2. It serves as a sort of catch-all to resist change. Obviously, it's important to maintain the journalistic standards that places like The Washington Post were built on. But too often, the idea that "we never used to do this stuff" is used to defend a lack of willingness to simply try new methods of storytelling or acknowledge the realities of the rise of digital journalism and how it's changed our world.
3. The way we've always done things isn't working from a business perspective. Anyone who can read a line chart can understand that fact. Like this one.
I bring all of this up because of a new piece in the New York Times that takes on the idea that the chase for page views and eyeballs in the modern journalistic age has created a depressing sameness of content and a lack of the sort of in-depth reporting that most people got into the profession for. Here's the key line from the piece:
Since the days when most major cities supported multiple newspapers, the news media has long been subject to groupthink, and prone to search for sensation. But as more readers move toward online social networks, and as publishers desperately seek scale to bring in revenue, many have deplored a race toward repetitive, trivial journalism, so noisy that it drowns out more considered work.
The piece compares the creation of this allegedly ephemeral content to eating a bag of Doritos; it scratches an itch in the moment but just isn't any good for you. To which Kevin Merida, the managing editor of The Washington Post, says this: “I like Doritos. We’re in the business of people reading our work. If we were to ignore the information that people are talking about, we would be news snobs.”
I like Doritos, too. I also like a steak. And chicken fingers. And Brussels sprouts. (For real, I do.) And yogurt.
You get the idea. Liking Doritos doesn't preclude liking other, better-for-you options too. To suggest that it's all one or all the other suggests that people are entirely one-dimensional in their consumption habits; either you like Doritos and eat them every day all day or you don't. There's no in-between.
Which, of course, isn't true. Yes, I cover politics for a living. I also am married to a field hockey coach and follow that sport really closely. I love professional wrestling. (RIP Rowdy Roddy.) I listen to lots and lots of music. I read about parenting. And so on and so forth. I am just like most everyone else I meet — interested in knowing a lot about a lot. Caring about Kanye and Kierkegaard. (Okay, I care more about Kanye. But still.)
As a news organization, your goal should be to make sure you are providing content not only for for all sorts of people but also for one person who might want to read about Morgan Freeman's granddaughter being stabbed to death one minute and the White House's fight against heroin the next.
We need to do all of the above. To ignore writing stories that we know — through Facebook, Google news or other tools — people want to read is (a) dumb and (b) remarkably snobby. (Sidebar: To do ONLY those sorts of stories would be a massive mistake.)
The idea that writing about things we know people are interested in reading about somehow is a bastardization of journalism makes no sense. It's the same "sell out" name-calling that comes when a small-time band hits it big. How dare they sell their music to a larger audience and be rewarded for doing their job well!
We have ways of monitoring what people are and want to be reading today that we didn't have even 10 years ago. It's my strong belief that if we had had those tools a decade ago, we would be using them just like we are using them today: As guideposts for what is being talked about. Not as an assignment editor but as suggestions to look into.
Take the Fix. Our guiding principle is that we want to be writing about the stories people are interested in and talking about in politics. Today — and for much of the last six weeks — that story has been Donald Trump. We don't just write "Donald Trumps said x thing in Iowa." We instead do smart, nuanced analysis about why Trump revealed a very savvy understanding of the electorate when he said voters don't much care about policy papers.
To ignore Trump at this point would be the height of journalistic folly. He is leading the polls on the Republican side. He is THE story. Simply because his statements and approach don't fit into a preconceived notion of what a "real" presidential candidate sounds and looks like is, again, the stuff of elite snobbery for which the media is often criticized.
I got into this business because I wanted to report and analyze politics and share it with the most people possible. I do this because I like thinking about politics. I also do it because I like the feedback — okay, some of the feedback — I get from people who engage with my content. Writing into a void — or worse, writing for other reporters — never appealed to me.
So yes, the journalistic world is different than it was when I started this blog 10 years ago. But I would argue it's better, not worse. We are simultaneously servicing reader wants and needs in real time while also doing the longer-form investigative journalism that made The Post famous.
That's journalism how it should be.