geographically protected market dominance
- the loss of high-margin advertising to online competitors
And their proposed plan of action seems sound as well:
- shed legacy costs as quickly as possible
- recreate community online in an effort to regain pricing leverage
- build new online ad revenue streams
For me the best section of the plan is the one concerned with community, particularly how it’s defined and how it should be approached. A theme of the report is that news organizations keep using new digital tools in an effort to repurpose old models, when they ought to be reinventing things from the ground up. For instance, Abernathy and Foster note that pre-digital newspapers aggregated content and defined community largely based on geographical and political boundaries, but the new aggregators — search engines and commerce sites — do so around special interests. That simple, essential shift may be obvious to Web-business types, but I think it’s a blind spot for newspaper veterans.
Their advice: Rebuild newspapers around specialized audiences and communities (including hyperlocal), instead of continuing to try and reach a single mass audience or community. Start with niche audiences that papers are already serving. Become their aggregators, and customize stories for them — for example, instead of writing one big story about the health-care debate, write different versions tailored for those different specialty audiences. Such reinvented papers, they say, might be able to charge advertisers a premium to reach those communities, and charge customers for unique information.
An interesting point I hadn’t encountered before is that Abernathy and Foster say there’s a precedent for this — magazines responded to the threat posed by television by migrating to serve specialized niches or interest groups and charging advertisers a premium to reach them. Newspapers, on the other hand, have largely reached for eyeballs, putting themselves in competition with better aggregators such as Google.
There are some rather searing quotes in the report. Here’s one: “Unless news organizations simultaneously invest in re-imagining and re-inventing the online edition, there is no transformation of the traditional newspaper and the industry dies with its aging loyal readers, who pay an ever-increasing price to receive the ‘last’ printed copy of the newspaper.”
Ouch. And the report is nicely short on Pollyanna-ism, as this warning makes plain: “[a]n enterprising executive may accomplish all three goals … and not achieve the operating margins typical of news companies in the last quarter of the 20th century, since those profit levels were largely the result of being de facto geographic monopolies.”
Abernathy and Foster are sympathetic to companies that know they need to change, but find those changes difficult to implement. As an example of how to escape that trap, they cite Intel, and its change from making DRAMs to microprocessors. That difficult transition was finally made, they write, when Gordon Moore and Andy Grove asked themselves a brutally simple question: “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”
It’s a good question. Here’s hoping it gets newspaper executives nodding, and causes them to take action.