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Dan Froomkin: Why “playing it safe” is killing American newspapers

[You probably know our friend Dan Froomkin as the man behind the terrific White House Watch on washingtonpost.com. We know him best from his other day job, deputy editor of our sister site, Nieman Watchdog. When Dan told me he had an essay he wanted to share with us on his prescription for the news industry, I knew it would be something our readers would enjoy. So this week, in four brief parts, Dan will diagnose a few problems, argue for more voice and perspective in our stories, and share his thoughts on how the business can move forward. —Josh]

We’re all in a state of despair these days over our inability to monetize our journalism online the way we’ve been used to doing in print.

A big part of the problem is that we’re doing a really poor job of connecting buyers and sellers on our newspaper Web sites. Solving that problem should be the top priority for the folks on the business and technology sides of our business.

But some of our shortcomings are purely journalistic. We need to come to terms with the fact that one reason we’re having such a tough time is that we are still fundamentally failing to deliver the value of our newsroom to Internet users.

Our reporters and editors are curious, passionate, and voracious discoverers and devourers of information; talented storytellers; and smart people with excellent bullshit detectors. As long as human beings are curious about each other and clamor for trusted information, there’s a place for us out there. The Internet hasn’t changed that. In fact it’s increased the market for what we’ve got: The Internet highly values people who know things, who can find things out, who can distinguish between what’s important and what’s not, who can distinguish between what’s true and what’s not, and who can communicate succinctly and effectively.

But we’re hiding much of our newsrooms’ value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations. While the dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story still has some marginal utility, it’s mostly a throwback at this point — a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community. (For instance, it’s the daily delivery cycle of our print product that led us to focus on yesterday’s news. And it’s the focus on maximizing newspaper circulation that drove us to create the notion of “objectivity” — thereby removing opinion and voice from news stories — for fear of alienating any segment of potential subscribers.)

The Internet doesn’t work on a daily schedule. But even more importantly, it abhors the absence of voice. There’s a reason why opinion writing tends to dominate the most-read lists on our “news” sites. Indeed, what we’ve seen is that Internet communities tend to form around voices — informed, passionate, authoritative voices in particular. (No one wants to read a bored blogger, I always say.)

If we were to start an online newspaper from scratch today, we’d recognize that toneless, small-bore news stories are not the way to build a large audience — not even with “interactive” bells and whistles cobbled on top. One option might be to imitate cable TV, and engage in a furious volume of he-said/she-said reporting, voyeurism, contrarianism, gossip, triviality and gotcha journalism. But that would come at the cost of our souls. The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.

Obviously, we do some of that already. But I would argue that even then, we do so in a much too understated way. We stifle some of our best stories with a wet blanket of pseudo-neutrality. We edit out tone. We banish anything smacking of activism. We don’t telegraph our own enthusiasm for what it is we’re doing. We vaguely assume the readers will understand how valuable a service we’re providing for them — but evidently, many of them don’t.

Tomorrow: Why he-said-she-said journalism doesn’t serve readers.

Photo by J.D. Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
Previously proudly without a homepage, the business site is trying to shift its email success to the web to build loyalty.
  • Sara

    An example of why I always follow what you have to say, Dan! I’m excited to read the rest of your stories on this.

  • http://networkednews.wordpress.com/ Josh Young

    The reason the web abhors voice is that voice provides very useful context, which is critical given that news is what economists call an “experience good.” Voice builds valuable trust between journalists and readers. And, yes, journalists are late to the game in realizing this, in large part because the bygone dead-tree world gave them trust for free, as I explain here:

    http://networkednews.wordpress.com/2009/05/23/not-by-links-alone-google-news-experience-good/

  • Greg Gross

    Jeb–

    If what you say about “voice” is true — and I believe it is — why would the web “abhor” voice?

    It’s not the web that abhors voice. It’s the anachronistic, mentally arthritic and calcified executives in charge of America’s newspapers who abhor it, to their own demise. They’ve been made timid after years of being browbeaten over the false issue of “bias.”

    It’s that timidity that has rendered newspapers null and void in the face of changing technology and a changing audience.

  • http://networkednews.wordpress.com/ Josh Young

    Ahem, please excuse the typo, but I meant to write, “The reason the web abhors *the absence of* voice is that voice provides very useful context….”

  • Michael Hill

    While I agree with much of what you say, this is not a diagnosis of newspapers’ problems. The fact is, no matter how boring they might be, they get more eyeballs than ever. Their product is in great demand. It’s just that nobody has figured out the post-classified online business model. That’s the real problem, not boring, incremental stories.

  • Joey

    I’d hardly call Sam Zell’s totally irrational cash-flow projections when he bought Tribune Co. playing it safe– and that, more than anything else, is what forced Tribune into bankruptcy, ruined the reputation of stellar newspapers, and wrecked the lives and livelihoods of innumerable good reporters and other media professionals.

    I see your broader point, of course. But let’s remember that the biggest threat to newspapers is still idiocy in the CFO’s office, not timidity in the newsroom.

  • http://www.topiccentral.com Terry Steichen

    Dan,

    You seem to be saying that if reporters add more personal opinion to their writing (which is what I think you “voice”) and do so more overtly, that the articles will have a greater appeal to a broader audience. You also seem to suggest that, if individual articles can be made more appealing, that this will significantly help to resolve newspaper problems.

    If that is indeed what you meant, I strongly disagree on both points.

    While attempting to conceal a bias under a false appearance of neutrality does hurt the articles’ quality, making a reporter’s bias explicit would seem to me to make things even worse. Obviously biased news articles (whether overt or not) appeal mainly to a (usually smallish) segment comprised of “like-minded” people, (As an aside, I firmly believe that a skilled and ethical reporter be capable of setting aside their personal biases to write a truly neutral article.)

    I would go further and argue that even significantly improving the quality of a site’s news articles (better writing, editing, more depth and breadth, more credible authors), would likely expand costs much more significantly than it would increase traffic.

    What I think is being lost in much of the discussion on newspapers, is the simple fact that a “news” consumer, per se, is seeking “news,” not discrete news articles. A “news” customer is seeking collective information about important events occurring in an area of interest to him/her. Sure, they want to be able to “drill down” and read specific news articles for details, but that doesn’t make the news articles any more equivalent to the “news” than a bunch of bricks are equivalent to the house they belong to.

    Online “news” consumers get their “news” in various ways, besides entering a newspaper site’s “front door.” They can get “news” via news aggregators (ala, Google News), blogs (which have their own ideas on what’s important), and rss feed readers (where many of the feeds come from the newspaper sites themselves). When these “news” consumers click on an article link, all they (usually) want are the details in the linked article.

    Online search consumers are generally not looking for “news” per se, but for specific information. When these “search” consumers click on an article link, they also want the details offered in the article (rather than some broader “news” context).

    IMHO, a core problem for the newspaper sites is that, by the time a “back door” visitor has arrived at their site, the “news” context originally created by the newspaper, has been stripped away (along with all the ad impressions and reference to other articles in the “news”). At this point, loading up the individual articles with “news-related” links would probably be a waste (and more clutter). Such links would probably have little appeal to such visitors (given what they’ve already seen and why they clicked in the first place).

    But hooking into the interest of the “back door” visitor is absolutely crucial if the newspaper is to continue to function as a purveyor of “news.”

  • World Herald Tribune Chronicle

    A journalist’s bias is toward reporting the truth, no matter how awkward and uncomfortable it might make some people. Any “objectivity” that requires uncritically reporting one side’s claim that down is up, even when the other side is demonstrably correct in claiming up is up, is phony at its core. In the grander scheme such reporting is a detriment to democracy.

    One of the greatest successes of the conservative moment of the past 30-odd years has been its ability to paint the mainstream press as “liberal” and to cast any reporting that did not include its point of view as “unbalanced” and not “objective.” Rather than defend the nature of reporting as exposing truth, many publishers and editors found it easier and safer to commit the journalistic malpractice of he-said/she-said reporting.

    While that attack was effective at the conscious level, subconsciously the attack on “liberal media” has had a more pernicious effect long term, affecting more than just perceived objectivity but credibility itself. Now doubt can be cast on the truthfulness of any reporting, not just reporting that leaves out a conservative point of view. Over time, the reputations of newspapers and other news media have been sullied to where we are today, with a poisoned atmosphere that assumes nefarious biases from every dark corner of every newsroom. (Not to say that newspapers haven’t abetted in sullying themselves; see Judith Miller and Jayson Blair for starters.)

    Dan is right, the road back for newspapers lies in pursuit of the truth, making residents feel the paper is an advocate for them.

    Maybe a more spare, less prosaic writing style is needed. It would lay bare the facts that form the truth of the reporting, while being more easily “consumed” from any kind of gizmo.

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  • Paul Vitello

    It would be a mistake for newspapers to abandon their role as neutral observers of an increasingly physical game of partisan news-spinning. If you think the extreme political gridlock of gerrymandered Congressional and state-legislative systems are bad, wait until you see an all-”voice” all-the-time mainstream media. Echo chamber journalism is ultimately predictable and profoundly boring. Passion is fine, but let’s be passionate about getting it right, and putting it straight. That’s by far the harder, more valued work.

  • http://McClatchyDC.com Mark Seibel

    We ought not to be “neutral observers” of the game of news spinning, we should be its referees. Too often, though, we’re not willing to call the fouls.

  • Paul Vitello

    Yes. Referees, then. A better analogy.

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  • Johnny

    Here’s why I cancelled the two newspapers I subscribed to, I didn’t believe they told me the truth and I was sick of subsidizing the lunacy of their editorial pages.

    I read so much hand wringing about why the newspapers are going out of business and whose fault it is. What seems to never be addressed is what a shoddy product the papers put out.

    The Washington Post and the New York Times, two supposedly liberal papers, both lead the drumbeat to the war in Iraq. They both cheerled Bush into the White House and they both did everything they could to tear down the Clinton presidency. All of this was done not only through dishonest editorial perspectives but lazy and dishonest reporting.

    You couldn’t pay me to subscribe to any of the major papers in the country today. The newspapers are putting themselves out of business. They are neither reliable or relevant.

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  • http://twitter.com/SpaceyG Grayson Daughters

    While the AJC’s print version is going through drastic, er, “changes” some of the AJC.com online “meat” is beginning to sizzle on the grill. Two reporter/bloggers standout as their blogs are immensely popular, dynamic, and interactive: Jim Galloway (politics) and Mark Bradley (sports/Braves baseball).

    What’s terribly interesting, to those of us who continually trod and watch these shifting media sands, is that both blogs are commanded by old-school newsmen… seasoned, serious beat reporters who were likely dragged kicking and screaming to the blogging/online arena.

    Once they “got it” though they obviously decided to own their social media-driven space. Both are avid Twitterites, for example; and they carefully, personally monitor the vibrant, real-time conversations taking place at any given moment on their blogs.

    In other words, they are behaving just as Froomkin says a contemporary journalist should… they ‘seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories.’

    If I was headed out to buy ad space on AJC.com, or recommending where a client should, I know exactly where I’d insist on the ad placement – on the online real estate being carefully cultivated by adaptable and reliable journalists such as Bradley and Galloway.

  • http://solarray.blogspot.com gmoke

    Clay Shirkey: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for.

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  • Alan Barbour

    I think another really big problem is that professional print journalists have a truly romantic view of the quality of their collective work. What passes for news reporting and analysis in the daily papers is really pretty poor stuff, and the public at some level understands that. Leaving aside the typographical errors, ignorance of basic science and history are on regular display, as well as unspoken assumptions that are tantamount to propaganda.

    There are some areas in which the daily newspaper will never be challenged by the Internet; without daily print newspapers we would have to find something else to wrap fish, put in the bottom of paper trash bags, and spread on the kitchen countertop to soak up grease spatters while cooking. On the other hand, with the new-fangled inks the newspapers aren’t much good for polishing lamp chimneys or windows any more, and we got used to that.

  • Bill Jones

    I’ve long thought that the way the old media spins the news “both sides of the story” is ludicrous.
    There are probably three sides at least.
    1. What actually happened
    2. What party A would like you to think happened.
    3. What party B would like you to think happened.
    etc.

    Journalism should be primarily concerned with 1.

    It’s been hi-jacked by 2 and 3.

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