You Don’t Want To Know How This Sausage Is Made

The Washington Post has launched “Story Lab” a how-the-sausage-is-made glimpse behind the news and the first sausage they’re making is — a trend story about tattoos at work?

The Story Lab is a laudable concept - reporters bringing readers behind the news to tell their how-I-got-the-story stories, sharing the phone calls, emails and feedback that show the impact of their work in a feature they call “Blowback”, sharing reporters’ picks for the “story of the day,” and crowd-sourcing citizen journalism-style stories modeled after this one done by the Brian Lehrer Show. Then there’s this element of Story Lab:

Reporters from the Story Lab team and throughout The Post will come to you with story ideas and ask for the collective wisdom of the readers: Is a concept for a story right? How should it evolve? Can readers help reporters find the sources and scenes that might take us closer to the truth?

That’s admirable. But the tattoo story isn’t an attempt to get closer to the “truth.” It’s a naked ploy for reader anecdotes on which to build a non-story so that a reporter won’t have to do much work. The pitch for reader feedback on tattoos in the workplace starts this way:

Is there a dragon dipping below the hemline of your dress-for-court Anne Taylor suit? A string of barbed wire visible above the collar of your Brooks Brothers button-down? What does your boss think of that Che Guevara face that appears whenever you wear short sleeves?

For a story we’re planning on how people do or don’t talk about the burgeoning number of tattoos appearing in cubicles everywhere, we’d like to hear your stories.

Sigh. This isn’t the Future of Journalism — is it? The whole premise of Story Lab is that no one likes or trusts the mainstream media much in these days - so reporters ought to back up their work and give readers a bigger role, not turn them into lab rats. According to the mission statement:

This is a place for people who are not only curious about what’s going on in the world, but also about how the news is gathered and packaged. With the media landscape in turmoil and readers empowered to construct their own windows onto the world, the role of traditional news organizations is ever more in question. We want to add to those questions, and maybe provide some answers along the way.

That is a lofty goal and requires some loftier fare than tattoo trend stories. Readers can be asked to do a little more than talk about their ink — give them something real to contribute to.

To be fair, Story Lab’s mission statement also describes the blog as an “experiment” that will occasionally miss the mark, as many lab experiments do: “It’s a place where stories will be born, grow and occasionally die.” So here’s to The Post for bringing readers into the story-building process. But in the name of scientific inquiry, this one can be scrapped. Back to the Bunsen burner, Story Lab.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.