Why the death of sentimentality in journalism is a very good thing – Washington Post (blog)

Washington Post editor Marty Baron gave a speech this week at the University of California, Riverside entitled: “Journalism’s Big Move: What to Discard, Keep, and Acquire in Moving From Print to Web.” You should read the whole speech. But one point in particular stood out to me.  Here’s Marty talking about the transformation from print to digital:

This is what I’ll call the Big Move. As we make this move, the first casualty is sentiment.

The forces at work don’t care about how we prefer to do our jobs, how easily we adjust to change, how much we have to learn. They don’t care about any extra workload.

This transformation is going to happen no matter what. And there is only one realistic choice available: We can do what we must to adapt and – ideally – thrive. Or not — in which case we are choosing to fail.

YES.  To all of that.

I have now worked in the purely (or at least mostly) digital space for almost a decade. (This fall will mark ten years of the Fix. Gulp.) In that time, which has encompassed the beginning and middle of the “Big Move” Marty is talking about, no phrase has driven me crazier than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  The truth of the matter, as Marty makes clear in his speech, is that the “way we’ve always done it” is failing.  Print circulation is down and the trend line suggests it ain’t coming back. Producing the same journalism in the same package we “always” have is a sure-fire path to failure.  We may not know much about journalism amidst all of this change, but we do know that.

Now, that isn’t to to say that the journalism that the Post was built on — think Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward and David Maraniss, to name three titans — should be discarded. That “throw the baby out with the bathwater” argument tends to be the default posture of people — journalists and others — who don’t like the direction that journalism is headed. No one who is serious about journalism thinks that deep reporting and narrative storytelling should disappear. It shouldn’t.  If you doubt me, just read Eli Saslow’s piece on the accident on the DC subway system or Maraniss on the aftermath of 9/11.

What we absolutely do need less of is the dutiful article that simply restates things that happened in the exact same way that 1 billion — that is a rough estimate — other people are already doing or have already done. Marking our territory simply to mark our territory is a thing of the past. In its place should be the creation of value-added analytical content the likes of which, I like to believe, places like the Fix and WonkBlog are doing for the Post. (Yes, it’s tremendously self serving to say we need more journalism like the kind I do, but, in one of the worst phrases ever, it is what it is. I happen to believe it’s true.)  Giving people interesting, shareable and, dare I say it, fun entry points into content they might not read if it was written in a more traditional article format is a good thing for journalism. It adds more people to the potential pool of news consumers — a virtuous cycle for any journalist who a) wants his or her content read and b) wants to stay employed as a journalist.

The good thing is that this isn’t an either/or proposition.  We don’t have to either choose to do deeply reported journalism or more web-native digital content. We can do both! And we should do both. Just like some reporters gravitate and excel at investigative journalism or data-driven journalism, we need to accept the fact that digital journalism is its own unique style with some people carrying a natural affinity for it.  So, not everyone has to write online and create the sort of shareable content that we know the Internet craves. But some people need to!

What I advocate for then is not an abandonment of the traditional way that news organizations approach the news but rather a slight reshuffling of priorities and resources.  If you split the news into three basic baskets — the “what”, the “so what” and the “now what” (this ingenious way of thinking about the news belongs to media genius Erik Rydholm) — the mainstream media has since, well, forever, spent most of its time, money and brainpower on the “what”. This happened, here’s what people say about it. The “so what” (why does this matter) and the “now what” (what comes next) have tended to be the sort of thing that columnists dealt with.  Yes, we would commission the occasional behind-the-scenes story on why some big bill passed — or didn’t — but, generally speaking, we didn’t prize the “so what” and the “now what” baskets nearly as much as the “what.”

That has been changing for the last five or so years as it has become  increasingly apparent that news consumers still want the news but, seconds later, also want to know what people they trust and respect think that news means and where that news will take a story next. The desire for the “so what” and “now what” happens almost simultaneously with the consumption of the initial news nugget. (To be clear: The initial news nugget — breaking news — is still the spine and backbone of all news organizations. Without the “what”, there is no “so what” or “now what.”)

Given that change in how people consume news, I think we journalists have to adjust accordingly. Let’s push more resources, time and smart thinking into the “so what” and “now what” baskets. It’s not only speaking to a need in the marketplace, it’s also a potentially powerful way for places like the Washington Post to distinguish itself amid the billions of pieces of content posted daily.  If we can be the home — or at least a home — to the best analysis of goings-on in politics, technology, sports and pop culture, that’s a powerful niche with unlimited growth potential.

As Marty said in his speech, the change in how people consume journalism has already happened. Our choice now is to adjust or wither.  The good news is we have already seen that smallish adjustments in the allocation of resources and time in the “what”, “so what” and “now what” baskets pays dividends.  It’s a path to the sort of future — serious journalism conducted by smart, engaged and thoughtful people — we all want to see.

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