Monday, May 30, 2011

Shirley, get me rewrite

Ah, what was old is new again.

That's my first reaction after reading Jeff Jarvis' typically provocative post suggesting it is time (again) to rethink the basic form of the story after the New York Times' Brian Stetler posted a long Tumblr account of his time tweeting in Joplin, Mo., after much of the city was leveled by one of the deadliest tornadoes ever. Stetler ruminated: "Looking back, I think my best reporting was on Twitter."

And it remained my reaction after reading Matt Ingram's rejoinder, "No, Twitter Is Not a Replacement for Journalism."

For those of us old enough to remember rewrite desks, and especially those of us who worked in the wire service, the reaction is sort of, "Uh, yeah?"

If you listen closely to what Jarvis is saying, I think it's simply that for the first draft of news, especially breaking news, the default position no longer has to be what I have referred to at Newsplex and in "Principles of Convergent Journalism" as a "river of text"--the standard inverted pyramid, get it all together in a nice 500-word package, story.

So what's new? The standard operating procedure for a wire service reporter wasn't to wait around to assemble 400 words. It was to pick up the phone and dictate a lede and maybe a second paragraph. That went out on the wire. Then you dictated another few sentences. Etc. Or sometimes just facts. Someone on the desk fixed your breathless prose and sent it out, then assembled the pieces, maybe threw in some background, etc. And then you did it all over again through the day (or night), sometimes moving information out in pieces, sometimes topping the existing story, sometimes writing it through.

One of the jokes of a wire-service reporter is that my name is on some of the best copy I've never written.

OK, we were still producing "rivers" then, but only because there was a delay in publishing.

Fast forward. Now we tweet. The chunks are smaller, but they still are chunks. The potential array of media bursting forth is also wider. The assembly is done with things like Storify that can pull together all sorts of threads into a sort of coherent narrative.

And for the initial wave, that may well be all we need. Take a look at Recovery Alabama, a map-powered site designed to crowdsource the needs after tornadoes raked that state. In many ways, that was a story in and of itself, more comprehensive and powerful, no river of text needed.

In fact, too much of what we call "story" in the news biz isn't story at all. It's a factoid exposition that tries to impose structure on often unstructured events.


But Ingram is right, too. Ultimately, we are wired for "stories." After we've confirmed bin Laden is dead, and the initial Twitter rush has slacked and the hormones dial back, we start looking for meaning, and meaning in our psychology often means some kind of story - and in news that means journalism. Now, whether it's a river of text story or some new experiential form, we're all waiting around to find out. But that will be journalism, too, because journalism is not so much about the initial news but about making sense of it all in whatever way that works.

Which is why we also spend inordinate time about whether "ordinary" people thrust by time and place into performing newsgathering acts are doing journalism. They're doing newsgathering, folks. It's a subset of journalism, but not really the main show.

Don't get me wrong. Someone's got to cover disasters and city council meetings -- assuming you don't consider that redundant. Where it transcends newsgathering is when the journalist in the room goes beyond reporting mere facts to start giving us insight and understanding. (Yes, the nonjournalist specialist can do that, too. Let's just say the journalist is more prone to do it, or try to, across a wider range of subjects. You want to get into cit-j further? You're buying the beer.)

Even Stetler updated his post to say this:
I’ve thought about this comment a little bit more. I believe it’s true that “my best reporting was on Twitter,” but only up until a certain point on Monday, probably around 11 p.m. local time. After that point, with a more stable Internet connection, I was able to file complete stories for NYTimes.com, not just chunks of copy.

I've said for some time, including to some news organizations I consult with, that I'll believe they have gotten it when I wake up on July Fourth and (barring the world blowing up) see at the top of my local news organization's website a big, honkin' interactive map that lets me click on the various marked parades, fairs, celebrations and find out details on each one. Because, after all, isn't that the story for most of your users/readers for the first 10 hours or so of the day? (It would be even cooler if they blew out the front page of the paper, too. Not interactive, but still ...)

Then later in the day, as the narrative starts to unfold, I want that journalism - the poignant or funny photo, maybe the video, the telling moment that can be fashioned only by a good journalist telling a good story.

We need to think about new story forms as Jarvis suggests. We need to always remember the journalism as Ingram notes. What we can't do is stay stuck in the past. So what's the problem?

Now, Shirley, get me rewrite.

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