April 7, 2014

During the night, I tossed and turned over this question: What does it take to create something new in journalism and make it stick? The question was inspired by a Jay Rosen post tracking the progress of Nate Silver’s new ESPN venture called “FiveThirtyEight” (the number of votes in the Electoral College). I glanced at the alarm clock. It said – I am not making this up, Dave Barry – 5:38. It was a sign.

So if Silver’s efforts represent a body of work – data journalism – what exactly is it? Where does it fit in the history of other analogous journalism inventions? At first glance, data journalism is bigger than a genre, more transcendent than a beat. The word “form” feels too squishy, so allow me to call it a mode. Maybe it would help to list other modes of journalism, in rough chronological order:

  • Wire service reporting
  • Investigative reporting
  • Human interest reporting
  • The New Journalism (leading to narrative journalism and immersive reporting)
  • Television news magazines
  • Computer-assisted reporting
  • USA Today (and its influence on color, graphics, and concise writing)
  • Explanatory journalism
  • Public journalism
  • Online journalism
  • Multimedia journalism
  • Data journalism

These categories are big, imprecise, and over-lapping. But, like pornography, I know an example when I see it. The list leads me to some generalizations about news gathering and reporting:

  • Modes of journalism are not eternal. They are invented in time for a purpose, influenced by demography, markets, and technologies.
  • Some modes of journalism become tired, even exhausted, no longer able to meet the needs of the day.
  • Even when exhausted, modes never disappear. They can be dismissed only to return to service.
  • All modes on that list exist in 2014, even as they compete with new forms (such as social networks) in an era of tumultuous change.

Some modes are stronger, some are weaker. Some retain their shape, others are shape shifters. The question I keep asking: What does it take to join a Club Mode? What does it take to create a new mode of journalism, and not just create it, but make it stick? By “make it stick” I mean: make it grow, create a demand for it, see it more often, or multiply its practitioners.

I am going to suggest six criteria for a mode’s innovation and stick-ability.

1.  A manifesto
2.  An anthology
3.  Infrastructure to replicate
4.  A congenial technology
5.  An audience or market
6.  An organization

I’ll briefly describe each one and draw some implications.

Manifesto:  Sometimes a manifesto comes early in the movement, sometimes much later. Sometimes it is written not by practitioners, but by scholars or critics. The public journalism movement was manifesto heavy, with statements of mission and purpose coming from scholars such as Jay Rosen and editors such as Buzz Merritt and Cole Campbell. This made the movement effective and controversial at the same time. No one was trying to sneak stuff in the newspaper.

One job of a manifesto is to call attention to the inadequacies of the existing modes of journalism. Such criticisms of the status quo are almost always over-stated. They are almost never diplomatic or judicious enough to incorporate rank-and-file practitioners and their existing routines.

One manifesto came from Tom Wolfe during the development of the New Journalism in the 1960s. He wrote and spoke publicly about the need for forms of non-fiction that relied on the narrative strategies of fiction: character details, scenes, dialogue, point of view, etc. Wolfe not only described what a new journalism could be, he offered the tools on how to create it. But the New Journalism was not just about technique. It was about the need for a journalism that paid attention to things that the mainstream ignored, like rock music.

Anthology: In Wolfe’s case, his manifesto became the introduction to an actual anthology of stories designed to showcase New Journalism. Such collections of expert work are essential to building the pillars for a new architecture. Anthologies need not come in book form. These days, there are many ways to examine the products of excellent work, such as the narrative story website Gangrey.com. Contests also help to focus attention on the best examples, though it always helps to add some expert commentary or make it the basis of some training.

W.H. Auden said that a poem is a “contraption” with a person hiding inside. But so is journalism. If you are trying to build something different – a Gothic cathedral that can support huge stained glass windows – it is important for a new generation of practitioners to study what you have built, understand the parts of the process, develop names for those parts, and give it a try.

Replication: If I can examine what you have done, maybe I can replicate it. In 1996, I experimented with a form of serial narrative with short chapters. I found some rough examples from fiction and nonfiction to guide me. But when I was finished with “Three Little Words,” other narrative writers could see my blueprint and figure out if it suited their needs.

One concern posed by examples of multimedia reporting and writing – such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Snowfall” – is whether or not it can be replicated, especially in shops smaller than The New York Times. We have many examples of good multimedia reporting, but the best ones seem to be labor intensive, well beyond the resources of most news organizations. So if multimedia journalism is a mode, I think it has important work to do on all three fronts mentioned so far: the manifesto, the anthology, and the infrastructure to replicate.

Technology:  I am persuaded by Jay Rosen’s argument that what the public journalism movement lacked in the 1990s was a congenial technology that could compete with the traditional newspaper and make the collection and distribution of news more democratic. That technology now exists. It’s called the Internet. USA Today took advantage of technologies that made the creation of color informational graphics much easier. By definition, computer-assisted reporting was built upon a technology that could count things quickly. A compliant technology is the key advantage of multimedia reporting: the ability to mix video, sound, text, still images, and much more, in an effort to enhance a report or story in the public interest.

Audience:  Audience and market are not married, but they sleep together. We think of the human interest story as a standard of journalism, yet it was very much a creation of the Penny Press, serving an expanding audience at the turn of the 20th century in America’s cities. In an important book written in 1940, “News and the Human Interest Story,”  Helen MacGill Hughes (in a manifesto, of sorts, written after the fact), describes how traditionalists saw human interest as a betrayal of standards. In their view, journalism should concern itself with the workings of government and commerce.

In an effort to attract more women to coverage of the Olympics, NBC has developed a style of human interest reporting and writing that focuses less on the results, and more on the lives of the athletes. Human interest lives on as a journalistic mode.

In the 1990s, it was never clear that public journalism had an audience that could be converted into a market, a problem that had it stalled for a while. USA Today imagined its market as busy travelers – as the NY tabloids imagines its market as strap-hangers on the subway – with short lively forms created in service to those constituencies.

Organization: A sign that a mode has become a part of the news media landscape is when its proponents gather together, sometimes forming a club to celebrate and expand their mutual interests. This has been the hallmark of Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Online News Association, and the Boston University and Mayborn narrative conferences. I’m not sure what the members of all these would talk about if they found themselves in the same ballroom, but it is easy to see how each one champions a certain mode of journalism.

I will now confess a bias: I’ve never met a mode of journalism I didn’t like or couldn’t appreciate. Give me more, more, more. I’m doing my best to follow the work of Nate Silver and his editor, my friend Mike Wilson. I want FiveThirtyEight to do well, to teach this English major more about Bayesian analysis, and to enlighten me with more conceptual scoops based on the numbers. I also want their stories to be well-written (call me!), and to be grounded in a strong sense of mission and purpose.

If this is an important new mode, what will help it spread? Let’s return to my categories:

Nate Silver and his team are strong in the area of manifestos. Not only has he written a book about his work, but he continues to explain and revise. He reaches out to join others in conversation. He has made the classic mistake, I believe, in his dismissal of certain kind of opinion journalists, who lack, by Silver’s standards, a hard evidentiary basis for their beliefs. Most people in the public sphere understand that argument often precedes evidence – in fact leads to it. Silver’s antagonisms may set him apart in the short run, but, long term, they will alienate some who may want to wish him well.

Silver’s site is one way to build an anthology, as are the kinds of books written on economics by Michael Lewis. But Silver seems stuck right now between, to use his baseball analogy, clean singles and home runs. Anthologies need both. But they especially need work that feels different  – and that makes a difference. I see this as a work in progress.

The value of those singles is a kind of modesty, a suggestion that they can be replicated. Larger pieces – like investigations – require weeks or even months of human and technical labor. As more news organizations hire computer scientists and data visualization experts (if they can afford them!), we will discover what is possible on the local level. Will Big Data give birth to Little Data? There was a time, not long ago, when news organizations began to hire page designers. Few had a background in journalism. But over time, skills and values came together on behalf of the reader.

The problem for Silverites is not the availability of a compliant technology, but making sure that powerful technologies do not unduly dominate the process. The technology may compile data at breathless speed, but how that knowledge is selected and then conveyed to readers will still depend on editors, writers, and visual artists.

I am now part of the audience for FiveThirtyEight, and maybe the market – if they sell T-shirts. If there is anyone who should be able to keep track of these numbers and help us understand what they mean, and whether Silver turns to Gold, it will be Mr. Nate.

At Poynter not long ago, we had an informative conference on understanding audience.  There were cool people there who understood computer science, statistics, algorithms, and programming. And who could talk about mission and purpose, narrative in all its forms, and the future of journalism and democracy, here and around the world. If those folks want to start an organization, better yet a club, I’m ready to join.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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