The editorial teams of the Atlantic.com and the Deseret News are launching on a four-part series on the American family, the latest wrinkle in the ongoing saga of media convergence.
The series went live with the first installment, “The Father Factor,” written by two Deseret News staffers. The two staffs will alternate on installments through Wednesday.
The digital revolution is playing havoc with plenty of journalism barriers, of course. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers are increasingly blurring into mini-documentary video makers. Local TV stations, encroaching on newspaper traffic, are producing masses of text for their websites. Barriers between editorial and business-side operations within news organizations have eroded, among other ways, with the native advertising boomlet, as the Atlantic itself learned to its chagrin a year ago. The line even between audience and news organization has been blurring through crowd-sourced projects like ProPublica’s “Dollars for Docs” and Gawker verticals that try to turn commenters into content producers.
The barriers between news organizations themselves —once jealously guarded—have been falling for years. In 2008, it was still unusual for The Albany Times Union to run a series on fracking produced by Propublica and WNYC. Now it’s commonplace. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists may have set some kind of record for complexity of collaboration last year on its tax-haven series.
Still, the Atlantic/Deseret News pairing, a national magazine of a more or less liberal, secular orientation and a local paper wholly owned by the Mormon church, is one of the less likely combinations, at least on the surface.
In an email, News editor Paul Edwards said the project grew out of informal discussions about practical elements of digital publishing (both outfits are seen as leaders in the area, Atlantic for The Wire; the News for its Deseret Digital unit and Deseret Connect, a content management system designed to generate community-based content for the website and the print editions). The two sides discovered they shared common journalism interests, including in the state of the family, and the project grew from there, Edwards says. The reporting kicked off with in a brainstorming session attended by writers from both staffs, along with two leading two sociologists in family research, Kathryn Edin of Johns Hopkins and Brad Wilcox of Virginia, at the Atlantic’s Washington headquarters.
But the Salt Lake City-based paper has been pursuing an unusual regional/national strategy that has had it veering into magazine territory for years. It focuses on a few subject areas—“family, faith, care for the poor, education, values in the media, and financial responsibility”—and tries to own them, a strategy that has helped drive growth nationally in both Web traffic and, surprisingly, its Sunday print edition, which nearly doubled in circulation between in the last few years. It also made a collaboration with a magazine more of a natural fit.
A big hurdle to inter-newsroom collaboration has traditionally been cultural— different styles, traditions, news judgments, and the like —and in this case the project pairs a mostly liberal national magazine with a newspaper that is part of the vast holdings of the Mormon Church. And while the paper isn’t an official church organ, Edwards allows that the paper does “try to align with our owner along broad principles of justice, fairness, decency, and concern for the poor.”
But in the end, he says, the biggest challenges, “were logistical and stylistic,” and that political orientation just wasn’t factor.
I appreciate that it is tempting, for narrative purposes, to want to provide standard labels to each organization. But The Atlantic’s very own tagline is “of no party or clique.” And the Deseret News is explicitly neutral in partisan politics and our editorial positions would be hard to categorize on standard right-left spectrum (e.g., critical of the ACA, but in favor of expanded Medicaid; skeptical of overregulation, but in favor of Tier 3 EPA standards; decidedly concerned about liberalization of drug policy but opposed to mass incarceration).
The Atlantic’s Emily Lenzner agrees: “Religion, ideology or politics played no part in the editorial or production process.”
Each staff retained final editorial control of its installments.
Indeed, the reporting so far is a fairly straightforward look at the problem of fatherless families through a social-science lens. The first installment wraps data and expert analysis around reported examples of children who grew up in fractured family settings.
One thing the two publications certainly don’t have in common is their audience. There’s very little overlap, and in a highly polarized news environment the joint project did present a rare opportunity to speak to a different set of readers.
The hope, Edwards says, is that “we could provide a model for how to reduce the polarization while at the same time reaching new audiences.”Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.