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 www.californiawatch.org! 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.