Last week, Slate published a piece [$] called “Skip the Commentary, Find the Reporting,” by its national correspondent, William Saletan, on how he keeps up with news from Israel and Gaza. It gave a rundown of news available in English from various perspectives, as well as a round-up of what Slate has published on the topic lately. Saletan wrote, “This is how I read the news. Skip the commentary, find the reporting. Expect bias, recognize it, factor it into your reading, and look for other sources that round out the picture. Trust no one. Avoid echo chambers. Keep all your assumptions open to review. You’ll never fully understand anything, but you’ll always be learning.”
The piece is only accessible to members of Slate Plus, an added-benefit membership program for Slate’s most loyal (paying) fans that launched in April. These include perks that make reading and listening smoother, like single-page articles and ad-free podcasts. It also includes brand paraphernalia and unique access to Slate writers and editors in the form of, for example, a roundup of former EIC David Plotz’s favorite Slate ledes, a roundtable of editors discussing heads, deks, and clickbait, and the Twitter accounts followed by the most Slate staffers.
While not all news readers want this type of insider content, says Slate editor in chief Julia Turner, “There definitely is a set of readers and listeners who are curious about how the news is made and want to understand how journalism is produced.”
April also saw the launch of Times Premier, the new paid digital products program from The New York Times, which includes Times Insider [$], developed in response to interest from engaged subscribers about how its journalists work and who the people behind the bylines are, Director of Corporate Communications Linda Zebian explains. Recent Insider posts, Zebian adds, have included a piece by Rod Nordland from Baghdad on how to report in Iraq, a Q&A with national reporter Tanzina Vega on her approach to covering the race beat, a piece by Cairo correspondent David Kirkpatrick on what he carries with him while on assignment in the Middle East, and a piece by videographer Ben Solomon on what makes good video and how he has navigated dangerous situations in the Middle East and Africa.
And similarly, over at Times Opinion, which has been revamped as a standalone paid app, editor Andy Rosenthal and his team are experimenting with ways to encourage direct engagement with writers. Recent ones include having columnists respond to reader questions, having op-ed writers respond to commenters, and highlighting reader comments. A particularly good example of breaking down the news is this piece from Nicholas Kristof responding to a request from editorial assistant Natalie Kitroeff to look back on his reporting from Tiananmen Square and reflect on what he might do differently now, and how much China has changed.
This behind-the-scenes access to journalists, their reporting secrets, and their reading habits sounds a lot like what goes on in most journalism classes—journalism professors (many of whom are working journalists) regularly share tips for reporting in the field, how they broke stories, and which news sources to pay attention to. But online, these anecdotes are being offered to consumers rather than aspiring creators of journalism. And while it might be a novel revenue model (successful or not), it’s a tried and true news literacy model.
News literacy has been formalized (largely by Stony Brook University and the News Literacy Project) as the skill of verifying and critically consuming news and information. Its pioneers are seasoned journalists who have created curricula to help readers understand what goes into reporting a story, so they too can think like journalists while attempting to navigate the torrential amounts information online. Times Insider pieces, for instance, sound a lot like NLP’s lesson in which McClatchy Middle East Bureau Chief Nancy Youssef skypes in from Beirut for a Q&A with high school students (here’s an account from a student at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn). And while they might choose to simply call it a more robust reader engagement experience, it seems that news organizations have tapped into a hunger for news literacy—and are packaging it as a premium product.
This engagement is precisely what the News Literacy Project seeks to provide for its middle and high school students by bringing journalists into their classrooms. And it has developed a network of 25 media partners and 225 “journalist fellows”—working journalists who volunteer their time with students—to get it done.
“We feel that no one is better positioned as an ambassador to news literacy than journalists,” says Peter Adams, senior vice president for educational programs at NLP. Lessons include everything from the ethics of photojournalism to press freedom issues abroad to the difference between investigative and daily journalism.