Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism

This is a follow up post to Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem. It’s another thought exercise in trying to figure out how to discover what journalism should be to better serve today’s society.

  • Stop writing for the front page. Too many journalists — and I was this way as a reporter, too — think that getting a story on the front page is the only viable confirmation of their worth as a journalist. On the web, of course, there is no front page — only time stamps. It’s better to get the story right than worry about where your editor is going to place it in print.
  • Stop treating journalism like a competition. It’s fun to beat the other news outlets, but that shouldn’t be the only reason to pursue a story. Treating every story like a scoop leads to errors, both in reporting and thought process about how to handle the story. The economic value of beating the competition these days is arguably nil. The value of being a trusted source of a timely, reliable, steady stream of information is significant. These are not contradictory points, if you think them through.
  • Stop submitting your stories to reporting and writing competitions. This only encourages you to write for other journalists, not for your readers.
  • Listen more closely to your readers. Cherish every scrap of unsolicited praise. If it’s in a letter or postcard, pin it to your bulletin board; if it’s in an e-mail, print it out and pin it there, too. Make unsolicited reader praise your daily goal. Stop automatically writing off the criticism of the cranks who complain about everything your newspaper does.
  • Put more people in your stories and fewer titles. I’m going to make up this rule of thumb, but … for every title in your story, you should reference two people without titles. So, if you cover the city council and quote the mayor and a city council member, you need in your story four non-titled, real people, as well. Put the emphasis on how real people are affected, not just what talking heads say about an issue or event. See how many city council stories you can write in a month that never even mention an elected or appointed official.
  • Don’t cover process. Cover real stories. Real stories have real people in them, with real things to say about how real things effect their real lives.
  • Be a subject-matter expert. You should know your beat better than any of your sources. This will help you avoid he-said, she-said stories, allowing you to write stories with real depth, and give you the confidence to add perspective. You will also uncover more and better stories.
  • Forget the false-promise of objectivity. Instead, aim to be fair, honest, impartial and accurate.
  • Be accurate. Always. Being accurate is more than just getting your facts right. It encompasses your entire approach to a story. Part of being accurate means you never sensationalize. Never. You never play up conflict for the sake of making a better page 1 story. You never trim a quote to make it more dramatic, or add modifiers to emphasize a point.
  • Cover your community like it is your hometown — and hopefully it is — be invested in your community and care about its people. While reality may intrude, and you may have to move some day, at least for the time your covering a particular community, develop a mindset that says you’re going to spend the rest of your life covering this town, or this beat, or this topic.