CJR’s new “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. Craig Gurian’s previous posts on preparing to launch his new site can be found here.
Last week I was fretting about a seemingly endless list of items to be completed before what we describe as Launch I. Today, now less than a week from going live, I am enjoying the oddly liberating feeling of having learned with absolute certainty that the nature of this project is such that I am perpetually going to be in the position of wanting to get more checked off in a given period of time than is possible.
So we’ll work through the kinks that we can in the next few days, and then, with a little luck, Remapping Debate will indeed be live next Tuesday, October 12th, at noon Eastern Time. Regardless of where things wind up, I’ll be back here on Thursday, October 14th, to report.
What I expect will be true is that, having shared the first of our work, we will be engaged not only in the direct work of preparing pieces for various October and November editions, but also with tackling four other difficult and ongoing challenges:
• Working to achieve an audience. We’ve scoffed at the idea that the winner is he or she who publishes the most stories, and we’re just as skeptical of the notion that every day is a race for more and more eyeballs. It is easy for us to say that, of course, and not only because we are not dependent on running advertisements. Our expectation is that Remapping Debate is much more in the wholesale business than the retail business. The people who are at the core of those whom we hope to reach (journalists and editors, policy advocates, policy makers, and citizens seeking to be informed) are not likely to be a mass audience.
Nevertheless, we do want to reach a not insubstantial portion of those whom we (immodestly) believe could use Remapping Debate, and that is not going to happen merely by virtue of people who have already gone to the site and signed up for updates via Constant Contact. And the fact that we’ll even be on Facebook and Twitter (please do follow us, but don’t expect any tweets until next week) will not send the readership of Remapping Debate skyrocketing. So the search for appropriate lists through which we can reach out—lists that are thorough, accurate, easy to deploy, and easy for recipients of updates to choose whether to continue to receive—is a task not yet completed. One thing we have learned: lists for purchase are very, very expensive from the point-of-view of a not-for-profit.
• Resisting some (new) truisms of the news business. If there is one thing we have heard over and over again—and from some very talented journalists, too—is that we need to “personalize” our stories if they are to have any hope of having impact. Sorry, we can’t accept that straightjacket.
There was a time when “serious” news operations were resolute in never personalizing a story, and that approach unnecessarily impoverished the breadth and variety of how stories—including public policy stories—got told. But now, a greater problem is the insistence on shaping every story through the lens of how personal experience or personal impact theoretically illuminates a story. The technique—not unlike the manner in which politicians trot out “real people” guests at speeches as props for their anecdotes—has become a habit that stands in the way of assessing what is broadly important in a policy story. We’re not trying for the “dry and boring” award, but we do think that there is a wide range of public policy stories that are disserved by insisting on a personal angle.
We have also been told that Remapping Debate needs to match the level of instant interactivity of other online journals. But we made a conscious decision that the site would be a place that allowed for calmness and reflection. Rapid-fire comments and counter-comments seemed antithetical to that atmosphere. So the series of means we have chosen to make available to readers to make their views, criticisms, contributions, and suggestions known—including but not limited to the old warhorse of letters to the editor—will not provide the instant gratification of instantly appearing. We will read everything we get, we will publish some letters, and we will take some advice. But, most of the time, our readers will have to wait until next week’s edition (or a personal e-mail back) to see the fruits of their submissions.
• Remaining self-critical. Michael Kinsley, in his recent post on Politico, had it right on the money, observing that intellectual dishonesty “is so built into the Washington culture that you have to force yourself to notice it,” and that great spin artists are celebrated, not exposed: “Journalists crowd around them, longing to get spun.” Maintaining a critical distance is a central part of what Remapping Debate is built to do, and, in any event, I don’t think that we’re going to be getting a lot of invitations to get close.
But, beyond this, we, like everyone, have to remain vigilant in being sure not to allow any double standards to creep into our coverage: to ask again and again whether we are meeting our aspiration to apply the same rigorous standard of probing and testing claims and evidence to each and every source. It is easy to fall short, and, where we do, we want to be able to acknowledge that quickly (to ourselves as well as to others), and to try to do better.
• Completing the process of staffing up. We’re still looking. Maybe you are, too.
Now it’s back to finishing the web forms, tweaking drop caps, and editing.