Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Oct. 25, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

As Occupy Wall Street evolves, news sites find it “a great opportunity for web journalism”

How the movement shifted in the media’s eyes from “just another protest” to a broad-based subject for news coverage.

Foster Kamer does not enjoy covering protests.

Kamer, a senior editor at the New York Observer, recounted a recent conversation he had with Jack Shafer, the Reuters media columnist, about this very issue. “He was talking about how he abhorred protest coverage,” Kamer told me in a recent phone conversation. “And I found that to be the case with a lot of alt weekly editors. That was my experience with [Village Voice editor] Tony Ortega. Any time we covered a protest it would drive him up the [gosh darned] wall. The thinking was: ‘So people are angry about something — what next?’ And so the instinct I’ve been trained to have, always — and I think it’s a lot of reporters’ instinct — is that protests are generally a non-news item.”

Luckily, when the idea was floated to cover the people who had begun gathering in Zuccotti Park, Adrianne Jeffries, who normally writes for the Observer’s BetaBeat, jumped at the chance to go. “She just thought it was intensely interesting,” he said. “She was down there from day one.”

The feedback was almost immediate. Since, at that time, the Observer was one of the only outlets covering Occupy Wall Street, it had something close to a monopoly on the news emerging from it. And from the very beginning it became evident that readers were intensely curious about the then-fledgling movement. When, on Oct. 1, a group of protestors tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, an event that led to over 700 arrests and widespread accusations of police abuse, national media outlets suddenly flocked to the story. Traffic to the Observer’s website spiked. “Normally, when you sit on a story” — in the sense of filing several follow-up articles on a particular news item — “there are two ways it can go,” Kamer said. “It’s either the law of diminishing returns, or the story gets bigger.”

This was obviously a case of the latter. “The closer you are at the center of it, and the less oversaturated the field is, the more your results grow.”

At this writing, if you visit the New York Observer’s website, four of the five most popular stories are Occupy Wall Street-related. Gawker has written 25 posts on the movement in the last week. It’s impossible to open up my Twitter or Facebook feed without seeing new Occupy Wall Street developments. Google News clocks 42,000 mentions in the last week (a search for “Tea Party” yields half as many mentions).

Given that protesters originally accused the media of ignoring Occupy Wall Street, why is it now showing such a strong interest? And is there enough of a market for news emerging from the protests to justify that interest?

Kamer used the term “spiderwebbing” to describe the myriad ways that journalistic outlets could cover OWS. “It’s like when you crack a piece of glass on a car windshield, and one pebble will cause all these different lines and cracks,” he said.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, there were the initial protesters, which by themselves only represented a small portion of the larger narrative. When the arrests occurred, suddenly there were these new characters: the police. Once the story gained steam, journalists were then free to approach it from a variety of angles: the protesters, the police, the Wall Street executives, the celebrities visiting the protests, taxation policy, and, eventually, the presidential race. And as the protests spread to dozens of cities, there were suddenly dozens of local angles, generating coverage in more regional outlets.

Bob Cohn, the online editor for The Atlantic, told me that 10 percent of the publication’s top 100 posts for the month of October concern Occupy Wall Street — by far the largest concentration of any one topic. “The full range of the digital vocabulary — videos, slide shows, text articles — is doing pretty well,” he said. “I think it’s a complete reflection of reader interest.”

Growing coverage from media outlets, Cohn said, also signals the evolution of Occupy Wall Street from a single protest to a genuine movement. He believes that many journalists were surprised when it gained legs — three to four weeks ago nobody would have been able to predict that the coverage would have blossomed into what it is today. And part of the reason news outlets are seeing so much traction on it is because it’s a movement that lends itself well to the Internet. “I think this kind of fast-moving story from city to city really is tailor-made for web coverage,” he explained. “On the other hand I’m certain that for many print publications there’s tremendous opportunity for long-form print coverage. But in the early days it’s so dynamic; it’s a great opportunity for web journalism.”

For Mike Alissi, the publisher of the libertarian magazine Reason, protests have always been a rich source of content. Back in July, the magazine generated a substantial amount of buzz when one of its correspondents confronted the actor Matt Damon at an education rally in Washington, D.C. The publisher estimated that Reason has put out over 30 videos in the last month about Occupy Wall Street, and they include the top four most-viewed for the month (even Remy, a popular YouTube artist, contributed one for the magazine). “Once the various rallies got going, it was obvious that it was very interesting to us to better understand what was going on, to understand the various objectives to the extent of who’s participating in these things and what they’re after,” he said.

“We find all protests to be sexy,” he said. “This isn’t necessarily more sexy than any number of other protests. We found the Tea Party to be very interesting. We’re interested in any political rally that is taking place to understand who’s behind it or who’s participating in it and trying to talk to the real people involved to get a better perspective. Maybe many others in the media are caught up in this one more than the others but we find them all to be worth covering.”

Of course, the Observer’s Foster Kamer likely wouldn’t agree with this notion. And though Kamer admitted that this protest did seem to be an exception, he didn’t rule out the possibility that media coverage of Occupy Wall Street could become oversaturated. “We have to be careful, now that every other outlet is on the story, not to become part of the saturation,” he said. “And not to participate in the law of diminishing returns.”

To underscore that, he pointed me to a piece the Observer published on October 12 offering “50 Portraits from Occupy Wall Street.” It went beyond a simple photograph slideshow by providing quotes and biographical information on its subjects. On October 14, only two days later, The New Yorker published its own slideshow, offering quotes and information on its participants. Even the title was similar: “Portraits From Occupy Wall Street.” Perhaps the angles from which to cover the movement are limited, after all.

Photo by Chris Rojas used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 25, 2011, 11:30 a.m.
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