A more personal approach to hard news

Thomas Erdbrink (Photo via Twitter)

“In Iran, nothing is what it seems.” That refrain, repeated by reporter Thomas Erdbrink in The New York Times’ video series, “Our Man in Tehran,” neatly sums up the thinking behind the Web program. It’s also “one of the reasons why being a journalist here is not always easy,” Erdbrink says in his opening video dispatch, posted on March 24.

The first act of the seven-part series introduced viewers to Erdbrink, the Times’ Tehran bureau chief. It showed him flirting with his wife and chatting with his neighborhood shopkeeper. It followed him to Friday prayers and an ATM rendered useless by sanctions. And it tagged along as he bought a supposedly prophetic poem from a street vendor. “After 12 years of reporting here, I’m slowly starting to understand this place,” Erdbrink concludes. “Join me in the coming weeks for some random stories from a country that is both confusing and surprising at the same time.”

It’s very un-Times-like, and that’s also why it’s such a compelling addition to the newspaper’s regular coverage of the Islamic Republic. Erdbrink’s weekly video series, co-produced with VPRO in the Netherlands, launched as world powers were deadlocked in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. But its three episodes so far have veered away from news of the day and toward Erdbrink’s navigation of a culture that’s unfamiliar to many in the West.

“This personal approach was a very deliberate one, because I felt it would offer people a new approach to view this nation,” Erdbrink told CJR by phone. “It gave me a way to do a story without a news peg. Some things are just not about news. They are about humans doing human things.”

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Vice has led the way in popularizing mini documentaries on the Web in recent years, with reporters acting as edgy chaperones who lead viewers through foreign locales and situations. Many of its offerings focus on hard news topics, from unrest in Ferguson, MO, to the civil war in Ukraine. But mainstream news organizations have largely struggled with how to cover hard news through digital video, a medium that boasts a growing advertising market. None have been able to consistently combine Vice’s watchability with their old-school journalistic sensibilities.

But in recent months two industry giants, the Times and CNN, have taken steps toward finding that balance—and they’ve done so by producing video stories from reporters’ perspectives. Along with Erdbrink’s popular series, the Times has posted first-person dispatches from Yemen as the country slipped into chaos. CNN, meanwhile, has begun launching a whole rotation of Web series on politics. Though such first-person dispatches can’t replace the traditional reporting or analysis needed to relay the most important aspects of hard news, they do offer a tasty side dish. The form is also well suited for story angles that aren’t tailored for the front page, adding considerable depth to coverage.

“What it does is it brings people onto the street and into the reporting process,” said Michael Slackman, the Times’ international managing editor. “It also brings alive these places that are so important to the news.”

And they do so to great fanfare on the social Web. Erdbrink’s first video dispatch from Iran was shared more than 30,000 times, according to Muck Rack analytics, roughly 13 times the number of shares garnered by his frontpage story the same day. That’s not altogether surprising. Much of hard news reporting is not only an inherently opaque process—think anonymous sources and government documents—but is also presented in a way that gives readers few clues as to methodology. It’s no coincidence that much of the appeal of the true-crime podcast Serial, for example, stemmed from Sarah Koenig’s explanation of how she weighed various pieces of evidence.

What’s more, the Times’ Slackman added, “you’re meeting people who are not involved with politics.” The addition of Erdbrink’s first-person video series to his more traditional news reporting “gives you a more 360-degree view of Iran and the people.” Such cultural understanding is all the more important as Western audiences try to comprehend nuclear-fueled political tension between Tehran and Washington.

First-person reporting isn’t completely foreign, of course. Magazine writers have put themselves into stories for decades, and broadcast reporters have likewise appeared on screen during interviews and standups. But Vice and its contemporaries combined the magazine writer’s perspective with broadcast news’ production value. And the Times and CNN are beginning to put their own stamp on the form—Gonzo but without the bite.

While the former’s video offerings so far include one series centered on a specific reporter, CNN is even more explicitly branding shows through individual hosts. In September, it launched political reporter Peter Hamby’s “Hambycast,” which—along with adventurous-sounding intro music straight out of a Western—has followed Gov. Rick Perry to a University of South Carolina football tailgate and taken a tongue-in-cheek look at the “madcap media mob” that swarmed Hillary Clinton at a steak fry in Iowa. In the first episode of CNN’s “Being Moody” series last month, host Chris Moody literally stood in a shower of dollar bills during his report on the political fundraising circuit in Palm Beach, FL.

“I think of one word: authenticity,” said Ed O’Keefe, vice president of CNN Politics and former editor in chief of NowThisNews. “You want a good reporter, exceptional writer, someone who can hold their own in front of a camera. But the real reason for these series working is authenticity. If you look at ‘Being Moody,’ that’s Chris.”

Though both of CNN’s digital hosts file serious dispatches from the campaign trail, they don’t take themselves too seriously on camera. And their shows are better off because of it, especially on dry yet important topics like political fundraising or retail politics. Viewers who want more buttoned-up programming will still find Anderson Cooper in a suit behind a desk on weekdays at 8pm. “This is about trying to reach an audience that doesn’t necessarily watch CNN,” said O’Keefe, adding that viewership for the online shows has “exceeded expectations.”

The news organization will launch three additional first-person series in the coming months: “Yankee Doodle,” in which reporter Stephen Collison will cover the British elections; “Outside with Insiders,” with commentator S.E. Cupp talking shop with powerbrokers over activities like hunting and fishing; and “Backstage Politics,” in which reporter Maeve Reston will examine the stagecraft and storytelling of presidential campaigns.

This reporter-centric approach does raise legitimate questions of whether journalists are becoming too much of the story—digital media’s overuse of personal essays compounds this fear. But with the first iteration of such work by CNN and the Times, reporters have merely revealed, rather than obscured, how they mediate between subject and audience.

In addition to his more authoritative print reporting, Erdbrink now also plays the part of a curious guide in his video series, making unfamiliar people and places more accessible to viewers. His second dispatch featured conversations with a woman who both supports the Islamic revolution and speaks out against the state’s patriarchy. The third profiles how Erdbrink’s assistant is torn between competing forces of tradition and modernity.

“It’s no longer about me,” he said. “I’m just a familiar figure that takes people by the hand and leads them to different people in Iran.”

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.