Dean Baquet, the editor of the New York Times, is out with a memo detailing his vision for the news organization amid a digital revolution that has disquieted and unsettled virtually every person in the business of journalism. The whole memo is worth a read but one paragraph — and, actually two sentences in that paragraph — stood out to me. Here it is (bolding is mine):
Fewer stories will be done just “for the record.” In fact, fewer traditional news stories will be done overall. Stories will relax in tone. Reporters will have greater responsibility for making sure their stories are read by recommending headlines, and thinking through who they are trying to reach. The video operation will be an even more important part of our storytelling. In fact, a much greater percentage of our stories will be told through visual journalism. Reporters will cover their subjects or regions without concern for where their stories land in the print paper, thus allowing them to take on subjects that do not need to be neatly categorized. Their editors, free from worrying about filling specific print pages, can say yes to a much wider range of story ideas that do not fit the old print architecture. And all this freedom of form and subject will make the print paper more compelling.
Here's a truth exposed by those two sentences: For a very long time, many — though not all — reporters (and editors) have defaulted to "no" when asked to think about whether they should write on something.
"It's not my beat." "It's not important." "I'm working on a story for print." These are all quotes that, in the 18 years I have worked in journalism, I have heard — and even said myself! — over and over again.
Saying "no" is out. Saying "yes" is in. As in, when something happens that people on the Internet are interested in, we as journalists need to find a way to say "yes" to a piece. Ideally quickly.
The two-second analysis of saying "yes" to journalism is that we are all — Baquet and the rest including me — saying "yes" to clickbait and garbage content. When you try to write about everything, you write about — and add value to — nothing, according to that line of thinking.
What I won't deny is that we do, as an industry, need to make more content and do a better job of delivering it to people when and where they are actually looking for it. Simply producing a bunch of stories that post on the Web after 6 p.m. every night because they are really designed for the next morning's paper doesn't cut it. Most organizations — and WaPo has been on the leading edge of this — have grasped that reality.
The key to all of this — as well as to journalism's ability to survive in a meaningful way going forward — is that we are not looking just for content but smart, unique content that shows a depth of knowledge or a slice of humor or, well, something that differentiates it from the pack.
Again, from Baquet's quote above:
Fewer stories will be done just "for the record.” In fact, fewer traditional news stories will be done overall. Stories will relax in tone. Reporters will have greater responsibility for making sure their stories are read by recommending headlines, and thinking through who they are trying to reach.
That's in keeping with a belief I have laid out in this space before about the need to re-calibrate our journalistic enterprise to focus increasingly on the "so what" and "now what" parts of our jobs rather than on the long-cherished "what."
In an ideal journalistic future, here's how the process should work. A reporter or an editor flags a news event, a blog post, a tweet (or whatever) that people are talking about/interested in. Rather than defaulting to a "that's not my beat" or "that's not important" response, the reporter tries like hell to think of ways to bring their own expertise or creativity of thought to bear on the story, looking for an angle or an approach that no one else has thought of yet.
(Sidebar: This is not a blueprint for every reporter. Investigative journalism and other areas of journalistic specialization exist outside of this model.)
I'm under no illusions that every time something happens in our culture, it should spark a piece of journalism from every entity we have at The Post or Baquet has at the Times. When Beyoncé premiered "Lemonade" on HBO, for instance, there wasn't anything close to a Fix angle that I or anyone on my team could come up with. That's totally fine!
The point is not writing about everything. The point is not ignoring things simply because "I don't cover that." We live in a world in which the lines between beats are disappearing. More and more now, we want to read content from people whose perspective we like. The particular subject area that person is writing in is often irrelevant.
For instance, I will read or listen to Chuck Klosterman talk about anything — from comic book heroes to politics to why college sports are so great. I don't put Chuck is a little box that says "pop culture writer" and refuse to read anything that falls outside of that box. I am close to certain that my consumption habits are not unique.
What that means is that we, as journalists, need to embrace the idea that we should try to say "yes" to writing as much as possible. Can't think of a smart angle initially? Workshop it with a handful of smart people to figure out what we can say that is interesting, enlightening, funny or, in some other way, unique.
Saying "yes" to more content isn't a fail-safe. In fact, I'm not convinced that simply by creating more content we are fundamentally altering the difficult economics that undergird the media business. But, saying "yes" is a piece of a solution. The more smart content we produce on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, the more indispensable journalism becomes in the everyday lives of people.
That's why I root like hell for BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Gawker, Vox and all the other sites producing content alongside The Washington Posts and New York Timeses of the world these days. A rising tide of content might just lift all boats.