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Oct. 17, 2008, 2:54 p.m.

Mixing it up in the comments

A typically smart piece from Mindy McAdams on the emotional relationship between reporters and their readers, and on the demise of “story.”

On the first point, I think she gets at something important about why so many reporters react in horror at the comments left on their stories. Reporters feel powerless when their work is attacked in the comments, fairly or unfairly, because they’re taught not to respond. How many times have you seen a reporter actually engaging with readers in the comments on their story?

Reporters are given one very powerful pulpit from which to speak — their byline — and are then taught they can’t engage in human conversation about their work in any other forum. In some ways, I think the hesitance to engage is an extension of the rules that limit political activity for reporters and editors. They both come from the same ethos: You get one outlet for your voice (your story), and anything other mode of expression is asking for trouble.

On the second point, I don’t share with Mindy’s worry that moving away from the story-centric model of journalism will kill storytelling:

I am loath to say the story is dead, because humans have been telling stories to one another as a way to make sense of the world since long before we planted seeds in the soil and began to build houses. Stories give us a way to understand different people and places and to calm our fears about them. Stories help us learn how to do new things. Stories enable us to dream, inspire us to reach beyond what we can grasp. Without stories, we would be poorer.

I don’t think it’s “the story” that is primed for the guillotine. It’s “the newspaper story.” Or “the TV news story,” or what have you. It’s the set of boxes our ancestors (James Fenton’s “horrible old men”) created for us as the sole vessels of our journalism. When those give way to better models — or, more accurately, to a variety of models, old and new — they’ll still have narrative arcs and fulfill the primal storytelling urge.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Oct. 17, 2008, 2:54 p.m.
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