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May 26, 2009, 8 a.m.

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.

POSTED     May 26, 2009, 8 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Dan Froomkin on news' future
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