January 24, 2012

As 2012 gets moving, I thought I’d be the very last person to list some of the ideas that have gotten stuck in my mind from over the last year.

Last year, I wrote a list of lessons I’d learned from women in media, and I found that to be a useful filter for reflecting on the year. So I’ve resurrected it for a slightly different list. This year, I’m recounting not lessons, but ideas. Thoughts still tumbling around in my head, sparked — again — by several brilliant people who (mostly) happen to be women.

What journalism can mean

As we all know, journalism remains in the midst of a deep identity crisis. We aren’t exactly sure what it is, what it’s supposed to do, and whether it works. Every now and then, however, we happen across a work of journalism so self-evidently worthy that it needs no explanation or justification beyond itself.

Enter Homicide Watch, the first child of Laura and Chris Amico. If you haven’t spent much time with the site, fix that. (Start with the magnificent year in review package.) Aided by her husband Chris (my coworker at NPR), Laura Amico is doing sobering, powerful work.

The site needs no more explanation than its tagline: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” As the site description explains, “Using original reporting, court documents, social media, and the help of victims’ and suspects’ friends, family, neighbors and others, we cover every homicide from crime to conviction.”

That word — “every” — is key to what distinguishes Homicide Watch and makes it so valuable. People often say there are two DCs. Our metro area is often described as “recession-proof,” and currently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Yet within the city itself, there are large wards that have some of the country’s highest poverty and unemployment rates. Like many cities, D.C. has corners where homicide is rare and shocking, and corners where homicide is an annual event. Only the former killings tend to dominate the news.

Jay Rosen once proposed an idea he called the “100 Percent Solution” — biting off a corner of the world and aiming to cover 100 percent of it. Homicide Watch is what that idea looks like in practice. And it’s clearly appreciated by residents, as you can see.

It’s a site that takes perfect advantage of all the capabilities of the Web to do path-breaking journalism. Because of its comprehensiveness, it’s the go-to resource for D.C. residents when a loved one has been killed, and a first stop on Google for anyone seeking information about a homicide. Threads routinely become memorials for friends and family members of the departed.

With Chris’ technical work underpinning Laura’s reporting, it’s a valuable data repository as well, containing interactive maps, DocumentCloud integration, and a peerless victim and suspect database. I’ve marveled as Laura has pieced together victim identifications from the site’s search referral data.

The site imagines a world where the taking of a human life — no matter whose — is always a serious act, one that deserves our attention not only at the moment of tragedy, but throughout the ensuing quest for justice. By doggedly and passionately reporting on our world that way, Laura is helping to bring it about. I can think of few journalistic ends worthier than that.

Discovery and connection as creative acts

Maria Popova, who goes by @brainpicker on Twitter, does “curation” in a way that really makes the buzzword’s inadequacies clear. Her Twitter stream and her invaluable site are two of the most consistently mind-expandinging feeds I follow. As Hannah Levintova put it, each blog post of hers is “a stunning hidden gem that would take the average netizen hours to track down.”

From the many, many ideas Popova has sparked in my brain, one has stuck more stubbornly than any other: We need to start treating discovery, connection and sharing as creative acts.

Even now, long after “curation” became the most reliable buzzword in the journalism conference drinking game, we still have a fairly narrow understanding of what “creation” means. We talk about “creating content” as though it were something distinct from discovering ideas, connecting them together, and sharing them with others, rather than overlapping with those acts.

Read Popova’s description of her daily process, and you will understand that it is an art she has worked as hard to perfect as any reporter has worked on her beat. It’s as consuming and imaginative as any other creative endeavor. And it’s incredibly valuable.

Many will start trying to resurrect the creation/discovery firewall here: But her work depends on the work of someone else! OK, so whose doesn’t? As Popova has put it, all “creativity is combinatorial.” Done poorly, bad curation (like bad reporting) is just hackery. But done well, it is a deeply inventive act.

This has implications. Among other things, as Popova has written, it means we have to start thinking about how we acknowledge curation and discovery in ways more sophisticated than “via @somebody.” And it means we need to think more aggressively about how to describe and teach these skills. I highly recommend Popova’s own explorations of these ideas at Brainpickings and at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Nostalgia as a media force

This is abstract, but stick with me.

As many have remarked, one of the effects of contemporary technology is that it has drastically augmented our memories. It’s an ancient, problematic phenomenon: we’re outsourcing more and more of the task of remembering from our brains to our gadgets.

As Thamus said to Theuth, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” The more of our lives we capture — in phonecams, status updates, sensor-driven data feeds — the less we have to remember. (And the less, some would argue, we even fully experience.)

You might describe nostalgia as the distance between our memory of a thing and our experience of it. It’s a gap that brings with it a sort of pleasurable pain — the joy of a memory paired with the sad fact that you’ll never live it again.

Our technology confronts us with this gap constantly. The ubiquitous digital photograph is a nostalgia production machine. I’ve caught myself reviewing photos of an event and feeling the wistful tug of memory while I’m still at the event. I can’t be the only person who’s done this. The Polaroid-trumping instantness of a digital camera encourages us to fiddle with our record of an event, to tweak how we’ll remember it later. More on this in a moment.

The two people more responsible for inspiring thoughts about the power of nostalgia over the last year are Willa Paskin and Anne Helen Petersen. In 2011, Paskin inaugurated a feature for New York Magazine called the “Nostalgia Fact Check,” in which she reviews beloved cultural artifacts (e.g. “The Little Mermaid,” Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” and “Raw”).

Petersen, on the other hand, has been writing a series of fascinating features called “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” in which she excavates the lives and careers of some of our most legendary celebrities for insights on how our culture once was, and how it’s changed. Both of these series are wonderful in part because they’re just excellent cultural criticism. But they also exemplify the essence of nostalgia: that divide between the past as we recall it and the past as it was.

Why do these heady observations on nostalgia matter for busy media professionals? Because I’d argue there’s real opportunity in our affinity for nostalgia. Think of Instagram: I’d argue it’s taken off partly because its filters lend an artificial veneer of nostalgia to those in-the-moment digital photos; they instantly make a moment seem more distant or unrecoverable.

Hollywood and Hasbro have also seized on our nostalgia fever. They’ve excavated the ’80s childhoods of today’s new moms and dads to bring back the likes of G.I. Joe, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony. I promise you, that $90 Transformers DVD box set is not targeted at Junior; it’s aimed squarely at the heartstrings of his youthsick Papa.

In October, my buddy Robin Sloan and I gave a talk at TEDxPoynter arguing that news organizations should be designing apps and other products targeted at different user moods (as well as media formats and other experiences). Other media companies have tapped into the nostalgia vein. Could we?

Great long-form journalism is amazing … and rare

For a long time, it’s been a truism that long-form doesn’t work on the Web. But after 2011, long-form storytelling may no longer need champions. Amazon and Apple have stood behind it in a big way, of course. I have several friends who are starting publishing companies aimed at novella-length storytelling. At least two good friends have funded book projects through Kickstarter. Every day, the future of the considered take seems to be looking up. It feels safe to say that long-form storytelling will continue to be around for a while.

I’m happy about this; I love me some long-form. But amidst the resurgent popularity of long-form journalism, I have to thank Ellen Weiss (executive editor of the Center for Public Integrity, whose board I serve on) for a valuable reminder: long-form isn’t always the best form.

These are my thoughts, not Weiss’, but I definitely have to credit her for the conversations that sparked them. Especially when we’re dealing with investigative journalism, it’s easy to default to the assumption that the proper format for a story that took a long time to report is a story that takes a long time to read.

Loving long-form journalism shouldn’t mean believing in length for length’s sake. As Erik Wemple wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year, investigative journalism can be kind of torturous to read, especially the opuses. Of course we have to respect that investigations typically unearth complex facts that aren’t easily distilled. But that means we need to give extra props to folks who can take months of work and compress it into diamonds.

If you were ordered to describe the path that all the money in the world takes as it travels through the global economy, your starting assumption might be that you need a lot of pages for the task. Randall Munroe only needed one (big) page. His infographic — “Money: A chart of (almost) all of it, where it is, and what it can do” — ricocheted all around the Internet when he published it in November. And the chart didn’t only explain money; it also earned some. Two poster versions are available for purchase, and I’m sure I’m one of many who bought the smaller one.

I’d love to see more examples of journalists turning big, important stories into concise, spreadable ones. I think this means more investigative projects led by designers rather than writers. It means reporters taking the time and energy they’d pour into a long narrative report, and using that effort to make the world’s most viral TED talk instead. (Relevant: TED talk about how all TED talks can be summed up in six words. Apparently the distilled essence of every “jaw-dropping” TED talk is, “Flickr photos of intergalactic classical composer.” Sounds about right.)

Again, I’m not trying to (re?)start the long-form backlash. But, to Weiss’ point, it shouldn’t be our default format for important journalism. Often, that 15,000-word opus reflects a different kind of laziness.

(And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of criticizing long writing in a somewhat sprawling five-part piece.)

The revolution will probably be Funny Or Die’d

(1) Comedy has long been the best vehicle for working through controversial or polarizing issues. (2) There are so many polarizing issues our society needs to work through right now. (3) We journalists have to figure out how to use this comedy business.

Humor allows us to engage with stereotypes, inequities and prejudices more meaningfully than we can in almost any non-comedic context. Think of Jeff Foxworthy reclaiming the concept of the redneck, or Eddie Murphy taunting the kids who can’t have ice cream ’cause they’re on welfare. It also brings these things into the light, turning them into ideas everyone can talk about rather than ideas reserved for in-group conversations. And so it is with Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl.” As many folks have remarked, the protagonist J is not a character you’re likely to encounter in a Hollywood flick or a network sitcom, despite the fact that she’s familiar and relatable.

For many of the same reasons, I was sucked into the “$#!* People Say” meme as well, and particularly Franchesca Ramsey’s “$#!* White Girls Say … To Black Girls” take on it. The original video felt like easy, familiar, only mildly transgressive humor. But when the meme got to Ramsey, she took it to another level, using it to express sentiments that really don’t often make it into polite conversation.

There’s a reason journalists don’t typically do humor. When we try to be funny, it typically doesn’t go very well. But could we take a page from Rae and Ramsey and point the lens on ourselves, rather than the folks we cover? I would have loved to see the New York Times launch a “Truth Vigilantes” segment in response to public editor Arthur Brisbane’s cherry bomb of a column the other day.

And we know we’re terrific targets for humor. Everyone who works in journalism right now knows that the Daily Show and the Colbert Report occupy a quasi-journalistic space that has been problematic for journalists. In 2010, according to Pew, Jon Stewart was ranked alongside Barbara Walters, Matt Lauer and Tom Brokaw on a list of the country’s most admired journalists. (More than half of the survey respondents didn’t give an answer.)

We also know that humor is sometimes the best vehicle for expressing serious things, even when they aren’t polarizing or controversial. When Allie Brosh used her wonderful Webcomic “Hyperbole and a Half” to explore her depression, the result was incredibly touching and wildly popular. Over at Cracked.com the other day, John Cheese used the lowly listicle to write a funny and insightful short essay on the vicious cycles of poverty.

As we figure out what journalism might learn from these memes, pay special attention to the patterns in the storytelling. Humor on the Web often involves a particular sort of repetition or recursion. Think LOLcats, or the Ryan Gosling meme. You need something a little absurd, a little familiar, that can be slightly tweaked and easily reproduced.

The “$#!* —-s Say” meme had a common, instantly identifiable aesthetic, easy to riff off of. Take another look at Hyperbole and a Half, and notice how much Brosh uses repetition within the comic itself to create humor. Comics in other media have used this technique for a long time, but the long scrolling canvas of the Webcomic makes it especially useful.

I dwell on this because I think we should be paying attention to the characteristics of funny memes, and how they get produced and spread. I think we can use this knowledge. Humor is a storytelling device as legitimate as any other, and it’s particularly useful for addressing uncomfortable societal territory. Given that we might end up with a presidential contest between the first black President and the first Mormon candidate from a major party, we oughta come prepared.

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I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked…
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