Some months ago, on the Poynter Institute’s website, PolitiFact’s Bill Adair urged: “[L]et’s blow up the news story.” Journalism must be reimagined from the ground up, he argued, starting with its building block, the “story”: “It’s time to rethink the unit of journalism. . . . Let’s tear it up. Let’s reinvent how we tell stories and create some new forms.”
Whether that’s good advice or bad advice, it’s a whole lot easier said than done. That’s the lesson sociologists Stephen Ostertag and Gaye Tuchman teach in “When Innovation Meets Legacy,” a 2012 paper in Information, Communication & Society that examines what happened in post-Katrina New Orleans when a blog known today as The Lens (TheLensNola.org) gained legitimacy and audience, but perhaps at the expense of innovation. The authors somewhat bizarrely give The Lens a pseudonym—The New Orleans Eye—without making it clear that they are doing so. We use its real name here with the authors’ permission.
Like many other spritely online startups in news, The Lens is small (nine employees and a $480,000 budget in 2012) and funded primarily by foundations (Knight, Open Society Foundations, and others). The Lens is also like many other startups in that it has dedicated itself not to replicate legacy media, but to invest in what those outlets often do not: investigative reporting. And again, like many other startups, The Lens asserts its authority for that work by hiring reporters who have put in years of service in serious journalism for conventional news organizations.
But The Lens grew out of an enterprising citizen-journalist blog that doggedly pursued bureaucratic snafus in New Orleans’s post-Katrina home-rebuilding efforts. When the blog sought to grow into a more fully resourced news organization, it conceived itself as “a ‘snarky’ blog on land use” and applied to the Open Society Foundations for funding. The Open Society advised The Lens to shift from a partnership of blogging-and-reporting citizens to a more conventional news model, complete with a beat system, professional editors with print-journalism credentials, and a board of directors (which Ostertag joined after completing his research for his paper). The Lens took the advice and shifted its format from what free Google software made possible to ruled newspaper columns; its prose from first-person to third-person; and its voice from forthright and personal to newsroom-objective. It expanded its news coverage from land use to general government accountability: “money and politics, asphalt, air and water, land use, schools, investigation, and crime and punishment.” The Open Society liked the changes, and when The Lens applied for a more substantial grant, it got it.
The Open Society and other foundations, Ostertag and Tuchman report, favor “experimental enterprises that can demonstrate competence.” Not exactly a banner-headline finding, this is more a confirmation that sociologists sometimes restate the obvious. But Ostertag and Tuchman put the obvious in a context that gives it some purchase. For them, foundations’ common-sense emphasis on “competence” within experimentation produces an ironic result: The funders that champion innovation wind up standing in its way. They give the fledgling news organization the wherewithal to grow, but in pushing them to hire professionals to produce quality journalism as conventionally understood, they also structure out surprises. When The Lens went on to partner with WVUE Fox 8 television (and in September announced a partnership with NPR affiliate WWNO-FM), they gained new legitimacy with sources, an on-air presence, and a large viewership. And that gave good investigative reporting new currency, but again held the startup to easily recognizable journalistic objectives. So much for “blowing up the story.”
The Lens has garnered local journalism prizes and even notable national awards, but if a journalistic newcomer cannot gain traction with funders, sources, partners, and audiences when it departs from basic elements in conventional newsgathering, does it have to abandon the dream of innovation? Or should we begin to wonder if “innovation” is itself, far from a synonym for liberty, a new conceptual straitjacket?Michael Schudson and Katherine Fink are contributors to CJR.