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The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don't get

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I’ve come to the conclusion that there are four key parts to news stories, and we typically only get one of them, even though journalists possess all four, and the other three are arguably more important.

Note that when I say “news stories,” I mean an ongoing news topic, such as “health reform,” not a particular article. In fact, health reform’s been on my mind a lot recently, so perhaps it’s a good subject to help illustrate what I mean. I’ll start with the part of most news stories we get in spades:

WHAT WE GET: What just happened

Take a look at this Washington Post topic page on health reform. As I write, it includes a list of headlines signaling recent events in the health-care debate: several Democrats called the public plan essential, key senators are pushing cooperatives as an alternative, patients want more transparency on doctors’ links to Pharma, etc.

This stuff is what most news organizations consider the foundation of journalism: the news. To the extent that any of the other parts of a news story get traction, they must fit into a structure where the news is the main attraction.

Of course, this is also the most ephemeral piece of a news story. The reality that these headlines reflect today will likely be completely changed tomorrow. The lead article, about Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats calling the public plan essential, encapsulates an isolated moment of political posturing in a neverending storm of signals sent in press releases, conferences, and interviews, through spokespeople and Twitter accounts, during appearances on Sunday talk shows. By October, this story will lose most of its present meaning.

We often theorize that over time, the accumulated weight of all this news compresses into a sort of understanding, but I remain unconvinced.  At any rate, this might be the worst foundation on which to rest journalism, especially considering that it’s merely a component of the next, more important part:

WHAT WE MISS (1): The longstanding facts

At the scale of news, almost every story looks complicated. Health reform is an impossible-to-follow morass of Congressional committees, policy proposals, industry talking points, and think tank reports. Pull back the lens a bit, however, and you see a fairly straightforward story whose basic contours haven’t changed all that much since 1994.

There is a universe of facts that stay essentially fixed from day to day. Tomorrow, we can be virtually certain that the three basic problems health reform seeks to solve will remain the same as they were last year: effectiveness, cost, and access to care. The same individuals will be heading the same committees they were in the spring. Lobbying groups on different sides of the equation have staked out slightly different positions than they did 15 years ago, but these shifts have been telegraphed over years, and everyone was well-nestled into their respective corners by June. Understanding the forces that combined to defeat health-care reform in 1945 and 1994 will give you a solid vantage point from which to understand the battle in 2009.

The story is much more manageable at this level. Everything that’s changing day-to-day — the news — is the hardest-to-understand component of this picture.

And this is key: To follow the news, you have to grasp this piece. Without this, headlines about “the public option” and “employer pay-or-play” and “MedPAC” are just noise. Having this basic understanding creates the desire for news.

In reality, these longstanding facts provide the true foundation of journalism. But in practice, they play second-fiddle to the news, condensed beyond all meaning into a paragraph halfway down in a news story, tucked away in a remote corner of our news sites. Take a look at that WaPo page again. Currently, a link sits on the far right side of the page, a third of the way down, labeled “What you need to know.” Click on that link, and you’re taken here: a linkless, five-paragraph blog post from May. This basically captures our approach to providing the necessary background to follow the news.

WHAT WE MISS (2): How journalists know what they know

This is a component of every news story that journalists tend not to provide for two reasons: 1) explaining how we get information disrupts our institutional authority and 2) we think it makes stories less interesting.

I think both assumptions are wrongheaded. Understanding how a news story came together is often a vital part of both understanding and enjoying that story.

Once again, let’s use a health reform article as a proxy for this point. On August 5, the New York Times dropped a bomb shell on followers of the health reform debate. The paper reported that the White House had cut a behind-the-scenes deal with PhRMA to prevent Congress from bargaining down drug prices in exchange for $80 billion in savings from the industry. The article that contained these revelations is a whirlwind of posturing — it’s filled with various parties backing away from things or “privately acknowledging” them or floating trial balloons. We know almost nothing about how the reporters got this story. The article feels like a pure flurry of spin. Weeks later, other reporters are still trying to trace back the story of who said what when, and why — the “real story,” in other words, hidden between the lines that appeared in the Times that day.

What undermined the Times’ institutional authority in this case isn’t the revelation of a reporter’s perspective or methods. It’s the perception that the Times is being used as a tool by various interests. The Times’ lack of transparency about its process helps further this perception.

As for the narrative argument, the undisputed most effective piece of journalism on health reform this year was a piece in the New Yorker by Dr. Atul Gawande. Washington Post columnist and health reform wonk Ezra Klein called it “the best article you’ll see this year on American health care.” Kaiser Health News ran an article about its impact, asking a panel of health experts to comment on why it was so powerful. Almost as soon as Gawande’s piece was published, references to it began appearing in President Obama’s speeches. Trust me, it was big.

Read that story, and you might be surprised by how much Gawande focuses on his reporting process. At every turn, Gawande walks you through exactly what he sees, who he’s talked to, and how he comes to his conclusions. In one vignette, he gathers six doctors for dinner, and reproduces highlights of their conversation on the costs of medical care. It’s extraordinarily effective, both as a narrative and as a piece of journalism.

What Gawande did was to structure his search for truth as a quest narrative. Instead of hiding the details about how he comes by his information, he makes that the very focus. Along the way, he makes us apprentices in his quest for truth. We finish the article with a highly refined sense of how Gawande has acquired and verified the information he presents, as well as a framework for further inquiry of our own.

We get a lot more out of this type of reporting, in other words, than the vast majority of news stories, which leave these details out.

WHAT WE MISS (3): The things we don’t know

We often think of journalism as encompassing what we know. But a key part of journalism that usually goes unreported is what we don’t know.

This much is uncontroversial: Every news story is a blend of facts and uncertainties. This should be as uncontroversial, but isn’t: It’s just as important for journalists to enumerate the latter as the former.

This excellent article by Politifact’s Angie Holan takes the rare step of explaining “What we still don’t know.” Beneath that header, Holan lists a few key questions that no journalist covering health reform can answer: Will it have a public option or a variant of it? If so, what will that include? Will it hold down costs over the long term? How will Congress pay for it? Follow the debate over time, and you’ll find that these are the questions that drive our reporting on health reform. Pursuing the answers to these questions is how journalists find the news.

But rarely do we acknowledge what we’re pursuing. When our questions make it into the coverage at all, they have to appear in the mouths of our sources, resulting in paltry, contorted pieces like this one, from the AP.  Or they’re attributed to no one, weaseled into a headline that says only, “[Such-and-such] raises questions.” Whose questions? Not ours, certainly.

When Angie Holan lists the uncertainties around health reform, she’s providing a sort of cliffhanger: Will the Congressional health reform bill include a public option? Stay tuned to find out! Not only does it give us a framework for anticipating (and thereby managing) the information that will come in next, it also stokes our interest in that information.

Changing the model

As long as the news is structured solely around what just happened, journalists are going to be fighting a rough battle. With a latest-news-only approach, we stoke demand for journalism by trying to snag people’s attention with each new development.

There’s another way, one that leads to a more informed and more loyal public, and allows us to do better work. It involves:

  • Enlarging the market for journalism by making it easier for more people to understand the longstanding facts behind each story.
  • Increasing the appeal of journalism by letting folks in on the details of our quest to uncover the truth.
  • Expanding the appetite for journalism by explaining what we don’t know, and what we’re working to find out.

As news consumers, we should be demanding these things as well. After all, right now we’re only getting the lamest part of the story.

Written by Matt

August 19th, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Five concrete steps to improving the news

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Two notable things occurred in the wake of my post the other day about the key parts of news stories you don’t usually get:

  1. A lot of people responded, here and at Poynter where the piece was republished. I read every response I could find — in the comments, on other blogs, over e-mail. Many of the respondents said I’d articulated one (or three) of their main complaints about the news. But many of them also asked a question: How would you propose we do things differently? Did I really expect newshole-deprived newspapers to reproduce an epic, magazine-length odyssey like Atul Gawande’s?
  2. Folks at major news organizations examined their health reform coverage and came to the exact same conclusion as I did. Here’s Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander: “Many [readers] have said that Post stories routinely assume a foundation of knowledge that they simply don’t have. Some said that they don’t understand basic terms like ‘public option’ or ‘single payer.’ They want primers, not prognostications. And they’re craving stories on what it means for ordinary folks and their families.”

I pegged my post to the issue of health care reform, but the problems I identified pervade the vast majority of our journalism, from local issues on up. And there seems to be pretty broad consensus on the problems.

So here’s a step towards some solutions – simple, low-tech or no-tech ways journalists can begin satisfying our need for context.

1. Don’t “win the morning.” Win the story.

You might have heard about Politico’s notorious goal of “winning the morning,” i.e. finding a scoop that’ll lead each day’s news cycle. That’s great, if you’re content with your stories having about as much impact as a popular tweet. Too many of us follow Politico’s lead.

Instead, try to win the story. Aim to produce a work of journalism so excellent it’ll get passed around for weeks. Put your best storytelling chops to work on this. Try to supplant Wikipedia as the top Google result for your topic. This might not be a single article; it might be a nicely-packaged collection, a wiki, or something else you devise. The key is that it should be long-lasting and distinctive.

2. Give people a starting point online.

You know that excellent explanatory piece you produced four weeks ago as a sidebar to a big news story on your topic? Rescue it from the archives and put it in a nice, prominent place online. Link to it with a clear, compelling headline.

Pull together a page online with links to several such explanatory pieces (from your site and elsewhere), along with good, useful digests of all of them. Make it so that users don’t have to visit every link to get a picture of the story, but have places to go when they want to know more. Set a recurring reminder to check in on this page once a week. Create a shortened URL for this page and repeat it every time you cover this topic.

3. Blog.

Blogging can be one of the simplest, most engaging ways to bring folks along with your process, telling them how you acquired information and asking them for help along the way. Because a blog is a linear format that allows for sub-categories, it can be easier to follow than an archive of news stories, and often all it takes to provide a decent amount of context is a well-formed link.

Let the blog be the DVD commentary to your reporting. Refer to it wherever your stories appear. Make it clear that the blog is the place to go for those who want the inside scoop on how your process works. Then deliver. Make sure it’s written in your voice, not news voice.

Blogging does carry with it the danger that you become even more news-obsessed than you might otherwise be, so keep your eye on the ball (that is, the larger story). Check out my questions for journalists in an age of information overload if you worry about this.

4. Track the unknowns.

Keep a public list of the most important things you don’t know about your topic. Perhaps it’s an outcome or prediction that hasn’t been realized yet, maybe it’s a difficult-to-nail-down statistic, or maybe it’s just something you’re unfamiliar with. If it’s one of the latter two, ask for your community’s help, like Kevin Drum did the other day.

As things come in and out of focus as the issue develops, keep your list updated. Do this in an engaging way. Might I suggest a scorecard?

5. Learn the issue inside and out.

This is actually the most important item on my list. To give your users a sense of the longstanding facts, you have to know them yourself. If there are books available on your topic, read them. Spend a few hours talking with some experts about the subject, to get a genuine understanding of it, not a quote for a story. Try to get your users to ask you questions – whether it’s by hosting live chats, plugging your e-mail address constantly, announcing open threads at regular intervals – and work hard on finding every answer you don’t know.

* * *

This is how I think we can start addressing these issues, but this is barely a beginning. There are a ton of practical questions about how we can shift our news industry towards satisfying our need for context. These are exactly the types of questions Jay Rosen, Tristan Harris and I intend to tackle in our session at SXSW. If you haven’t voted for that session, do it! (Anyone can vote, even if you’re not attending the conference.) I have big plans for what we’ll create for that session if it’s approved. Thanks.

Written by Matt

September 1st, 2009 at 11:11 am

Twilight of the Brands?

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eBoy and Usability Man's Web2.0 brand mashup (Craig Grobler / Flickr)

Media organizations are still grappling with the fact that on the Web, a page is only a tiny, tiny hyperlink away from any other. We’ve spent years trying to obfuscate this fact, at first refusing to “link out” beyond our artificial domain-spaces, then opening these “outside” links in new windows, building up elaborate schemes to suggest that these domain-spaces really are entirely separate places, that moving from one site to another really does require travel. As our media begin to disintegrate into their component parts – newspapers fragmenting into stories dissipating into excerpts breaking down, at last, into data – the last great refuge of the coherent, bundled mediascape of yesteryear has become the brand. Brand power – brand equities, brand identities, brand loyalties – will keep us relevant even after fragments of our content stand alone in the Webby wilderness, we’ve believed.


But what if it’s not true? What if the concept of “the brand” – which really kicked into high gear as the industrial era hit its stride – is eroding or devolving as well? Where would that leave us? What might it enable?

There’s some evidence that we hit Peak Brand long ago. Brands seem to have been reduced to products, becoming commoditized and generic. As easy as it’s become to “launch” a new one (Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” seemed to explode out of the ether this month), it’s even easier to forget the dozens that seem to launch every moment (one year ago today, Mediagazer was heralding the launch of Fox’s mobile Hulu-killer, “Bitbop” – anyone remember that one?).

Today you can launch your media company and call it “TBD,” and folks will just shrug or chuckle. A year from now, some genius will launch a hot new media property called “Whatevs.” It’s only a matter of time until someone starts to go to all the trouble of launching a brand, and then realizes what they really need is a hashtag.

This matters because to us media folks, brands are still key to how we organize the digital universe in our heads, and it’s not at all clear that users think the same way. When we’ve started talking about Twitter “breaking” stories or users finding stories on Facebook, it underscores how porous the concept of a brand has become. Can we imagine a way to thrive in a universe where our brands might be invisible?

It also matters because concern for brand integrity can make us excessively risk-averse at a time when experimentation is vital. We’re in constant danger of designing media experiences that serve our brands first, our content second, and our users last. If every digital experience was crafted in isolation, freed from brand constraints, what would we be able to do? If we designed every page, every popup, and every app by asking how the brand might serve the user experience rather than vice-versa, where would that lead us?

Even if all of the above is true, brands aren’t going anywhere. AOL, among others, is doubling down on a brand-driven strategy. So we also have to imagine our roles as media organizations and media individuals in a world where brands only become bigger and more important, where in many users’ minds, our orgs are just “micro-brands” feeding the “umbrella brands” of Twitter/Facebook/Google/Bitbop/etc.

All these questions and suppositions are just teasers. For the real exploration of these ideas, you’ll have to vote for (and then attend) the session I’m hoping to lead with Megan Garber at this year’s Online News Association conference: “The Brand Is Dead, Long Live the Brand!” I promise great fun, tweetable nuggets of insight, and some rollicking surprises.

Written by Matt

March 25th, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Inverting the business model question

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Kevin Kelleher at GigaOm interviewed me yesterday for a good column hitting a few key topics. He zeroed in on something I’ve said before, and I think it’s worth reframing and reiterating. Kelleher quotes me as saying, “When you ask, ‘How do you support news organizations on the web?’ it looks completely daunting. But many successful journalistic enterprises on the web started out the other way. You had a few individuals creating enough value to be supported, and then building on that value.”1

Conversations about the business model for news online still tend to take place at the organization level. That is, we keep asking how we’re going to support this organization that gathers the news. E.g. What would be the CPM/audience size necessary to sustain a $63 million annual budget? Framed that way, the task is clearly Sisyphean. You wind up with analyses that assert that news Web sites require audiences of at least 200MM pageviews each month to generate sustainable revenue.

When we break the newspaper down into its hundreds of component parts and build up, a different picture emerges. What size community might you need to build online to support a team of investigative journalists? You can start with 61,000 visitors. Now how many of those visitors can you convert into True Fans?

That’s how we’ll build sustainable coverage online. Investigating each of the functions the news organization used to (or neglected to) perform, and finding out how that function might be supported.

  1. I’m certain this is a delightfully polished-up version of whatever I said. I may have started ranting about video games between some of those sentences. I don’t think I ever express a thought that coherently. Nonetheless, it totally captured what I meant. Thanks, Kevin. []

Written by Matt

January 10th, 2009 at 1:10 pm

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