Tuesday, October 19, 2004

What is news

Bloggers are setting the standards to what is news and what isn't. What the traditional journalists believe not to be news, the online bloggers and readers believe it is. Which means the traditional media is going to have to re-evaluate its news standards and find out what their readers are interested in or perish. It's get with the game or get out. Bloggers are churning out what readers want to read, while journalists are looking at the work and calling it everything but revolutonary.

Beat reporters could be the secret weapon of newspaper Web sites.Their potential is unrealized as long as they're working only in the print world -- and the online world needs their wisdom.After all, covering a beat isn't just about producing an endless stream of incremental stories, punctuated by the occasional six-part series. It's about a deep, full-bodied understanding of the subject or area at hand.But at most newspapers, readers don't get nearly enough exposure to that expertise.Meanwhile, on the Web, we've long realized the value of FAQs, primers and timelines. They work well in newspapers, but they perform even better on the Web, where they can be enhanced with images, be made multi-dimensional with links, can be expanded, collapsed and augmented by readers and -- most importantly -- where they don't get thrown in the recycling bin after one short day of life.Primers, FAQs and timelines may not be the newest or fanciest tools in our toolbox, but readers love them. One big reason: Deprived by these formats of the ability to hide behind incremental news pegs, anecdotal leads or flowery prose, their authors have no choice but to explain themselves forthrightly and with authority.We just don't do them very often, because they're really hard to do. Or at least, they're really hard for online producers and editors to do.

Enter: The Beat Reporter Only beat reporters can produce primers, FAQs and timelines with relative ease.There are, of course, plenty of reasons why this doesn't happen more frequently. Primers, FAQs and timelines are time-consuming, even for the most knowledgeable beat reporter. They can frustrate the flow of daily, incremental copy. Lacking a news peg, they are less likely to get a front-page byline. And there are still some newsroom managers -- and some newsroom union leaders -- who frown on doing anything that is considered primarily for online's benefit.
ut there's something in this for newspaper reporters, editors, and readers, too.Primers, FAQs and timelines offer beat reporters a great way to share the breadth of their knowledge with their readers -- while at the same time demonstrating their authority to their sources.Say you're writing a primer about the town you cover -- or about a topic on a beat like the environment. A good primer is sweeping in scope. It identifies and describes the big challenges in your chosen area. It offers you a chance to share your hard-won expertise in a more effective and expressive way than the daily, reactive, incremental story -- or even the occasional trend story.Primers also force reporters to state the obvious -- which is often left strikingly unstated in the hurly-burly of daily journalism. For instance, how often does your newspaper describe the social, economic and racial stratification that is, inevitably, one of the most defining aspects of daily life in your communities?Timelines, for their part, require us to know how we got to where we are. Beat reporters should know that -- and if they aren't sure, or if there are large gaps in their knowledge, well, then, building a timeline is just what the doctor ordered.FAQs require reporters to identify and ponder the important questions -- and ideally ask readers what they are curious or worried about. FAQs can even force reporters to acknowledge that there are questions for which they don't have the answers.(In fact, I think we should not just be doing FAQs, but Frequently Unanswered Questions -- or maybe even Frequently Unasked Questions. But the acronym is ... problematic.)

Next Steps for Newsrooms
As I wrote in my last essay for OJR, in many newsrooms, newspaper reporters are now filing on our clock, and that's a huge victory. But they're still not filing on our terms.A lot of the things I would like folks in print newsrooms to start doing for online -- narrating photo essays, adding Web links, shooting video, creating blogs -- don't necessarily provide a lot of obvious, immediate return to the newspaper itself. Maybe they are a bit too risky for some managers out there.So it seems to me that primers, FAQs and timelines -- written by beat reporters and edited by their regular editors -- are the obvious next step for newsrooms to take, because they are perfectly adapted to the new medium while still serving the newspaper.

Some Connections

I have a theory about why newspaper circulation is down. It's not so much the Internet or demographics -- at least not in and of themselves.I think it's at least in part because newspapers have failed to give readers evidence that reporters really know the community, least of all care about it. That used to be a given, decades ago.Similarly, newspapers have failed to showcase how deeply knowledgeable and caring their reporters are about the issues they cover.And in the absence of evidence of that sort of connection, readers feel free to drift away, either to ignorance or to commoditized news on the likes of Yahoo.Primers, FAQs and timelines -- particularly if they are produced in a way that encourages and responds to reader input -- can reestablish the bond that once existed between newspapers and their readers. And it was that bond, I believe, that made newspapers essential, more even than the news.

Here is an idea that will make newspapers better, make Web sites stronger and maybe even be an antidote to declining circulation. What's wrong with that? Stop hiding your secret weapons. Deploy them!


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