Context

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Piping fresh Nick Denton memo

Get it while it’s hot. You know I can’t resist Denton’s monthly memo to his Gawker staff bloggers. A highlight:

Kevin Purdy’s highly informative story about the effects of caffeine on the brain in Lifehacker was the breakout story of July. And the reader interest in the piece highlights — do we really need a reminder? — the draw of the explanation. There’s too much news on the web; and way too little explanation. Fully a quarter of the top stories are straight how-tos or otherwise helpful or informative.

Man. I would never have thought Nick Denton would be one of the loudest voices making my beloved Future of Context argument.

Follow-up: The new journalistic value

I wanted to call your attention to an online conversation I’ve been participating in that I think is especially salient to the work of our Argo-bloggers.

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “The Attention Deficit: The need for timeless journalism.” The central idea/question of that post was this:

Journalism can now exist outside of time. The only reason we’re con­strained to promoting news on a minutely, hourly, daily or weekly basis is because we’ve inherited that notion from media that really do operate in fixed time cycles. But we now have the potential to signal importance on whatever scale you might imagine — the most important stories of the year, of the decade, of the moment.

What are the most important issues facing this community at this time? What would our sites look like if we asked ourselves that question? What would our journalism look like?

This week, Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism Lab asked, “What if we had a news outlet exclusively focused on follow-up journalism?”

What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets? What if we took thePolitiFact model — a niche outfit dedicated not to a particular topic or region, but to a particular practice — and applied it to following up on facts, rather than checking them? What if we had an outlet dedicated to reporting, aggregating, and analyzing stories that deserve our sustained attention — a team of reporters and researchers and analysts and engagement experts whose entire professional existence is focused on keeping those deserving stories alive in the world?

In the comments, I linked to my earlier post, causing Megan to follow up today with this:

In our current approach to news, ideas and connections and continuities — context, more generally — often become subsidiary to “now” itself. Newness trumps all, to occasionally devastating effect. There’s an economic reason for that, sure (the core of it being that audiences like nowness just as much as journalists). But we also now have tools that invite an intriguing possibility: new taxonomies of time. We have Twitter’s real-time news flow. We have Wikipedia’s wide-angle perspective. We have, above all, the web itself, a platform that’s proven extraordinarily good at balancing urgency with memory. We’d do well to make more of it — if for no other reason than the fact that, as Thompson puts it, “a journalism unfettered by time would align much more closely with timeless reality.”

And now I’ll give you one more quote from an article that wasn’t a part of this conversation at all. I think this particular quote is quite salient to this thread (and not just because – as you know – I’m an Ezra Klein fanboy):

Klein is explicit on this point, outlining a role for journalists that sounds as much like teaching as reporting. “I think that we as a profession need to become more comfortable with repetition,” he says. “What is newest is often not what is most helpful for readers.” A case in point: when explaining why legislation is bottled up in Congress, Klein routinely discusses the skyrocketing use of Senate filibusters—a recent and consequential change in the rules of politics that nonetheless doesn’t count as “news” on most days.

For now, I encourage you to read all four of these entries; I’m not going to expand on these posts too much. You’re probably beginning to get my point. But, in keeping with the theme, expect me to follow up on this.

Talking Points Memo’s “iterative reporting”

Talking Points Memo wants to hire a new reporter. In the job description, they require that applicants “must get how to build a story narrative, know TPM and our style of iterative reporting, and understand new media.” I’ve written before about TPM’s unique reporting approach, well-described in this GQ story from 2007:

“A key thing for us is people sending us articles in small publications that contain facts that have larger implications when seen in the framework of larger stories,” [TPM editor Josh] Marshall says. “So you end up with lots of chapters or vignettes of a story out there, but no one’s integrating them. Part of our niche is, we don’t have the slightest problem saying, ‘Hey, McClatchy’s got this great new scoop.’ And you take that scoop and see it in context of what the L.A. Times wrote last week and what the Arkansas Gazette wrote the week before and the original reporting we’ve been doing, and it all comes together. And that aggregation function, that pulling together of narratives, is a big part of what we do.”

Newspapers can’t do that, either; they have a finite amount of space, for which every story has to compete. “A reporter in San Diego could write a one-day story—Carol Lam got fired, yeah, it looks funny—but from an editor’s point of view, that reporter can’t come back the next day without a news peg,” Marshall says. “And we don’t need a news peg.” Web space, of course, is unlimited.

We can learn from several aspects of TPM’s approach. As well as their crowdsourcing and their “pulling together of narratives,” their independence from “news pegs” in developing a story is also an especially huge insight. It’s another reminder that on the Web, owning the story isn’t just (or even mostly) about getting all the scoops. It’s about owning the larger narrative.

Dark secret of blogging #6: Explain, explain, explain.

Flickr photo courtesy of user Pip R. Lagenta.

Classic news folks have this habit of being flabbergasted when they discover their audience members don’t understand a topic they’ve been covering. “But we did a big explainer on this two weeks ago!” they say. After the health care reform battle finally reached its climax – the signing of the bill – reporters said they were astonished by their audiences’ hunger for explanation of what had just passed into law.

They shouldn’t have been surprised. Having watched how content gets picked up, I’m convinced that the hunger for explanation is inexhaustible.

It makes logical sense. As headlines whiz past you, bringing news of more developments than you could ever keep track of, you start to sort of fake it. You pretend you’re following news on the health care debate, when really you’re just snatching random stories out of the ether, hoping for a snippet of comprehension that’ll get you by in conversation. We behave this way on issue after issue. When pressed, how many of us – even devoted news consumers – could tell you what was actually in that Arizona immigration law that got all the coverage?

The best bloggers picked up on this early. I’ll refer you once again to Nick Denton’s memo, where he says, “When remotely possible, turn news into explanation.” This is sound, sound advice. Even if you’re reporting a news development – an important bill passes another procedural hurdle – framing it as explanation (“What today’s vote means for the immigration law”) is an effective tactic for pulling in an audience that would ordinarily pass it by. There’s no shame in repeating yourself, which is why I say the word thrice: Explain, explain, and then explain again.

By this point, you knew an Ezra Klein shoutout was coming. Just savor for a moment this set of post titles: (1) “What is an excise tax, and can it save health reform?”; (2) “Explaining the excise tax”; (3) “Explaining the excise tax, part 2″; (4) “The five most promising cost controls in the health care bills”; (5) “The Baucus Bill: taxing insurers”; (6) “The excise tax and its critics” … I could have selected more, but I think the point is made. Klein created opportunities to explain this critical part of the health reform legislation, and he linked to those explanations incessantly. You couldn’t be even a casual consumer of his blog and not understand what the excise tax does.

A discipline of constant, redundant explanation helps our bloggers too. The more we explain concepts, the better we get at explaining them. Every time Klein explained the excise tax, his description got a little snappier – more nuanced yet more understandable – and he probably understood the concept a little better. And I suspect the redundancy didn’t hurt him with his devoted readers; every time he explained the concept, I understood it a little better as well.

Dark secret of blogging #5: Own the system, own the story.

We know we can’t easily break the world down into neat, manageable patterns. But I’ve never met a great beat reporter who didn’t try.

As we gain expertise in a subject area, we can’t help applying patterns to it - establishing the most influential players, identifying related schools of thought, discerning trends unfolding over years. This is the mental model that enables great beat reporters to determine what constitutes news, to figure out promising avenues for investigation, and to stay ahead of a topic so they can distill it for their audience.

This hard-won pattern recognition – invaluable in any beat reporter – is among the most prized traits of a star blogger.

You’ll often hear me sing the praises of Ezra Klein, the wunderkind Marcus Brauchli seems determined to clone. When Klein embarked on his quest to determine the fate of health care reform, he had the benefit of getting to absorb some of the knowledge of reporters who’d come before him, several of whom had recorded their mental model of the subject in books. T.R. Reid, for example, had produced a book distilling all 200 of the world’s health care systems down into four broad types, each comprising three basic goals. New Republic reporter Jonathan Cohn, who’d often trade links with Klein throughout the battle for reform, had written his own book on the subject.

So when he began blogging about health care reform at the Washington Post, Klein laid his framework out for his readers, in the simplest possible terms: “Health-care reform has two parts, coverage and cost. Coverage will require new money in the short-term. Cost will save money in the long-term.” The effort to strike this simple balance – coverage and cost – drove much of the action over reform, and laying it out in these terms made the quest much more manageable. Once you understood that the excise tax was the reformers’ biggest hope for containing long-term costs, its place in the larger story, and the reason for its prominence in Klein’s coverage, was clear.

As Klein moves on to the subject of financial regulation reform, he’s doing the same thing, imposing patterns on the story as he develops them. Early on in his coverage of the subject, he unearthed a key insight: that reformers are split between wanting to reform the financial regulatory system and wanting to reform Wall Street itself. This was critical to his dawning understanding of the main battle at hand, and he continues developing this insight in post after post.

This has the effect of slowly binding me tighter to Klein’s perspective. Given the benefit of his framework to understand the story of financial reform, I now constantly look for his interpretation of developments in the story’s progress. That’s what I mean when I say “own the system, own the story.” If you can give your users a coherent framework for understanding a topic, you become their guide to the topic. Even if someone else breaks a story on your beat, your users will look to you for the definitive analysis.

But isn’t this reductive and flip? Health care reform certainly consisted of more than just cost control and coverage expansion. What about all the provisions in the legislation for upping the effectiveness of care?

As I said at the outset of this post, the world is certainly much more complex – in pretty much every case – than an easily-distilled framework can capture. But it’s much easier to explore nuance from an orderly starting point. Having laid out the main vectors of health reform so starkly, Klein was much freer to complicate his themes, taking us into the nooks and crannies of actuarial values and Stein’s Law. As I mentioned, Klein’s collected writings on health care probably amount to a Robert Caro-length tome.

The format allows plenty of room for complexity, if we can present it within a framework that makes sense.

Dark secret of blogging #4: Learn the art of the quest.

(Flickr photo courtesy of user h.koppdelaney.)

Since basically the dawn of storytelling, we’ve known the power of the quest narrative, a.k.a. the hero’s journey. Our most popular and enduring stories have been quests; e.g. the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

We’ve long applied the quest form to journalism, with delightful results. These types of stories feature the journalist as hero, letting the audience in on their process as they pursue the answer to a pressing question. There’s the legendary “Giant Pool of Money” episode of This American Life, where Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg chase the epic question, “What led to the financial crisis?” There’s Atul Gawande’s bombshell New Yorker feature from last year on why health care costs so much more in McAllen, Tx., than it does down the road in El Paso. There’s James Fallows’ prescient National Magazine Award-winning cover story from the 11/02 Atlantic Monthly, pursuing an answer to the question, “What happens after we invade Iraq?”

Besides being quest narratives, of course, part of what all these stories have in common is that they’re long-form narrative journalism. So you might be wondering, “How does this apply to blogging – a format that’s all about short nuggets?”

The trick is that a great blog, seen in its entirety, is often just an incredibly lengthy serial narrative. Several of the best bloggers – especially news bloggers – engage you in the pursuit of an arresting question, using every post to stoke your hunger for what happens next.

At the height of the health care reform debate, I found myself checking Ezra Klein’s blog at the Washington Post site every chance I got, because he clearly understood the art of the quest. Well before the health care reform legislative battle really heated up in 2009, he began mapping out the landscape with a health care reform for beginners series to orient his readers. (Sort of like how maps of Middle Earth were inlaid in the beginnings of the Lord of the Rings books.)

Early on, he introduced us to several of the main recurring characters in the health care reform saga – key legislators, well-regarded experts, union leaders, industry lobbyists, and others. His solid knowledge of the policy and politics of reform allowed him to do some terrific foreshadowing; sure enough, his repeated admonitions to read that Max Baucus profile came in handy when Baucus became a pivotal figure in the debate. Along the way, he dropped in the little mini-mysteries – e.g. “Will unions kill health care reform?” – that add dimension to every good quest (and – crucially – followed them to their resolution).

And the best part of all – he let you in on the quest. You felt, reading Klein’s blog, that you were in the thick of the action, talking with legislators and wonks, unraveling in real time the gripping (not kidding!) story of whether health-care reformers would finally win a key battle in their century-long war to reform the US system. It was a fantastic serial narrative, told splendidly, in post after post after post. All told, Klein’s collected writings on health care would be the raw material for a massive book – many hundreds of thousands of words.

If you can make your beat into a fascinating epic quest, you win.

The rise of analysis

Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein was musing today about what was driving the success of organizations like NPR and the Economist, who’ve seen solid growth in an otherwise troubling time for the news industry. In his musings, he delivers what I’d call a spot-on assessment of the market opportunity online:

My grand theory of the media right now is that the rise of online media made newsgathering an extremely crowded and quick marketplace. That’s left a lot of publications that either aren’t used to the competition (think newspapers) or aren’t suited to the pace (think newsweeklies) a bit confused about their identity.

Some of them have responded by embracing opinion. That’s also a bad move. The opinion marketplace is, if anything, more crowded than the news marketplace, and it’s hard to really break through in it unless you’re willing to travel pretty far along the partisan continuum. But because news stories move so much faster and opinion is so much louder, there’s actually more demand for media that explains what those fast-moving stories are actually about. This is a need that is going largely unmet. Both the Economist and NPR are imperfect products, but that’s fundamentally what they’re doing. It’s not quite newsgathering, and it’s not straight opinion, though there’s occasionally opinion in there. It’s analysis. It’s how to understand the stuff that other people are reporting and opining.

I’d quibble with bits of this. (Not quite newsgathering? Tell that to Sorayya Sarhaddi Nelson or Laura Sullivan.) But I’m completely on board with his description of the unmet need in journalism right now.

There’s a bit of subtext here worth teasing out. Although he’s putatively talking about the rise of NPR and the Economist, Klein could just as easily be describing his own meteoric ascent to the Washington Post, where his blog is one of the site’s most popular sections. The Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU included his blogging of the health care reform process on a list of the top 80 works of journalism from the 2000s. “He is a new paradigm,” Post editor Marcus Brauchli said, “one we would very much like to replicate.”

“As a blogger, he has more latitude than reporters to reach conclusions,” Brauchli added. “It’s inevitable we will employ more people who have that ability.”

You don’t need to read between the lines to understand that Marcus Brauchli is looking for Ezra Klein 2.0. And it’s not hard to understand why. In a future post, I promise to dissect some of Klein’s blogging techniques that I think really work. But for the moment, I just want to underscore his emphasis.

For several of the Argo topics, I think solid analysis will trump even breaking news, both as a hook for an audience and as a way to keep them engaged. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take Nick Denton’s:

We can take ownership of a story even if it isn’t a strict exclusive. In case of both Tiger and Peaches, other sites (the porn star’s site and Reddit, respectively) carried the original material. But we added context and packaged the stories up. [...]

When remotely possible turn news into explanation. Straight how-to and why stories — such as Kotaku’s excellent Farmville guide — obviously resonate. But you can turn a news story into an explainer, as Lux did with the sexting scandals.

Public broadcasting has built its reputation on offering context. Ezra Klein (and, unbelievably, some of the Gawker bloggers) have really advanced the art of doing this in the blog format. We can learn a lot from them. More on this soon.

‘Context’ is king?

The ARGO team has been talking a great deal about the importance of context in telling stories. How do we avoid the trap of only telling readers/listeners the very latest story without providing the context to truly understand that story? And how do we make it easy to catch up, to understand complex issues in a relatively short period of time, while still drawing out the depth for which that public radio is known?

As has been noted in many places, that was one of the great triumphs of Planet Money’s The Giant Pool of Money. But we’re also thinking about it in associating related content to the most recent posts in a new and better way. Topics pages can certainly play a role, but we need far more than a link to another destination page that is simply a reverse chron list of stories mentioning that topic.

ARGO’s Matt Thompson has been doing a lot of thinking in this area. He was a featured speaker at South by Southwest, along with NYU’s Jay Rosen, on that subject. Terry Heaton’s PoMo blog quotes Matt and Jay from that panel in his post, “Context” is the new flavor for journalism.