Pyramid Schemes

Newspapers should feel free to go long

We are, as a culture, growing ever more informal with each other. Traditional social hierarchies are compressing, and one effect of that movement, The Economist recently pointed out, has been the loss of the little politenesses that express social divisions through the written word. “Dear Mr. Robert Smith” is becoming, in letters, “Hey Bob”; “Yours very truly” is becoming “xoxo”; and newspaper articles are on their way to becoming, essentially, printed blogs.

Well…maybe. I’m thinking of “Cut this Story!,” the Michael Kinsley Atlantic column everyone’s talking about—the one arguing that newspaper articles are too long/overwrought/over-contextualized/redundant/fraught-with-legacy to be compelling to readers. I realize that, technically, the column is no longer fair game for commentary—the Twitter flurry about it having occurred in the distant past of yesterday—but one feature of a successful column is that its relevance transcends the news cycle. And Kinsley’s piece does that.

So I’ll try not to repeat what others have said on the subject, quite smartly, already—see Felix Salmon and Spencer Ackerman and Robert MacMillan and CJR’s own Greg Marx—but I do want to address one additional point that intrigued me (and, to an extent, irked me) about Kinsley’s column. And that is the idea of familiarity—both in the sense of informational context, and in the sense of a kind of social communion between the reporter and the reader.

Newspaper narratives, Kinsley suggests, are antithetical to the news dissemination that takes place in the course of day-to-day, interpersonal discourse. “If someone saw you reading the paper and asked, ‘So what’s going on?,’ Kinsley points out,

you would not likely begin by saying that President Obama had won a hard-fought victory. You would say, “The House passed health-care reform last night.” And maybe, “It was a close vote.” And just possibly, “There was a kerfuffle about abortion.” You would not likely refer to “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” as if your friend was unaware that health-care reform was going on. Nor would you feel the need to inform your friend first thing that unnamed Democrats were bragging about what a big deal this is—an unsurprising development if ever there was one.

Well, sure. And there’s certainly a case to be made for newspaper articles’ adoption of a more punchy, conversational, convivial tone. (Dave Eggers, in fact, made it just yesterday.) Just as there’s certainly a case to be made, as Spencer Ackerman put it while discussing the Kinsley piece, for the broad narrative goal that is “clarity of topic.”

And yet Kinsley is arguing for something more—and for, in my mind, something more complex and more questionable—than mere clarity. He is arguing, it seems, for familiarity itself. The kind that a blogger enjoys with his audience, or a Twitterer enjoys with her followers: the “Hey Bob” in place of the “Dear Mr. Smith.” The casual-ness, the looseness, the confidence of the communal: You follow the same things I do; you know the same things I know. (And also: You trust me because you follow the same things I do and know the same things I know.) Indeed, Kinsley’s basic mandate—that reporters, in their storytelling, should just get to the point already—is practical, and indeed possible, only if the readers being informed share common contextual information with the reporter. Only, that is, if there’s an implied informational intimacy between the producer of news and the consumer of it.

Context, in other words—so crucial to good journalism, regardless of the platform—doesn’t much matter in Kinsley’s framing of the singular news story; for him, the context is implied. Readers already know the backstory of a given event—that Democrats have been pushing for the passage of a health care bill, to take one of the examples Kinsley lampoons—or, if they don’t, they can get it from a well-chosen link. So for the reporter to lay out that backstory, in space-taking, time-wasting text, is redundant. And thus snore-inducing. And thus attention-taking. Et cetera.

The just-the-(new)-facts-ma’am approach Kinsley suggests, at once both intimate and impassive, works spectacularly well for blogs—whose authors tend to benefit from the form’s lack of structural constraint, and whose readers tend to appreciate the social aspects of narrative familiarity. Reading a blog, commenting on it, being a part of it in some way, becomes an implicit act of community. Making today’s journalist, OJR’s Robert Niles put it in a post this morning, a community organizer. He’s not merely a detached informer, but rather a social actor in the Gladwellian model—maven, salesman, and connector rolled into one.

This sensibility—a contemporary, Web-enabled iteration of the public journalism model of the ‘90s—is increasingly common, and increasingly a component of meta-media’s conventional wisdom. In journalism generally, across outlets and platforms, we’re seeing a trajectory toward interpersonal familiarity in journalistic narratives—toward, essentially, social news. Blogs are increasingly plentiful, and prominent, on newspaper sites. More and more journalists are active on Facebook and Twitter. News startups are marketing themselves not merely as information-providers, but as, indeed, community-builders. (California Watch, for example, whose site debuted in hard-launch form this week with the tag line “Bold new journalism,” is selling itself not only as a committed watchdog outfit working in the public interest, but also as a social space on the Web. “Thanks everyone for checking out! We launched with great stories, close to 20 databases, cool resources, two blogs,” went a Monday tweet. Later: “@andrewspittle: we’re eager for feedback because we will make changes based on it :-)”)

This is, generally speaking, to the good—to the great, really. But social news is a model that, for all its myriad and obvious benefits, doesn’t apply wholesale—and, crucially, shouldn’t apply wholesale—to newspapers. Newspapers should certainly care, deeply so, about what their readers want; it doesn’t follow, however, that their articles’ narrative structure—which exists as a way of navigating the classic tensions involved in winning trust, balancing personal expertise with objectivity (or whatever we want to call it now), balancing context with readability, etc.—needs to transform itself to reflect that concern.

It’s not merely a matter of form—the simple fact that print papers, lacking the luxury of links, can’t tell their stories iteratively (or “modularly,” as Spencer Ackerman had it), and must therefore be comprehensive in a way that individual blog posts don’t have to be. It’s also, and more significantly, a matter of the authority that comes not from familiarity—but from the absence of it.

Papers, when compared to blogs, make relatively few assumptions about their readers. While a blogger might—though not always—have a particular kind of person in mind when considering her “audience,” a newspaper reporter, ideally, writes for the broad, vague audience that is The Public. His narrative is predicated not on familiarity with his readers, but rather—to use that increasingly fraught term—on detachment from them. “I have basically no idea who you are, or what your politics are, or your beliefs,” he says to his readers, “but here’s a version, vetted by myself and my organization’s editorial infrastructure, of what happened earlier today/yesterday/this past week.”

Since the reporter can make so few safe assumptions about his audience as he makes this declaration, he tries to make his narrative, via context-heavy prose and the inclusion of expert opinion and the like, accessible to as broad and generalized a public as possible. (This is particularly so for The New York Times and The Washington Post, the papers called out in Kinsley’s column, which are not merely big-city metros, but also national papers of record.) In this way, and through this process, he defines himself through his detachment from the niche. He presents himself as an occupant of, and aspirant toward, the meta-niche.

There are flaws in this system, to be sure: Newspapers’ all-things-to-all-people pretensions (and that’s the way it is, etc., to mix mediums) have played a large part in journalism’s broad crisis in authority. And their stories—as news stories in any other form—will always, and necessarily, be somewhat arbitrary about the information they include and exclude from their narratives.

Still, these stories, overly long and overwrought though they may sometimes be, finally provide a benchmark, if not a pure reflection, when it comes to The Way It Is in the first place. They posit common ground. They posit community on a broad scale. Rather than rely on their niche, they try, in some sense, to transcend it. And that, in the broader context of the overall media landscape—particularly now, as the twin forces of proliferation and fragmentation make it increasingly difficult for news consumers to determine what ‘It’ is in the first place—is immensely valuable.

The logical extension of Kinsley’s argument (a logical extension that could easily play out in reality) is a world in which we, as a community and a democracy, have a flurry of little truths, each suiting our own interests—each told to us by sources similar to ourselves, their authority deriving precisely from that similarity—rather than a broadly communal one. But newspapers’ drive toward context and breadth—which is to say, comprehensiveness—in their narratives slows the trajectories of fragmentation. As Felix Salmon puts it in his excellent treatment of the Kinsley column:

Franchises like the NYT — and Reuters, for that matter — get built up carefully over decades and centuries. That might encrust them with more than their fair share of old-fashioned attitudes, but it also gives them the hope of being able to rise above the crowd and be the calm center of the noisy blogospheric storm. If they decide to join the unwashed masses, in many ways they will have lost everything they stand for.

The very mechanisms meant to clarify news stories—and to make them readable, and most importantly to make them trustworthy—are now the very mechanisms beginning to bite them on, you know, the base of their inverted pyramids. Trust is a scarce commodity. Authority is even scarcer. And attention is scarcer still. “Newspapers,” Dave Eggers says, “are gonna have to think, ‘Okay, what can we do uniquely well? What are we gonna give you that can’t be had anywhere else?’”

They never really had to think in those terms before; they never really had to think about the anywhere else. But as the world churns and changes around them, papers might well find that what they can do “uniquely well” is, indeed, to stay true to themselves—and to keep on producing those long, laborious news articles. The ones that, even as they occasionally bore and even more occasionally frustrate us, keep us tethered together in the tempest, anchored to something solid.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.