The New York Times made a smart move when it named Jim Rutenberg its new lead media writer. Rutenberg’s latest — on the ongoing BuzzFeed-ification of news and how journalism must/should change — is a very good read. And, while I don’t agree with every word in it, I think there’s something very important about how journalism needs to change contained in these lines, in which Rutenberg quotes Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei:
It starts with Mr. VandeHei’s admittedly provocative proposition that “journalists are killing journalism.” They’re doing this, he says, by “stubbornly clinging to the old ways.” That’s defined as producing 50 competing but nearly identical stories about a presidential candidate’s latest speech, or 700-word updates on the transportation budget negotiations....
“We didn’t know if, in a newspaper, people were reading our 600-word piece on the transportation markup on A10 — now we do,” Mr. VandeHei said. “I’m not saying you let the audience dictate everything, but a smart, aggressive, forward-leaning media company is going to write what it thinks is important and its audience thinks is important.”
This is a critically important point. But one that, to really understand, requires a step back before a step forward.
Think of journalism as falling into three basic baskets: The “what” basket, the “so what” basket and the “now what” basket.
The “what” basket is filled with reporting in a straightforward manner on things that happened. “There was a fire at Eighth and Elm Street today. No one was injured,” and all that. The “so what” basket is the why it happened and/or why it mattered arm of journalism. It’s telling the audience that the fire at Eighth and Elm was the third one this month, and that police are investigating all three as arsons. The “now what” basket is where the story is headed, what’s the next thing that someone interested in it should pay attention to. The fire department is reaching out to other communities to see if there are any fires similar to the three near Elm and Eighth — and so on and so forth.
(By the way, the “what, so what, now what” formulation of news is not mine. It is the brainchild of Erik Rydholm, who is the executive producer of “Pardon the Interruption” and a total genius.)
From time immemorial until 10 (or so) years ago, news organizations spent 95 percent of their time and resources on the “what” of every story. It was what made you a news organization — the ability to report out that “what” better than anyone else with more people than anyone else, etc. It worked. Pre-Internet — and then pre-massive media fracturing — people had a limited number of places to get the “what,” so if you were one of them (as The Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS, ABC, AP, NBC and the rest were), you were golden. That’s when owning a media company looked sort of like this:
Then, suddenly, the Internet changed everything. You could get the “what” from almost anywhere and anyone within seconds by just typing it into your web browser. The rise of Google News as a traffic driver meant that getting people to read your “what” reporting was in the hands of an algorithm. Ditto Facebook and much of the rest of the sharing web.
Simply put: The “what” began to lose its currency to the average reader. (There are obvious exceptions to this trend — like when the “what” is revelatory and unique to your news organization, as in the police shooting database for which The Post won a Pulitzer prize today.)
And, as the “what” faded in terms of reader interest, the “so what” and the “now what” began to rise. Suddenly, people didn’t want to just read about a presidential debate, they wanted analysis of the debate, too. And they wanted that analysis delivered at the same time as the news. They didn’t want to wait for the next day to read about who did well and who didn’t. They wanted it in real time. And that went double for anyone younger than 30.
That rising interest in analysis, context and commentary about the "what” explains the massive success of things like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Comedy Central grasped that people wanted some voice with their news, that the era of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings was over.
But, as VandeHei rightly diagnoses, newsrooms, for the most part, struggled — and struggle — to acknowledge that change in readers’ consumption habits. Massive amounts of time and money are still dedicated to the “what” — a “what” that only gets heavily read if your number comes up in the Google or Facebook algorithm or a massive aggregator like Matt Drudge plucks it out of the 1,000 other “what” pieces floating in the ether.
That’s not say that the “what” doesn’t matter any more. It does. A lot. It’s the spine of the news body — without it, everything else collapses.
What I would suggest is not zeroing out the attention paid to and resources devoted to pursuing the “what.” Instead, I — and I think VandeHei — would recommend a reallocation of the resources. I don’t have a specific number, but 50 percent “what,” 25 percent “so what” and 25 percent “now what” seems like a rough approximation of how a mainstream media outlet should split its resources. For newer arrivals on the media scene, the “so what/now what” percentage would — and should — be higher.
That point tends to get lost in conversations about the future of media. There’s a tendency to assume it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you report the “what” or you spend your time putting rubber bands on watermelons and turning optical illusions into web traffic bonanzas. False choice — and one that serves as a conversation stopper in a conversation that we in journalism badly need to have.
Truth: We need to do both the “what” and the “so what/now what” of journalism. But as the audience for the “what” continues to be harder and harder to capture (and, less fun to talk about but no less true, monetize), we need to also understand that the best way to get people addicted to our content may be to spend more time and energy on the “so what” and “now what” sides of the journalistic equation.