HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Controlled chaos: As journalism and documentary film converge in digital, what lessons can they share?
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
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
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Controlled chaos: As journalism and documentary film converge in digital, what lessons can they share?
Old and new media types from journalism, documentary, and technology backgrounds gathered at MIT to share practices and discuss mutual concerns.
The near future of First Look’s next site, Racket, looks fuzzy
The site, promised as a “satirical approach to American politics and culture,” was set to launch this month, but now it’s unclear when or if it’ll get off the ground.
The newsonomics of the Sun-Times national/local network play
The company behind Chicago’s No. 2 newspaper wants to go national on the cheap. Can it succeed where Patch and others have failed?
What to read next
1020
tweets
The newsonomics of the millennial moment
The new wave of news startups is aiming at a younger audience. But do legacy media companies have a chance at earning their attention?
803A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
The two apps were part of the paper’s plan to increase digital subscribers through smaller, targeted offerings. Now, with staff cutbacks on the way, one app is being shuttered and the other is being adjusted.
413The new Vox daily email, explained
The company’s newsletter, Vox Sentences, enters an increasingly crowded inbox. Can concise writing and smart aggregation on the day’s news help expand their audience?
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
The Batavian
IRE/NICAR
National Review
Tucson Citizen
Mother Jones
FactCheck.org
The Tyee
Newser
Patch
Politico
National Journal
Bloomberg