American journalism is suffering from a lack of imagination.
We’re at a transformational moment in how we publish and broadcast our work — a time of great promise when we can reinvent how we tell stories.
And yet, we are still doing things the same way we’ve done them for decades. Take a look at any newspaper’s website and you’ll see the same old story form — just in pixels. It’s the same for television stations. Their websites post the same video packages that were on the 6 o’clock news.
We are stuck in the ’90s. I remember one of the first conferences on computer assisted reporting in the mid-’90s when they showed us this thing called “the Web” and demonstrated a website for the “Late Show with David Letterman.” It was very cool and very promising. It showed how the Web gave us a new canvas to create new forms of journalism.
And yet here we are, almost 20 years later, and the content we’re putting on the Web has hardly changed.
What’s taking so long?
It’s partly an infrastructure problem. At newspapers, we’re hamstrung by the editing and content management systems that are used to publish our work. They were built for putting ink on paper. Then, as something of an afterthought, we added the ability to publish on the Web. But they are so rigid and constrained by our old templates that we have little flexibility to create new story forms.
Another problem is old media thinking. Editors and reporters haven’t stopped to invent new forms of storytelling — or even consider how they might do things differently on the Web and mobile devices. Their automatic response is to do the same basic thing they’ve always done: “Go write a news story about that.”
So let’s blow up the news story.
It’s time to rethink the unit of journalism. If we want to re-imagine how we tell stories, we need to consider alternatives to the traditional inverted pyramid story. So let’s tear it up. Let’s reinvent how we tell stories and create some new forms.
We should start by figuring out what we can do with the Web and mobile devices that aren’t possible with ink on paper.
For one thing, the Web and mobile devices can tally and sort. A lot of what we do in journalism is counting, and telling stories through counting. Our devices can now do that for us. They can also sort, telling us what’s important for us based on our location or our interests and they can tell the backstory more effectively.
We need to invent new units of journalism. In our old way of thinking, the unit was simply The Story, anything from a four-inch account of a burglary to a long narrative.
With the new platforms, we don’t have to repeat the backstory every time because the Web and mobile devices provide us easier and more creative ways to bring people up to date. If you haven’t been following a long-running tale, you could click to read the backstory, like at the beginning of a TV show when they say, “Previously, on ‘The Wire’…”
I was looking at a trial story recently, and I wanted to read what we had written when the crime first occurred. But in our content management system there was no way to easily link to that previous installment, to the original chapter. You should be able to get that with one click.
Devices can also allow readers to explore. A lot of what we do in journalism is with the attitude, “We’re gonna give it to you because we think it’s what you should have.” But we don’t provide enough opportunities for readers to explore, to take the raw materials of our journalism and find their own stories.
For example, check out Homicide Watch, a fascinating website in Washington, D.C. Instead of using the old story form, editors Chris and Laura Amico use a homicide as their unit of journalism. Laura writes descriptions of the homicides and then includes entries for victims and suspects. They can also be plotted on a map.
At PolitiFact, we’ve created two new forms. Instead of traditional articles, our Truth-O-Meter fact-checks are a new form that allows you to see a politician’s report card, to see all fact-checks on a subject or see all the Pants on Fire ratings. We can make larger journalistic points through the automatic tallies and summaries of our work.
We’ve done the same thing with the Obameter and the other meters we use for tracking campaign promises. The unit of journalism is the promise and then we write updates and rate whether the promise is kept or broken. The promises also get tallied so you can see how the politician is doing.
Here’s another possible new form: the bill in a legislature. We could start off with an explanation of the bill, who’s for it and who’s against it. We could provide updates for the introduction of the bill, hearings, floor debate, passage, and enactment. We could even automate it by tapping into the website of a state legislature or Congress. Then we could add journalism when it becomes a significant bill. We could identify the most significant bills and even localize them so you could see how your representative voted.
I am optimistic about the future of journalism. I see this as a moment of promise when we can take advantage of these new platforms. But to do it, we really need to blow up the old forms.
Bill Adair is the editor of PolitiFact, the Washington bureau chief of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times and an adjunct faculty member at the Poynter Institute.This article is adapted from a presentation at TEDxPoynter on June 1, 2012.