The following post is by Mitchell Stephens, author of the forthcoming Beyond News: The Future of Journalism:
“The century-and-a-half-long period in human history when it was possible to make a big business out of selling news … was an anomaly, and it is now ending.”—Mitchell Stephens
Ezra Klein has long been complaining that, as he put it in 2011, “the news business is biased toward, well, news.” So it was no surprise when Klein explained recently that the new “publication” he is launching would go beyond presenting “new information”—i.e. news.
Deemphasizing news reporting does not qualify as an outrageous approach to quality journalism in 2014. Indeed, there are definite signs that the American journalist’s obsession with merely recounting what happened yesterday is lessening—even at traditional “news organizations.” “Hard news,” the public editor of the New York Times recently conceded, is now sometimes “hard to find” on that newspaper’s front page.
My forthcoming book, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, makes the case that, with news now so widely available and so often free, such a move away from news is inevitable. And this applies to the best journalists with legacy publications and newscasts as well as the best new, online journalists. The century-and-a-half-long period in human history when it was possible to make a big business out of selling news, the book maintains, was an anomaly, and it is now ending.
The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, is discomfited by this switch away from simply reporting the news: “In my view,” she writes, “The Times’ most prominently displayed stories sometimes go too far in the direction of interpretation, analysis and elaborate writing. The reasonable reader, with only his coffee for assistance, might well wish that the important nugget of news would appear in the second paragraph instead of the seventh.” Most traditional journalists—despite what has been happening to their front pages, newscasts and home pages—would probably agree with Sullivan that stories need to continue to emphasize an account of what happened.
I disagree. That “nugget of news”—some number of people were killed this morning, the president said yesterday—will now be available all over the Web. Our best journalism organizations, like the New York Times or the one Ezra Klein is trying to create, should not, obviously, ignore the details on what happened, but they ought to aspire to a journalism that goes significantly beyond just jotting down what someone—a police chief or a president—said. They need to go beyond what Reuters’ financial blogger Felix Salmon calls “commodity news.” Salmon dismisses such press-conference, big-event, hang-out-with-the-pack stories as: “low-hanging fruit in terms of journalistic effort.”
My new book is a call for more interpretation, analysis and thoughtful writing—more insight. It notes that the journalism out of which the United States was born—the journalism of Ben Franklin, John Dickinson and Thomas Paine—was highly opinionated and conspicuously lacking in nuggets of news. The book celebrates the work of the men and women who have been this country’s most insightful journalists and who, not coincidentally, also been among its most consequential journalists. They include: Lincoln Steffens, the young Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Edward R. Murrow, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and, yes, the young Ezra Klein.
Klein himself clearly wants to limit the amount of effort his new publication devotes to collecting and crafting nuggets of news. “New information is not always—and perhaps not even usually—the most important information for understanding a topic,” he writes. But I am not sure I buy Klein’s prescription for what our best journalists should provide to facilitate “understanding a topic.” It seem to be explanation.
“When you’re trying to come up with a good approach to reporting on the bleeding edge of where the conversation’s moving,” Klein is quoted as saying in New York magazine, “you’re just leaving a lot of people who aren’t on the bleeding edge of that conversation out.” If he is trying to do journalism for dummies, or at least journalism for people who haven’t been keeping up; if Klein is trying to be, as has been widely mentioned, a Wikipedia for news stories; if he means by explanation background rather than interpretation; then I am less interested in his new project.
Sullivan sounds a bit condescending when she maintains that “the reasonable reader” requires a prominent news summary because that reader can’t be expected to have been keeping up with the news. Can’t that “reasonable reader” just check Google News, or one of a hundred other sites, if momentarily perplexed? There also strikes me as something potentially condescending in Klein’s infatuation with explanation. If readers remain a bit weak on what, say, the debt ceiling is, can’t they just click around the Web a bit and find out? (Siri, on my iPhone, comes up with a pretty good answer.) Do journalists have to spoon feed? Wasn’t an insistence upon aiming at the least common denominator—with a simplified vocabulary and three paragraphs of background in each story—part of what was wrong with traditional journalism? Aren’t the best television shows, the best films, now doing less not more explaining – in part because figuring stuff out on your own is fun?
Beyond News: The Future of Journalism calls for more “wisdom journalism”—an amalgam of the higher forms of reporting (exclusive, investigative) and the sort of interpretative journalism Ezra Klein has long (if you can say that about a 29 year old) practiced. Klein’s has been good at making things clear, but what has made him special has been the quality of his insights. I hope we’ll be seeing more of those—not an online civics class—in his new venture.
I hope, too, that the New York Times continues to underplay nuggets of news on its front page but also finds room on that page for more incisive, even opinionated analysis of the sort Klein had been producing.