Beyond the News

Journalists worry that the Web threatens the way they distribute their product. They are slower to see how it threatens the product itself.
January 1, 2007

Call it the morning letdown. Your muffin may be fresh, but the newspaper beside it is decidedly stale. “Chavez bashes Bush on UN Stage” reads the headline, to pick one morning’s example, on the lead story of The Miami Herald. That was a Thursday in September. But Yahoo, AOL, and just about every major news Web site in the country had been displaying that story—President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela had called President Bush “the devil”—since around noon on Wednesday. The news had been all over the radio, all over cable, too: Fox News had carried, with gleeful indignation, twenty-three minutes of the speech live. Indeed, when Katie Couric introduced the Chavez story on the CBS Evening News, at 6:30 Wednesday, her audience may have experienced an evening letdown. By then—half a day before Chavez’s name would appear in newsprint in Miami—his entry on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, had been updated to include an account of the speech in the United Nations.

Editors and news directors today fret about the Internet, as their predecessors worried about radio and TV, and all now see the huge threat the Web represents to the way they distribute their product. They have been slower to see the threat it represents to the product itself. In a day when information pours out of digital spigots, stories that package painstakingly gathered facts on current events—what happened, who said what, when—have lost much of their value. News now not only arrives astoundingly fast from an astounding number of directions, it arrives free of charge. Selling what is elsewhere available free is difficult, even if it isn’t nineteen hours stale. Just ask an encyclopedia salesman, if you can find one.

Mainstream journalists can, of course, try to keep retailing somewhat stale morning-print or evening-television roundups to people who manage to get through the day without any contact with Matt Drudge, Wolf Blitzer, or Robert Siegel. They can continue to attempt to establish themselves online as a kind of après AP—selling news that’s a little slower but a little smarter than what Yahoo displays, which is essentially what The Washington Post and The New York Times were up to when, about four or five hours after Chavez had left the UN podium, they published, online, their own accounts of his speech.

But another, more ambitious option is available to journalists: they could try to sell something besides news.

The notion that journalists might be in a business other than the collection, ordering, and distribution of facts isn’t new. In the days when the latest news was available to more or less anyone who visited the market or chatted in the street, weekly newspapers (at the time, the only newspapers) provided mostly analysis or opinion—something extra. The growth of cities, the arrival of dailies, and the invention of swift fact-transmitting and fact-distributing machines (the telegraph and the steam press) encouraged the development of companies devoted to the mass production and sale of news. Their day lasted more than a hundred years. But the sun is setting.

Information is once again widely available to more or less everyone, and journalists, once again, are having difficulty selling news—at least to people under the age of fifty-five. If news organizations, large and small, remain in the business of routine newsgathering—even if they remain in the business of routine newsgathering for dissemination online—the dismal prophesy currently being proclaimed by their circulation and demographic charts may very well be fulfilled.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“If we don’t do the basic reporting, who will?” journalists counter. Here’s John S. Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, presenting, to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, this notion of mainstream journalists as the indispensable Prime Movers: “Newspapers dig up the news. Others repackage it.” But the widely held belief that the Web is a parasite that lives off the metro desks and foreign bureaus of beleaguered yet civic-minded newspapers and broadcast news organizations is a bit facile.

For much of their breaking news, Yahoo and AOL often tap the same source as Drudge and WashingtonPost.com, The Associated Press, with Reuters, AFP, and a few others also playing a role. (Most of the early online Chavez reports linked to an AP story.) Nothing said here is meant to imply that the wire services, and whatever cousins of theirs may materialize on the Web, should stop gathering and wholesaling news in bulk.

However, the Web increasingly has other places to turn for raw materials: more and more cameras are being aimed at news events, and transcripts, reports, and budgets are regularly being placed on the Web, either by organizations themselves or by citizens trying to hold those organizations to account. We are still very early in the evolution of the form, but surely industrious bloggers won’t always need reporters to package such materials before they commence picking them apart. Mainstream journalists are making a mistake if they believe their ability to collect and organize facts will continue to make them indispensable.

There will continue to be room, of course, for some kinds of traditional, thoroughly sourced reporting: exclusives, certainly. Investigations, certainly. That’s something extra. Yahoo isn’t in a position to muckrake.

But the extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events—insights, not just information. What is required—if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news—is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

Here’s more historical precedent: In the days when dailies monopolized breaking news, slower journals—weeklies like The Nation, The New Republic, Time—stepped back from breaking news and sold smart analysis. Now it is the dailies, and even the evening news shows, that are slow. Now it is time for them to take that step back.

Insights into the significance of news events certainly do appear on one page or another in our dailies, in one segment or another on our evening newscasts; but a reader or viewer has no reason to believe that they will be there on any particular story on any particular day. It’s hit or miss. And outside of the small patch of the paper that has been roped off for opinion, the chances of coming upon something that might qualify as wisdom are not great. Most reporters have spent too long pursuing and writing “just the facts” to move easily into drawing conclusions based on facts. Their editors have spent too long resisting the encroachment of anything that is not carefully sourced, that might be perceived as less than objective, to easily welcome such analyses now.

So you sometimes get, under a “news analysis” slug or not, pieces that construct their insights out of the unobjectionably obvious—proclaiming that “some” have “voiced concerns,” that “developments” may have “profound ramifications,” but “on the other hand” “it is too soon to tell.” And you find situations as odd as this: In a column in June 2006, David Brooks of The New York Times introduced his “War Council”—the “twenty or thirty people” who, because of the soundness of their “judgments” and “analysis,” he turns to for wisdom about Iraq. One of those people works at Brooks’s own paper: the “übercorrespondent”—currently Baghdad bureau chief—John F. Burns. Brooks included two quotes from Burns about Iraq in his column, including: “I’d have to say the odds are against success, but they are better now than they were three months ago, that’s for sure.’’ However, neither of those quotes was taken from the newspaper that employs Burns, where he ventures beyond the facts only rarely and very cautiously. Instead they were comments Burns made on the PBS program Charlie Rose.

“We would be of little value in our television appearances,” Burns acknowledges, “if we offered no more than a bare-bones recitation of events, without any attempt to place them in a wider context, and to analyze what they mean.” But shouldn’t the same standard of “value” apply to Burns’s appearances in his newspaper? He denies that Times reporters “are muzzled in conveying the full range of our experience and impressions” under the proper rubrics in the paper. Nonetheless, the “impressions” from this Times correspondent that most interested a Times columnist had not originally appeared in the Times itself.

The Wall Street Journal got a taste of this the-best-stuff-doesn’t-make-the-paper problem two years ago when an e-mail found its way onto the Web from one of its reporters in Iraq, Farnaz Fassihi. It proved not only more controversial but arguably more interesting than the stories Fassihi had been filing from that country. For in this e-mail, intended to be private, Fassihi wrote in the first person and she noted what things looked like to her: “For those of us on the ground,” she said, “it’s hard to imagine what if anything could salvage [Iraq] from its violent downward spiral.”

Outside the strictures of mainstream journalism, Fassihi, in other words, did not have to attempt the magic trick American reporters have been attempting for a hundred years now: making themselves and their conclusions disappear.

The switch to a new product line is moving forward at a pretty good pace on the pages of at least two newspapers—one large and foreign, one small and local.

The Independent is a serious English national daily in a market with three other serious national dailies. So The Independent, looking for an edge, has begun devoting most of its front page, weeklylike, to a single story—a story covered with considerable perspective and depth, a story in which the paper is not shy about exhibiting a point of view. The Independent weighed in recently, for example, on the debate on global warming with this headline, and a picture of a large wave, dominating its front page: “Tsunami Hits Britain: 5 November 2060.”

Simon Kelner, the paper’s editor in chief, explains that his understanding of the situation of the daily newspaper “crystallized” during coverage in England of the American presidential election in 2004. The Independent reported and interpreted the results along with the other papers. “It was a really expensive, exhaustive exercise for us all,” Kelner recalls. Yet the next morning newsstand circulation actually fell. For up-to-the-minute results people had turned instead to the radio, television, and the Internet. However, he explains, “The next day The Independent published twenty-one pages of analysis and interpretation of the election—and we put on fifteen percent in sales.”

Kelner got the message. “The idea that a newspaper is going to be peoples’ first port of call to find out what’s going on in the world is simply no longer valid. So you have to add another layer: analysis, interpretation, point of view.” Kelner now dubs his daily a “viewspaper.”

Compare The Independent’s response to a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East with that of The Washington Post. The Post reported on a joint press conference she held with the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, on page A26 under this headline: “Rice Cites Concern for Palestinians, but Low Expectations Mark Visit.” The Independent, that same morning, emblazoned this headline on its front page: the road map to nowhere: “Four Years After George Bush Unveiled His Middle East Plan, Condoleezza Rice Arrived to Find Peace as Far Away as Ever.”

It is not that shocking, by European standards, that The Independent has been saying what it thinks; what is fresh and vital is the magazine-like boldness and focus (think The Economist) with which it is saying it. Beneath the road map to nowhere headline on its front page, The Independent displayed a map of Jerusalem. Around the map were arranged five short items—each divided into the promise (headlined in red) and what happened—in which the paper compared what the Bush administration had claimed for its “road map for peace” with the little, nothing, or worse (the Lebanon war was mentioned), it has achieved. Inside the paper, an article combined the history of the Bush Middle East plan with a report on Secretary Rice’s current, seemingly futile visit to the region. Such a mix of graphic, list, and article—of news event, wider focus, and point of view—is now typical for The Independent.

Producing such a paper certainly makes for an interesting newsroom. “Our competitors each select the best news story of the day,” notes John Mullin, The Independent’s executive editor for news. “What we try to do is something much more holistic. We try to capture the entire feel of something. It makes life much more—some would say difficult, some would say rewarding.” Mullin adds that the effort to present a big chunk of news with a coherent viewpoint can be particularly “challenging” for journalists who are “used to thinking in the time-honored fashion: who, what, when and where.”

Nowhere in the world has that fashion been as honored, and for such a long time, as it has been in the United States. Mainstream journalists in America today live in fear of the charge of bias. To achieve more vigorous analysis, they may have to get over that fear. After all, opinions—from “these are the times that try men’s souls” to “Ford to City: Drop Dead”—have, historically, managed to hold their own with facts as ways of understanding the world. And it’s not as if there aren’t things besides the effort to be balanced for which journalists might stand. Old-fashioned reason might, for example, do, too.

Journalists also might stand for honesty. Sure, the analytic journalist can prove wrong: Burns, on Charlie Rose, had one take on the situation in Iraq; in her e-mail Fassihi, writing at a different time, had another. But there is something to be said for being openly right or wrong rather than hiding an assessment behind the carefully choreographed quotes of various named and unnamed sources.

No one is suggesting that reporters pontificate, spout, hazard a guess, or “tell” when it is indeed “too soon to tell.” No one is suggesting that they indulge in unsupported, shoot-from-the-hip tirades. “It’s not like talk radio,” explains one of the champions of analytic journalism, Mike Levine, executive editor of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York. But it’s not traditional American journalism either. Levine, a former columnist, had noticed that the analyses reporters unburdened themselves of in conversations in the newsroom were often much more interesting than what ended up in the paper. Some of that conversation is mere loose talk and speculation, of course. Yet “walk into any newsroom in America,” Levine says, “turn the reporters upside down, and a hundred stories will come falling out. They know so much about the communities they cover, but they don’t get it in the newspaper.”

When he took over the Times Herald-Record in 1999, Levine was determined to change that. “We simply asked reporters to give the readers the benefit of their intelligent analysis,” he explains. This means paying less attention to the mere fact that a hospital administrator resigned in nearby Sullivan County. It may even mean leaving the account of the resignation to the paper’s Web site. It definitely means more attention, in the paper, to what that resignation might signify.

“We’re not the infantry anymore,” Levine explains. “We don’t just go out to board meetings and take dictation. That’s not really much of a contribution to the community. What are needed are journalists who can connect the dots.” Levine, in other words, is not afraid of letting his reporters—after they’ve done the reporting, when they know as much about a subject as most of their sources—find meaning in the dots.

Accomplishing this at a newspaper that may not be at the top of the hiring ladder has required, in Levine’s words, relying on “some experienced people devoted to community journalism”; it has required finding and hiring some young reporters who are “curious” enough not to “shut down inquiry” and surrender to what Levine calls “a stale, petrified ‘objectivity.’” But Levine adds, “not every reporter on staff does this kind of reporting. We’re evolving into it.”

Here is an example of what happens when journalists do Levine’s kind of reporting, from a multipart Times Herald-Record series by the reporters Tim Logan and John Doherty, on a renaissance in the city of Newburgh:

The city is shaking off three decades of inertia. It’s an exciting time. The real-estate market is hot. City politics are more harmonious. And there are plans galore. Plans for a community college on lower Broadway, plans for the long-empty stretch of land on Water Street, a master plan under way for the city as a whole.

But there’s no plan for the city’s poor . . . . If this city is truly going to rebuild, if it will ever fill the void at its heart, if it can transform itself from a drain on the rest of Orange County into the thriving hub the county desperately needs, Newburgh can no longer ignore its poverty.

Note: That’s not, “Some observers suggest Newburgh can no longer ignore its poverty.” Nor is that an editorial or a column. The point is being made in news pages, at a small, local newspaper, by journalists—based on what they have learned on their beats (the Times Herald-Record employs a traditional, geography-based beat structure), and based on their own reasoned and informed appraisal of the situation.

Burned-out reporters can be forgiven for dreaming that the coming of this analyzing and appraising will lead to a life of leisurely speculation. But, alas, more industrious reporting, not less, will be required. You’d better know an awful lot about plans for rebuilding Newburgh before you contemplate criticizing those plans. Getting at the meaning of events will demand looking beyond press conferences, escaping the pack, tracking down more knowledgeable sources, spending more time with those who have been affected, even seeking out those whom Levine of the Times Herald-Record calls “the invisible people—people who are not at board meetings who may not even show up at the voting booth.” When Levine took over, his paper began a “sourcing project,” designed to force reporters to avoid “going to the same three or four sources [for] every story.” More and more diverse sources, the theory goes, should improve story ideas and stories, and help reporters know more when they say what they know.

Strategies developed at the Times Herald-Record might be of use at larger papers, too. As a source of timely and important analysis, our journalistic heavyweights are simply not—on a day-to-day, story-to-story basis—reliable. We will know that they have grasped their role in this staler-than-your-muffin news world only when they realize that being fast with the analysis is as important today as being fast with the news has been for the last hundred years.

For that to happen, our major news organizations—we need to begin thinking of them as “news-analysis organizations”—will have to develop a stable of knowledgeable analysts whom they can assign each day to the major stories—as they currently assign reporters. Some of these “wisdom journalists” might be obtained through raids on think tanks and weeklies. Smaller papers, less able to filch an expert on urban issues from the Brookings Institution, might regularly borrow some analytic talent from the less jargon-infested corners of local universities. But daily news-analysis organizations must also develop their own career path for analysts.

Working your way up through the metro desk, the Washington bureau, and a few overseas beats certainly has its value, but it does not necessarily qualify you for untangling the underlying causes of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Some extensive university training might. News-analysis organizations will have no more room for the sort of scholars who never leave the library or their laptops than they’ll have room for the sort who stuff sixty words, two of them unfamiliar, into a sentence. “I have a degree in East-Asian studies,” Susan Chira, foreign editor of The New York Times, states. “But when I went to Asia myself and lived there, I found out a lot of things my teachers didn’t know.” We will continue—in journalism, not academic journals—to need theory to be tested and illuminated by experience, including on-the-street, eyes-open, with-the-victims experience. But an ability to go and get is simply no longer sufficient. The best journalistic organizations are going to be selling the best thinking on current events—and that often is furthered by deep, directed study.

The old saying is that reporters are only as good as their sources. We will require many more journalists who, when occasion demands, are better than their sources, journalists who are impeccably informed. Let’s call this one of the five I’s—a guide to what journalists need to be, now that at least four of the old five W’s are more widely and easily available. Intelligent would be another, along with interesting and a holdover from the previous ethos: industrious. But the crucial quality is probably insightful.

It is significant how many of the most respected names in the history of journalism—from Joseph Addison to Dorothy Thompson and Tom Wolfe, from Charles Dickens to Ernie Pyle and I.F. Stone—were, indeed, known for stories that were exhaustively reported, marvelously written, and often startlingly insightful. The disruptions caused by the new news technologies will prove a blessing if they allow journalists to stop romanticizing the mere gathering and organization of facts and once again aspire to those qualities.

Mitchell Stephens is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of A History of News.