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.