Redefining Writing: New Models in Journalistic Practice

AEJMC

 

“Redefining Writing: New Models of Journalistic Practice”

By Brooke Kroeger

New York University[i]

August 2006

Adapted from a panel presentation

at the AEJMC convention in San Francisco, 2 August 2006

 

 

ABSTRACT: With all the current emphasis on media “convergence” and erosion of the traditional boundaries of media forms, this may be the appropriate time to examine the ways in which the actual journalistic product–writing–is being transformed. This paper examines the evidence that suggests journalistic standards are undergoing a substantial redefinition, discusses both the new and/or combined forms and the aspects of these emerging genres that mirror similar forms from the past, and outlines the new kinds of stories for new kinds of audiences that privilege these new approaches. The study also hopes to suggest how and why this phenomenon has occurred, as well as discuss its possible implications for the future of both journalism and journalism education.

kroeger_redefining3

 

Picture the blueprint of a gigantic, very fat sans-serif H, the shape of the central section of the third floor newsroom of The New York Times. The H’s crossbar is a wide corridor-like area with bathroom doors at the top and two small, glass-fronted offices pushing into the space at the bottom. To its right is the half of the newsroom that houses the many reporters and editors of the Metro and National desks. To the left is Foreign. In the crossbar is the staff of the Continuous News Desk, the CND.

The geographical symbolism has portent. Just this summer, The Times named a former national editor, Jim Roberts, to the brand new position of Editor of Digital News, a job the announcement described as “big.” It puts under Robert’s’ direction both the paper’s six-year-old CND and its Web newsroom, “two parts of our enterprise that are growing in size and ambition.”[ii]  Unlike the CND, the Web newsroom, has been housed six blocks away from 43rd Street[iii] since its launch a decade ago, but that soon will end. Plans call for the newspaper and Web newsrooms to merge when the Times relocates to its new headquarters.[iv] In the meantime, in the H’s crossbar, the desk of Jim Roberts signifies this unification. And Roberts’ desk sits not five baby steps from the office of Susan Edgerley, the new AME for Career Development. Her brief includes “envisioning the newsroom of the future.”[v] Her glass-fronted office faces the CND.

Did I mention that the Continuous News Desk is not just involved with editing, processing and repackaging the newspaper’s daily report for digital readers in the many hours before the nightly unveiling of the next day’s print edition? That the CND has its own reporting staff, producing its own stories for the web that then magically disappear each night at press time? That it also cajoles reporters working on breaking stories throughout the paper to file early, briefer, digital-only versions?[vi] That it advocates with the various New York desks for early copy for The International Herald Tribune, the Times’ Paris-based sister publication? And did you catch that the CND, the new czar of digital news, and the new czarina of the future, already form the human link to all of the Times’ most vital reporting and writing functions, including the newspaper’s physical connection to the wider world via the international distribution of the IHT across the seas?

To get a sense of if – and if so, how — journalistic writing is being redefined — I sought out the places and people where and in whom the traditional and the new are intersecting, where they compete, conjoin and conflate. The Continuous News Desk of The New York Times[vii] was one obvious such place. As for people, I spoke at length with writers whose articles appear across platforms — online writers who occasionally move to print, newspaper and magazine columnists whose publications have digital versions, and freelancers who don’t discriminate.[viii] In January, I looked at a single short-lived story that got enormous attention in every medium, to see if I could discern any apparent differences by medium in style or approach. For this, I collected everything I could find that was written about the James Frey trumped-up memoir affair, a pile of clips, transcripts and printouts that stacks more than three inches high.[ix]  Six months later, I took a second look at another set of clips, this time a comparison of three opinion pieces on the mid-summer SWIFT disclosures, two written for online venues and one for a newspaper that appears both in print and online. From all these explorations, my observations stem.

Like chili peppers left to stew in a bottle of vodka, the decade-long infusion of Web culture into journalistic writing has already happened. You can no longer separate out the flavors. The point is by now familiar, but no less significant for that: Online writing in general and online journalism in particular have occasioned the revival, re-popularization, or wider availability of a number of long-standing journalistic forms and notions about writing, some once available only in spoken or visual form, some once available only to members by mail, others once available exclusively via telephone lines or leased wires and then only to editors, reporters, and the artisans of rewrite. What comes to mind are commentaries, op-eds, man-in-the-street, screeds, satires, spot analyses, news briefs, radio splits, reporter’s notebooks, reader comments, viewer-listener hotlines and news tips, world roundups, news digests, editor’s notes, editor’s advisories, urgents, bulletins, flashes, 1st leads, 1st leads and correct, 2nd lead write-throughs, financial, summer camp or church newsletters, even the staccato of the telegraph gone silent. In terms of tone, eloquence, gravitas, pith, vulgarity, vitriol, or outrage, again, the precedents abound. We see them in such oft-cited examples as the early British or the American colonial press or, New York’s weekly Town Topics of the 1880s and 1890s, or Spy of a hundred years after that, or CNN, or call-in programs, or open access cable television, or all-news or shock or talk radio at any point since they began.

Quick. Concise. Proprietary. These are the digital bywords of the Times’ Continuous News Desk. [x] They too ring loudly familiar. The managing editor of The International Herald Tribune is Alison Smale, a former Times deputy foreign editor and a veteran international wire service denizen before that. From Paris, she is on the telephone with CND editors every day, submitting the IHT’s requests for stories to publish from those the Times expects to run. “The more things change,” she said of the continual updates the digital reality of both newspapers now begs, “the more I feel like I’m back at the AP.”[xi]

In an environment where the Financial Times of London has just merged its print and online operations completely,[xii] where The New York Times and Washington Post have snagged Emmy nominations for their Web videos,[xiii] where MSNBC had to wait only one scant year – not the five years it had projected – for 90 percent of its national audience to go broadband,[xiv] where a blogger goes to jail for not turning over to a federal judge the raw video of edited footage he uploaded to his website,[xv] it is a safe bet the next wave of innovations will happen across platforms. In addition, the dictates of the new speed and the ability to update or even unpublish a piece of digital work have triggered a re-examination of some closely held standards. At The Times, Susan Edgerley posed a question: Does a story still need three sources before it can be published digitally, a story that can easily be updated, deleted, or corrected without an archival trace?

My colleague, Adam Penenberg, began his career online at Wired in 1996, the second wholly Internet news site after CNET. In the beginning, he said, three things distanced online writing from print. First, the online world demanded “an edge” that print journalism did not require; Second, thanks to the precision of page view tracking online, audience response could and did more pointedly drive editorial decision-making. And third, Adam noted, as did every other writer I spoke with, is this stunning new capacity and willingness of readers not only to react in writing immediately online, but to react en masse. A fourth others mentioned is the ease of accumulating facts on the Internet, which facilitates putting more allusions into a given piece of work “alongside the factual sub-texture already in its foreground,” as Ellen Willis put it.

“Edge” by now is a commonplace. The straight-jacketing tone of faux restraint developed in the last century has loosened its straps. The Web has certainly been instrumental in this revival. I say instrumental because the reexamination of journalistic objectivity in the liqueur of postmodernism also has contributed to the shift.  I say revival because sixty, seventy, eighty years before 1996, “edge” was known as “punch” and was no less sought-after on pages glossy or newsprint, as the correspondence of editors with their writers of the 1910s, 20s and 30s amply attests.[xvi]

To my mind and with mixed effect, three aspects of the journalistic world online are driving the most revolutionizing changes in terms of writing:

  • One, the unfettered access it affords to the reading public both for readers to be able to read writers — in both sense of the word “read” — and for writers to be able to inform their writing by reading more readers.
  • Two, the fast and virtually limitless trans-geographical access the web provides to any reader or writer with an Internet connection.  All of the writers I interviewed cited how extraordinary it is to be able to attract an audience horizontally – to see a column or article gather wide appeal by topic rather than only by virtue of the appeal of its writer or publication. Some cited the ability to promote one’s work without financial or geographical limits as a great new advantage, as was the boon of inexpensive self-publishing in one case, and the ability this provides  to avoid editorial control or any other limitations imposed from outside.
  • And Three, speaking of links, the equally limitless and not yet fully exploited potential for journalistic writing itself to change radically, presented by this new ability to write three dimensionally, deeply embedding a story with erudition below its immediately visible surface.

 

As several of the writers I interviewed pointed out, never have readers been quicker to tell writers that they’ve blown it some way, most frustratingly, when they really haven’t. This has got everyone on their toes to avoid error or imprecise expression – a good thing. But on the negative end, several writers noted the particular propensity of online readers to chastise writers for omitting sources or references. Priya Jain, whose work appears in such publications as Salon and Bust and The New York Times and The New York Observer, spoke of the tendency this encourages for online journalists to affect a borrowed erudition, what I would call a poseur omniscience, simply to avoid an insulting email barrage from the know-it-alls.  On the other hand, she loves the ability writing on line affords to be able to link directly to complicated background material, without having to clutter up her sentences with awkward phrases such as “according to…”

Another corollary to this that I would add is the ability online writing has introduced to be able to attribute accurately and fully with links. It also should soon put an end to two thoroughly abhorrent but popular journalistic conventions: One, cleaning up quotes – one wouldn’t want to do this with the actuality a click away – and two, the practice of citing an author or publication once in a piece as code for “I relied heavily on this work but am not going to tell you for what or how much or how often.” Good riddance.

The three opinion columns I compared on the SWIFT disclosures appeared between July 7 and 12, 2006: Frank Rich’s Sunday column in The New York Times[xvii], Jacob Weisberg on Slate[xviii] and my colleague Jay Rosen’s post on Pressthink[xix]. Rich and Weisberg presented opposing ideas. but no discernible difference in tone, form or general style parameters, even though Rich’s piece for The Times had to be written with traditional newspaper readers in mind while Weisberg’s for Slate did not. Even the number of highlighted blue links each story contained was comparable.

Rosen’s column, however, deploys a device that many online writers favor: turns of phrase such as “look here [link], here [link] and [here],” or, see this [link], this [link] and this [link.],” a construction that simply cannot work on a paper page. Alex Beam, the Boston Globe columnist, is very mindful of this. He told me despite his large number of digital readers, he still feels he must envision his reader as the guy picking up the newspaper off his front stoop, who may not have his computer available as he reads, and thus, Beam structures his columns accordingly. In the case of online-only writers, the reader needs the links – or at least, needs prior knowledge of to what those links link – for the piece to make sense (unless what has been linked to has also been well-summarized in the text.) Imagine, we now have newspapers or magazines unrestrained by column inches, with the space to allow their writers to really “show their work,” in Bill Keller’s recent deployment of the math teacher demand. They can even provide reference to pdfs of primary material not otherwise available digitally, a veritable course-pack. This has any number of advantages, including a means of guarding against the errors of concision that too often mean the mischaracterization of the work of others, devaluing one’s own in the process. At last, a journalism of evidence and verification, indeed.

The danger? To refer to background material in the place of summarizing and synthesizing is fine for the junkies, for specialized audiences, but not for the uninitiated reader. The work becomes forbidding, not much of an invitation to the dance. It can easily lead to sidestepping the essential journalistic function of sifting through and condensing ideas and explanations to their essence —  attributing where appropriate, of course — to seduce the new or inexpert reader into the subject matter. Journalistic writing is supposed to do that, even at the most sophisticated level.

Still, there is the seed of what I, at least, think is a thoroughly exciting idea to float in the mainstream, for which some limited experimentation surely already exists. Imagine a simple but carefully crafted barebones 400- or 500-word story with links, art, and hypertexts that a reader can choose to expose or ignore as the cursor rolls along. The links would as now cite relevant material already on the web. But they could also offer enriching proprietary bonuses: endnotes and additional context, comment, asides, maps, graphs, counter arguments, sidebars, a place for readers with expertise to add information, and mention of other useful sources or related articles and books to explore. This would also include clickable video and audio inserts as appropriate, first, in the relevant, unadulterated snippets, and then with further reference to the whole speech or exchange for the more committed reader. The reporter would add additional context, nuance, counterarguments, deep background and other links as they became available throughout a given news cycle. The cycle would not have to be 12 or 24 hours, either, though it could be, but could last until whenever a given story was declared ready to be archived. Other departments – graphics, photo — could supply the more static illustrative elements. Why shouldn’t link editing – at the sophisticated level this suggests –  become an important new desk job in itself? Print reporters might work in production teams, much more like television reporters do, to produce these multimedia stories.

The result of such an approach would be a basic 500-word story that any sixth grader could read – inviting new readership – but also an exquisitely crafted, multimedia, physically multi-dimensional piece of work with the brand new advantage of being also of value to the most knowledgeable and sophisticated readers. Such an approach could radically change even our basic-most presumptions about what is possible in the writing of news.  If we get to that point, or somewhere close, it really will be time to call in the lexicographers.

 

 

ENDNOTES:

[i] Author’s address is 1175 Park Ave, New York, NY 10128; phone (212) 998-8002; e-mail brooke.kroeger@nyu.edu

[ii] Landman, Jonathan to [New York Times newsroom]. Memo from Landman and Rich Meislin, dated Friday, June 30, 2006 10:12:31, reprinted in Romenesko column, June 30, 2006, 3:43:34 p.m. http://poynter.org/column.asp?id=45&aid=103949.

[iii] Though the Web newsroom is headquartered at 43rd Street by virtue of the presence of Jim Roberts, its operating location remains at 500 7th Avenue, between 37th and 38th streets.

[iv] See Memo, Bill Keller and Martin Niesenholtz to New York Times Newsroom, Aug. 2, 2005, reprinted on Romenesko, http://poynter.org/forum/view_post.asp?id=10027, which reads in part: “…By integrating the newsrooms we plan to diminish and eventually eliminate the difference between newspaper journalists and Web journalists — to reorganize our structures and our minds to make Web journalism, in forms that are both familiar and yet-to-be-invented, as natural to us as writing and editing, and to do all of this without losing the essential qualities that make us The Times. Our readers are moving, and so are we. …”

[v] Author telephone conversation with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., circa June 27, 2006.

[vi] Jack Lynch of the CND said initially there was resistance to filing earlier versions but less now. Younger reporters find their readers are reading the Times online anyway and older readers find it helps their reporting because supplementary sources call them back quicker, once they’ve seen the online summaries, thus improving the print edition/final story by afternoon deadline. “You can say a lot in 400 words,” said Lynch.

[vii] Author visit toThe New York Times’ Continuous News Desk, July 10, 2006. Interviews with Jim Roberts, Editor of Digital News; CND Deputy Editor Jack Lynch, Lan Teter, and reporter Juan Ferraro, who collaborated with a video producer on one of the Emmy-nominated web videos from his reporting in Bolivia;  Asst. Managing Editor Susan Edgerley; and Jennifer Preston, suburban sections editor. In Paris, June 14 and 15, 2005, were author interviews with International Herald Tribune Executive Editor Michael Oreskes and Managing Editor, Alison Smale.

[viii] Author conversations between January and August of 2006 with Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam; New York Daily News columnist Albor Ruiz; freelancer Priya Jain; Steve Wasserman, former book editor, Los Angeles Times; with NYU colleagues Adam Penenberg, Ellen Willis, Patrick Phillips of “I Want Media,” and Jay Rosen of Pressthink.

[ix] A partial sampling: Moody Rick. “Inspired by a True Story: On James Frey and J. T. LeRoy.” http://www.apublicspace.org/issue1/moody.shtml and http://www.apublicspace.org/issue1/moody2.shtml , Quindlen, Anna. “Real Life, No Police Chases.” Newsweek, New York, Jan. 23, 2006, p. 74. Unsigned, “Liar, Liar? A Website claims author James Frey’s megahit memoir, A Million Little Pieces, Is Partly Made Up.” People, Jan. 23, 2006. Unsigned, “Nan Talese Talks About Frey.” The Book Blog at ReadersRead.com, http://readersread.com/cgi-bin/bookblog.pl?bblog=118061; Cohen, Joshua. “Six Million Little Pieces?” The Forward, January 20, 2006, http://www.forward.com/main/printer-friendly.php?id=7229; Kakutani, Michiko. “Bending the Truth in a Million Little Ways.” The New York Times, January 17, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/17/books/17kaku.html?emc=etal..; Siegel, Lee. “Why James Frey’s Lies Aren’t Surprising.” The New Republic,TNR Online, posted January 17, 2006. Kolhatkar, Sheelah. “The Awful Untruth: Nan Talese Says James Frey Never Called Book Fiction.” The New York Obsserver, January 23, 2006, p. 1. Peyser, Mark. “The Ugly Truth: When James Frey embellished his rap sheet in his best-selling memoir, did he cross the line into fiction?” Newsweek, January 23, 2006, p. 62. Goodman, Ellen. “’My Sorry Life’ (Well, Sort Of)”. Boston Globe, January 20, 2006, p. A19. Opinion samplings from Seth Mnookin of slate.com, Frederic D. Schwarz of americanheritage.com, Elizabeth de la Vega of salon.com, Andrew Sullivan of andrewsullivan.com. “In Other Words.” Chicago Tribune, January 20, 2006, p. 21; Johnson, Steve. “The real story behind site that fried Frey.” Chicago Tribune, January 20, 2006, p. 1; Cruz, Gilbert. “War in ‘Pieces.’” Entertainment Weekly, Jan. 20, 2006, Iss. 859, p. 13; Martinez, Al. “My life story, kinda sorta.” Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2006, p. E15; Zeitchik, Steven. “Taste: Alternative Realities.” January 20, 2006. The Wall Street Journal, p. W11. Henninger, Daniel. “Wonder Land: Oprah’s Truth is No Stranger to Fiction.” The Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2006, p. A14; Hoffman, Kris. “A story of hope.” The Chicago Tribune, January 19, 2006, p. 20; Winn, Steven. “Memoir imitates fiction – and sometimes pays the price.” The San Francisco Chronicle, January 19, 2006, p. E1; Shatz, Adam. “Oprah’s New Mess.” The Los Angeles Times, January 18, 2006, p. B13; Chaffin, Joshua. “Random House stands by author.” Financial Times, January 11, 2006, http://us.ft.com; Page, Clarence. “Can’t handle the truth?” The Baltimore Sun, January 20, 2006, p. 13A; Kornbluth, Jesse. “James Frey: His Real Victims Aren’t Readers – They’re Addicts.” Thehuffingtonpost.com Posted January 16, 2006, http://huffingtonpost.com; Mnookin, Seth. “Picking Up the Pieces: How James Frey flunked rehab, and why his fakery matters.” Slate.com, posted January 12, 2006, http://www.slate.com ; O’Rourke, Meghan. “James Frey and JT LeRoy: Lying writers and the readers who love them.” Slate.com, posted January 12, 2006; Epstein, Stein, Joel. “Truth and a million little consequences.” The Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2006, p. 13; Haberman, Clyde. “Getting Rich By Making Stuff Up.” The New York Times, January 17, 2006, Metro, p. 1; Unsigned editorial, “Truth in Publishing.” The San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 2006, p. B6; Vanderkam, Laura. “When fiction masquerades as truth.” USA Today, p. 11A; Sherrill, Martha. “A Favor from a Fabricator.” The Washington Post, January 17, 2006, p. A17; Achenblog, Joel. “Dear Oprah: Truth Still Matters.” Achenblog, The Washington Post, http://blogs.washingtonpost.com\, posted January 13, 2006; Cohen, Richard. “Oprah’s Grand Delusion.” The Washington Post, January 17, 2006, p. A17; Janega, James. “A million little pieces shatters trust,” The Chicago Tribune, January 15, 2006, p. 19; Schmich, Mary. “This memoir raises a million little red flags.” The Chicago Tribune, January 15, 2006, Metro, p. 1; Clark, Roy Peter. “Modest Proposal: How True? A ratings code for memoirs.” The Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2006, p. M2; Daum, Meghan. “Throwing the book at reality.” The Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2006, p. B17; Rutten, Tim. “Regarding Media: Desire for fact lies in a million pieces.” The Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2006, p. E1; Karr, Mary. “His So-Called Life.” The New York Times, January 15, 2006, op-ed page; Kennedy, Randy. “My True Story, More or Less, and Maybe Not at All.” The New York Times, January 15, 2006; Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts. “Let’s Be Candid About the Truth.” The Washington Post, January 15, 2006, D3; Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Uproar over James Frey’s bestseller ‘A Million Little Pieces” unearths a literary minefield.” The Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2006, Books; Smerconish, Michael. “James Should Frey!” The Huffington Post, http://huffingtonpost.com, January 11, 2006; Bradley, Richard. “James Frey- Sleep Much?” The Huffington Post, http://huffingtonpost.com, January 11, 2006; Barlow, Toby. “My Million Little Pieces.” The Huffington Post, http://huffingtonpost.com, January 13, 2006; Spillman, Rob. “Cooking the Books: Frey, Bush and the defending of liars.” The Huffington Post, http://huffingtonpost.com, January 12, 2006; Eskow, R.J. “My Letter to O: Oprah, I’m Worried about You.The Huffington Post, http://huffingtonpost.com, January 13, 2006; Brant, Steven G. “Truth vs. Fiction: The Battle for the Future.” The Huffington Post, http://huffingtonpost.com, January 15, 2006; Ephron, Nora. “A Million Little Embellishments.” The Huffington Post, http://huffingtonpost.com, January 12, 2006; Greenland, Seth. “James Frey is My Hero.” The Huffington Post, http://huffingtonpost.com, January 11, 2006; Dotinga, Randy. “How true is that memoir?” The Christian Science Monitor, January 18, 2006, p. 14; Lowry, Brian. “Tuning In.” Daily Variety, January 18, 2006, p. 4.Shatz, Adam. “Opra’s new mess.” The Los Angeles Times, January 18, 2006, p. B13; Morford, Mark. “I’m an abused ex-junkie who eats cute little puppies. Please read my book.” The San Francisco Chronicle, p. E1; Hoover, Bob and Mackenzie Carpenter. “ James Frey’s memoirs join other books whose veracity is in dispute.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 11, 2006; Dowd, Maureen. “Oprah! How Could Ya!” The New York Times, January 14, 2006, op-ed.     

[x] Author interview with NYT Asst. Mgng. Ed. Susan Edgerley, NYT,  July 10, 2006.

[xi] Author conversation with Alison Smale, New York, April 19, 2006 and again in Paris, June 14, 2006. Ms. Smale was Eastern European bureau chief for the Associated Press for twelve years before joining the Times, and was based in bureaus in Bonn and Moscow before that, and in London before that for United Press International.

[xii] Unsigned, “Financial Times to Merge Print, Web Operations; 50 Jobs May Go,” Associated Press (via Yahoo! Finance, http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/060711/britain_financial_times.html?v=3&pr…, July 11, 2006, 11:56 am ET.

[xiii] Author telephone conversation with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., circa June 27, 2006.

[xiv] Author informal conversation with several MSNBC editors, lunch for Committee to Protect Journalists, NBC headquarters, June 7, 2006.

[xv] Egelko, Bob, “Cameraman jailed for not yielding tape,” The San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 2, 2006.

[xvi] For example, see the Fannie Hurst collection at the University of Texas’s Ransom Center, particularly the file for Cosmopolitan as well as her personal correspondence with various fellow authors, as noted in Kroeger, Brooke, Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst. New York: Times Books, Random House, 1999, throughout.

[xvii] Rich, Frank. “All the News That’s Fit to Bully,” The International Herald Tribune, July 10, 2006, Views, p. 7.

[xviii] Weisberg, Jacob. “Not So Swift: Why the Times Shouldn’t Have Published Its Story,” http://www.slate.com/id/2145619/, July 12, 2006, 3:32 p.m. ET.

[xix] Rosen, Jay. “It’s a Classified War,” http://pressthink.org, July 7, 2006, 1:08 a.m. ET.