4 types of journalists: How they tick and what we can learn from them

Nine years ago, when I was working full-time for Poynter, my colleagues and I took the Myers-Briggs test during a team retreat.* I hadn’t heard of the test at the time, and aside from light Psych 101-ish readings during college, I had never learned much about the Jungian theories it was based on.

Candidly, my first reaction to the test was pretty dismissive; I considered the results about as useful as a horoscope. But as my colleagues and I talked about our findings, I was increasingly swayed by the very basic — but very important — truth at the heart of the exercise: We each interact with and respond to the world in deeply different ways, and it’s crucial to consider those differences as we interact with and respond to one another. If we understand each other better, we can work together more effectively.

Like I said, basic stuff. But I’m reminded of this basic realization very often as I work with many different journalists from a variety of newsrooms. I’ve found myself developing my own vocabulary to describe what motivates and inhibits the journalists I encounter. As this vocabulary has become more concrete in my mind, I thought it might be valuable to share it.

But first, some disclaimers: these are types, not hard-and-fast roles — bell curves, not buckets. Every good journalist can tap into any of these attributes, even if they incline toward one in particular. And different circumstances require different approaches; our foremost thought when doing journalism should be serving the public interest, not indulging our inclinations.

Recognizing those inclinations, however, is valuable. There are multiple ways of approaching any subject. Acknowledging our passions and pitfalls can help us do better work, allowing us to both play to our strengths and play against type when the situation merits it. So here they are, the four types of journalists I’ve encountered and what I’ve observed about them:

The Storyteller

Primary motivation: Connecting people to each other and to issues that matter in their lives.
Patron saints: Michael Lewis, Lane DeGregory
Best compliment: “What a powerful lede.”
Strengths: Storytellers render dull material vivid, making broccoli taste like s’mores. In the hands of this journalist, even a mundane City Council meeting becomes a font of whimsy and intrigue. I’d argue this type of journalism has the most general appeal; almost anyone can relate to a good story. Plus, great stories and their characters and themes are likely to stick with you long after the facts themselves have faded from memory — handy fodder for your next cocktail party. I suspect most journalists fall into this type.
Potential pitfalls: Reality has a way of defying classical narrative conventions. As Tyler Cowen has argued eloquently, our zeal for stories can blind us to underlying empirical trends that are ultimately more important. We tend to turn political races, for example, into grand dramatic clashes between near-mythic characters with tragic, indelible flaws. But very often, the dynamics of a political race are mundane, driven by a complex mix of circumstances that a good story might obscure or oversimplify. If you need any more convincing about the dangers of stories, read Aaron Bady’s masterful essay connecting Jimmy McNulty, #Kony2012 and Mike Daisey.

The Newshound

Primary motivation: Exposing facts that are hidden or unknown.
Patron saints: David Rogers, Renee Ferguson
Best compliment: “You landed a huge scoop.”
Strengths: Newshounds possess a relentless curiosity and drive that helps them constantly uncover new facts. Most investigative journalists probably lean in this direction. Although news is often a commodity in the age of Twitter, anyone who is regularly the first source of new information on a topic is likely to garner a large, loyal and influential audience.
Potential pitfalls: News has a tendency of crowding out context. We give outsized focus to novel information at the expense of known facts that might help us legitimately understand an issue better. At its worst, this tendency pushes us to gobble an everlasting stream of trivia without ever attending to the truly significant dynamics of a story.

The Systems Analyst

Primary motivation: Understanding the world and explaining it clearly.
Patron saints: David Leonhardt, Gina Kolata
Best compliment: “You helped me get the issue for the first time.”
Strengths: Systems Analysts have a gift for sniffing out root causes, key trends and important patterns that underpin a story. They prize themselves on cultivating genuine expertise, knowledge of a subject that lasts far beyond a news cycle. That degree of authority can inspire a loyal audience, as folks find themselves coming back again and again to get the journalist’s take on news developments.
Potential pitfalls: It can be difficult to write about systemic patterns in ways that are accessible to general audiences. Systems Analysts constantly have to be vigilant about not convening a conversation solely for wonks and insiders. They often have to fight against a tendency to focus on broad, empirical understanding without capturing the individual experiences that bring out the nuances in the data. It also takes time to foster deep, genuine understanding of a subject; the metabolism of that process cuts against the demands of the continuous news cycle.

The Provocateur

Primary motivation: Revealing the many complex facets of the world.
Patron saints: Malcolm Gladwell, Bethany McLean
Best compliment: “That’s a fascinating insight I’d never thought of before.”
Strengths: Provocateurs surface distinctive ideas and angles, disrupting the natural tendency of media types to exhibit herd behavior. They spur us to think in new ways about a topic or to identify emerging trends or patterns that are worth keeping an eye on. They savor the feeling of covering an issue no one else has drawn attention to, or reporting on an angle nobody’s pursued yet. Provocateurs are particularly good at posing questions, poking at conventional wisdom in a way that encourages us to think critically about it.
Potential pitfalls: Originality ≠ insight. The desire for a fresh take can push a journalist into being pointlessly contrarian or spotting trends that don’t exist. Provocateurs have to be careful not to make too much out of outliers and exceptions. They also face the danger of latching onto an undercovered story in a way that alienates the public rather than drawing people in.

In case this exercise itself didn’t give me away, I’m a Systems Analyst, through and through. While I love a good story or a fresh take, I tend to think in frameworks, and I most value journalism that gives me a comprehensive understanding of its subject. I often have to keep that orientation in check when I work with different types of journalists, pushing myself to get a sense of what they value most and keeping that in mind as we collaborate.

After we took our Myers-Briggs tests, my Poynter colleagues and I each got a workbook to help us interpret our results. It included this analogy: “Think of your choices as somewhat like being right- or left-handed. Both hands are valuable, but most people reach first with the hand they prefer. They usually use that hand more and become more skillful with that hand. In the same way, your type preferences are choices between equally valuable and useful qualities.”

At the risk of sounding a bit too Pollyannaish, I think that philosophy is just right. Every one of these types is capable of producing great journalism and poor journalism. I suspect the best journalism most often arises when journalists with different inclinations mix and work together. Perhaps you recognize the types I’ve identified here, and perhaps you’ve found entirely different ones. Maybe you find this about as useful as a fortune cookie. But if anything in this exercise resonates with you, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* I tested as an ENTP (“Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving”).

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  • Andria Krewson

    Oops, double post. Deleted redundancies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502633955 Douglas E. Jessmer

    The problem is that designers (“packagers” seems so blue-collar industrial) really are journalists. They’re visual editors, but many times, and in many newsrooms, they’re treated as paginators or glorified compositors, mouse jockeys who move garbage in, garbage out. They have journalistic sense and sensibilities, they can concentrate on “the story” as well as the gestalt, and when they’re challenged, they can practice the commission of journalism as well as anyone. It’s a cultural issue in newsrooms that you’d think SND, if no
    one else, would champion more.

    Yes, there are too many newspaper pages that are practically rote, pages that don’t require as much visual thinking, but that doesn’t mean every page in a newspaper should be packaged by someone with a two-year, trade-school education who learns the mechanics but doesn’t understand the theory and the larger-world perspective. And frankly, as we’re expected to do so much more with less, producers and designers are becoming editors, more and more. Do you want good editors? Or just assemblers who spell as well as the TV people who type in the snippets we see on cable-news crawlers?

  • https://opalkatze.wordpress.com/ vera

    Hm. I’m an INTP but maybe not clever enough to see how this fits into your four types …

  • https://opalkatze.wordpress.com/ vera

    Hm. I’m an INTP but maybe not clever enough to see how this fits into your four types …

  • http://twitter.com/dougmcgill Doug McGill

    DigiDave’s brilliant collage, “How Journalists See Each Other,” seems a natural part of this thread. Love that lower right block, “How Print Reporters See Print Reporters.” http://goo.gl/Mf60H

  • http://twitter.com/dougmcgill Doug McGill

    I liked Matt’s post because it began with motivations (to tell stories, to break news, to explain systems, to provoke), and from there extrapolated story forms, tools, strengths, pitfalls, etc. Whereas it would be hard to go in the opposite direction. In all the “whither journalism” talk today, not much light is shined in this particular direction — towards the journalist’s personal motivations. I’ll bet a lot of good could come from exploring this territory more.  

  • http://twitter.com/marcusod Marcus O’Donnell

    I have been having similar thoughts about the journalism curriculum – there are many more “journalisms” than the simple distinctions we have traditionally set up in our print/web/broadcast streams approach or even our arts/environmental/sports specialities models. 

    The ultimate example of your editor/organiser – what many are calling news curators – is NPR’s Andy Carvin http://current.org/tech/tech1206carvin.html

  • http://twitter.com/JewelRainbow Jewel Rainbow

    Interesting, however you omitted another type that I admire (Oriana Fallaci etc) – the CRUSADER journalist who challenges lies and champions the truth and justice

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/richgordon Rich Gordon

    Good points, Andria. I would add, though, that I think publisher/producers are not just “production” jobs. They are, or at least should be, filled by strategic systems thinkers. It’s more than just pushing content to the site, it’s figuring out what content belongs on the site, how best to present it and how to engage users with it. I see those as journalistic skills, though not necessarily reporting or storytelling skills.

  • Jonathan Stray

    Psychologizing these types is interesting, but I think there is useful distinction we can make between motivation and action. Sure, we could analyze journalists in terms of how much “empathy” drives them, and similar psychological drives. But what I like about Matt’s scheme is it also says something about the types of acts and tools and stories the journalist is likely to be involved in. This is a useful way of looking at things which is not, I don’t think, captured in just “motivation,” because motivation can express itself in a lot of different ways, inside and outside of journalism. 

  • Andria Krewson

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    Right, Rich.

    The caution is this:
    If you’re teaching people pursuing bachelor’s (or master’s) in journalism
    schools, I would assume they’re investing in those degrees in pursuit of
    thoughtful, creative careers. Editing headlines, writing engaging tweets and
    designing web and print pages are part of that. But being able to think
    systematically about that work matters more in the long run if they want
    positions that grow with them (see Greg Linch, Megan Garber). Many of the
    positions in the area of journalism producing are suitable for people with
    two-year degrees and with salaries that match (online or in print). If students
    are OK with working for companies or nonprofits in PR roles, then that broadens
    their options. That’s where I see terms like “content strategist”
    used most. I wish it were used more in journalism.For social media specialists, the openings are blooming now, but again, strategic systems thinking will make those roles interesting in the long run.

    For your point about
    the organizations and the big risks for media “products,” see Jay
    Rosen from 2005: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/03/29/nwsp_dwn.html

    It’s now 2012. People
    need their eyes wide open, and they need to understand that systems and strategic thinking
    will be the skill that allows them to grow into positions that enable creative
    work. That might require statistics, or code, or research methodology.Daily production is … production, with much of the creativity sucked
    out, for online work or in print.

    Of course, exceptions
    exist. Long term, I’d love to be proven wrong. If you’re revising curriculum,
    though, look at what American has done with the entrepreneur master’s and what
    UNC has done with the digital master’s (and yes, I have a conflict of interest
    in mentioning UNC. Love the program). Don’t silo people into being producers or
    reporters or storytellers. 

     

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating post, Matt.

    Reminds me of a wise saying from one of my patron saints of editing, John Carroll.  He divided talented reporters into the categories of indicters and explainers.  Put together one of each, and you could have a potent invesrtigative team — as the Philadelphia Inquirer often did back in the day.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/richgordon Rich Gordon

    Andria,  I think you are right if you think only of packager/producer/editor jobs at large legacy media organizations.  But if you look at digital/online media, what I think you’ll find is a growing number of jobs with titles like online producer, content strategist, online editor, etc. And these jobs are not just at companies we have thought of as news organizations.  These positions are proliferating at government agencies, nonprofits and corporations as well.

    I do understand what’s going on at Gannett/MediaNews/McClatchy, which is of course driven by a need to get more efficient as revenue drops.  I can even understand why it might make sense for these organizations to eliminate these kinds of positions in favor of people who create original content.  But the big risk of this approach is that there won’t be enough attention paid to creating media *products* that people want to use regularly.  Over time, one of the reasons that audiences are shifting to niche media is that the niche media are led and managed by people who understand their audiences and package content to meet their needs and interests.  These skills, in  my view, are growing more important, not less.  

    And I haven’t even mentioned online community/social media management, which is increasingly critical to news/information publishers and, I would argue, is a thriving subset of the packager/producer/editor category.

  • Andria Krewson

    Have to weigh in on Rich’s comment: “Bluntly, this [producers/editors/packagers] is a category of journalism careers that has been growing while reporting/storytelling jobs have not.”

    Depends on how you define those jobs. With the rise of Gannett/Media News/McClatchy hubs, those jobs definitely have not been growing as a percentage of newsroom workforces. Lowering the percentage of the newsrooms devoted to that kind of work is a goal becoming reality at traditional media companies. It would be wrong to tell students journalists otherwise unless they want to live near one of these hubs or unless they plan to aim solely at new journalism shops (not a bad strategy).

    For those committed to becoming producers/editors/packagers, the systems analyst category fits just fine. Patterns and root causes matter. (Of course, adding design and UI skills would round out that category.)

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/richgordon Rich Gordon

    This is a great typology of reporter/storyteller types in journalism.  It resonates with me on many levels.  What I think is missing are the producers/editors/packagers who assemble products (pages, newspapers, magazines, websites, etc.) featuring the kinds of content created by the different subsets of your typology.  There’s a tendency not to think of them as journalists because their focus is the *media product* rather than the *story*.  I think it’s important that we keep them in mind, in part because what they do is so important to the audience/user experience and in part because, bluntly, this is a category of journalism careers that has been growing while reporting/storytelling jobs have not. 

    For a couple of years now, I’ve been throwing around the idea that journalism schools should reorganize their curriculum — instead of around media platforms (newspapers, magazine, broadcast, online) — around what I see as the three fundamental skillsets/career paths: reporting, storytelling and producing/editing.  This is a different spin on Matt’s framework, I realize …

  • http://twitter.com/dougmcgill Doug McGill

    Hey, Matt, yep, we could fill out the whole Myers-Briggs grid pretty soon! Or, if we bend toward the Enneagram, a nine-pointed star. 

  • http://twitter.com/dougmcgill Doug McGill

    Yes, I think motivations are what Matt was pointing to: the urge to tell a story, to ferret out an unknown fact, to explain a system, to provoke. We might go psychologically a little deeper. We might assume that each of us does journalism in order to satisfy a basic psychological need, such as to support the “me” or the “I” in a fundamental way. This might yield a typology of essential journalistic psychological types, each using journalism to satisfy a primal need such as to: 1) Perfect the imperfections of the world; 2) Help individual people in specific and practical ways, 3) Gain worldly success and achievement for oneself, 4) Express who “I” am to the world, just as a poet or singer might, 5) Solve or explain the systemic complexities world (hi there, Matt!), 6) Create conditions of safety and security for myself and others, 7) Enjoy and share life’s happy moments to the max, I mean, what’s life for anyway?!, 8) Protect the poor, the weak, the innocent; 9) Create conditions for peaceful collaboration by sharing sets of facts on which all disputing parties can (can we?) agree. (A hat tip to yet another personality typology (besides Myers-Briggs) for this schema, the Enneagram.)

  • http://argoproject.org/blog/ Matt Thompson

    Re: motivation vs. form of communication, yes, I’d agree with that.

  • http://argoproject.org/blog/ Matt Thompson

    Re: motivation vs. form of communication, yes, I’d agree with that.

  • http://argoproject.org/blog/ Matt Thompson

    I also like these, Doug. Keep it up and we may have a full-on Myers-Briggs-esque schema on our hands. I think there may be a natural tension between some of these motivations, and I’d be curious to explore that as well.

  • http://twitter.com/KMBTweets Khadijah M. Britton

    I love these additions, Doug! I think I am the empath and the helper. :) I was sitting here sort of annoyed that I didn’t relate to the archetypes in the article, but I see the point that journalism takes all kinds and we need to respect each other’s motivations. Also, to respond to Andy’s tweeted point, data journalists can fall into any of these – they can use the data to tell stories, to illuminate unclear aspects of life, to provoke… It’s more about a dominant motivation than a dominant mode of communication. …Right?

  • http://argoproject.org/blog/ Matt Thompson

    Andy Boyle asks on Twitter, “What type is someone who hacks CMS or does design/graphics? Are only REPORTERS journalists in your eyes?” Thought the question merited a slightly longer response than I could offer on Twitter.

    My observations are about the types of journalism folks incline towards. I actually don’t think anything in this typology is limited to folks who work predominantly in text. There are visual journalists who most savor the distinctive take (I’d call these folks “Provocateurs”), some who hunger to be on the front line of breaking news (“Newshounds”), some who most enjoy exposing systems (“Systems Analysts”), and some who value visual journalism primarily for its immersive narrative possibilities (“Storytellers”). Similarly, there are data journalists who most value data’s ability to reveal the underpinnings of an issue (“Systems Analysts”), others who are all about spinning data into narrative (“Storytellers”), others who love data because it’s a scoop engine (“Newshounds”), and others who value data’s ability to reveal new angles on a story (“Provocateurs”).

    I tend to think of reporting as a subset of journalism – one of the acts that “journalism” encompasses. I definitely don’t think of reporting as synonymous with text.

  • http://argoproject.org/blog/ Matt Thompson

    Andy Boyle asks on Twitter, “What type is someone who hacks CMS or does design/graphics? Are only REPORTERS journalists in your eyes?” Thought the question merited a slightly longer response than I could offer on Twitter.

    My observations are about the types of journalism folks incline towards. I actually don’t think anything in this typology is limited to folks who work predominantly in text. There are visual journalists who most savor the distinctive take (I’d call these folks “Provocateurs”), some who hunger to be on the front line of breaking news (“Newshounds”), some who most enjoy exposing systems (“Systems Analysts”), and some who value visual journalism primarily for its immersive narrative possibilities (“Storytellers”). Similarly, there are data journalists who most value data’s ability to reveal the underpinnings of an issue (“Systems Analysts”), others who are all about spinning data into narrative (“Storytellers”), others who love data because it’s a scoop engine (“Newshounds”), and others who value data’s ability to reveal new angles on a story (“Provocateurs”).

    I tend to think of reporting as a subset of journalism – one of the acts that “journalism” encompasses. I definitely don’t think of reporting as synonymous with text.

  • http://twitter.com/dougmcgill Doug McGill

    Hi Matt, how about “The Empath” (Motivation = to understand & reveal the suffering of others, Patron Saints Katherine Boo, George Orwell); “The Helper” (Motivation = Offer practical solutions to social problems, Patron Saints David Bornstein, Jane Brody); “The Voyeur” (Motivation = Peek behind all of life’s curtains, Patron Saints Ron Rosenbaum, David Carr) and “The Enthusiast” (Motivation = Experience & share the indelible moments of mystery & joy in life, Patron Saints Lawrence Wechsler, Robert Krulwich). I could go on! ;-)