It’s All About Us

WaPo’s Story Lab experiment fizzles

It seemed like a questionable allocation of resources when The Washington Post dispatched seven reporters to local coffeehouses one day this week. Their mission: “to find a story that told us something important about life at this time in this place.”

The project is part of Story Lab, the paper’s “quest for journalism’s next frontier,” and, of course, we’re all in favor of that. But seven reporters?

The Post said the experiment was “was designed to show that good reporters can find meaningful, even essential, stories from anyone, anywhere.” Again, nice idea. But why stack the deck by telling readers where the reporters would be, and inviting them to come on down, share a latte and a laugh?

While acknowledging that the assignment was “also something of a stunt,” the Post went a bit too far in that direction. Each of its seven coffeehouse reporters had to file a story that included four hokey details, including a musical reference and “the word ‘spill’ in any recognizable form.”

The finished product, highlighted on the front of Friday’s Metro section (though pretty hard to find online), isn’t any less cloying:

The result was seven stories of love and passion, of people striving to be something more or learning to be at peace with what is.

But wait, there’s more. The seven short stories were posted online earlier in the week, and the Post asked readers to vote on which one “most effectively tells us some essential truth about a person, about how we live,” with the winner to be featured in print and online.

Drumroll please….

The winning story is about a college student who—wait for it—wants to be a newspaper reporter!

“A job at The Washington Post would be great,” she says.

How nice for her—and for the Post. Geesh.

I’m not sure if this is a case of wishful thinking, or just some standard It’s-All-About-Us journalism. Or maybe it’s really what happens when readers decide.

Just for the record, 1,097 votes were cast in this silly contest. The runner-up to the aspiring journalist’s story came from a group of nine retirees, gathered at a Virginia coffee shop for their regular Wednesday morning session, a coffee klatsch well known in the neighborhood for its longevity and its seriousness.

And I think this one would have got my vote:

Jack Tomion, 82, a lawyer and former Naval officer, says he was aware of the group for years before he agreed to join. “I thought it would be a bunch of people sitting around talking about their colonoscopy,” he says. “No, these people are engaged. This is thrilling. It’s like smoking marijuana.”

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at