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.

33 thoughts on “Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism

  1. Wow. Awesome Post Howard. Some of these comments are those I wish I could say out loud, but sadly, I’m just a web guy. Stop competing, start cooperating and listening, superb advice.

  2. Great post Howard. It’s a very simple list but it defines journalism itself. Teens who plan to be a journalist should take a peek that this, I’m glad I did.

  3. Howard – I wholeheartedly agree. Nice work. If the industry can take these bullet points and figure out ways to exploit them using the interactive medium to the fullest, then, I think, newspapers will be on their way back.

  4. Nicely done Howard. It is the defination of journalism indeed.

    -Stop treating journalism like a competition.

    I really likes this paragraph and its absolutely true. Well done.

  5. Fantastic! I especially like the part about not competing with other news outlets. Competition is for the sales guys, not the reporters and editors. Lackadaisical democracy is our enemy, not other news sites, papers, or TV stations.

  6. Cool, and I would more or less agree..but ya missed the BIG ONE.

    Links!! Sources!! References!!
    I’m used to Blog News now..Yes, I know it’s biased and which way it’s biased so it’s ok. But at least they provide 3rd party links so I can verify that the ‘meat’ of the report is real. Or, at the very least, if the links are to known BS sites, I’ll know it’s BS.
    It’s hard to find such things on BBC, CNN, FOX, MsNBC, what have you. Bloggers frankly do a much better job at at least TRYING to sound legit. All I get off AP and Reuters is some text, maybe a pic..and no links to local news papers, the UN press office, the NATO press office, whatever.
    And yes, 3rd world countries have newspapers with websites in English, go figger.

    So, in summary. I find ‘Blog News’ to be more user friendly and assisting myself in confirming the news report has some semblance of accuracy than your average ‘Big Media’ news. Doesn’t matter if it’s a war story, political story, medical tech, whatever. The Blog News has links to 3rd party newspapers, both sides of the political blogosphere and clickable references to the PubMed database.
    AP and Reuters, not so much.

    It’s the 21st century, noone trusts you just because you’re a ‘Journalist’. It is now part of your job to prove yer not making things up. Sorry, just the way things are.

  7. @KeaponLaffin: You’re obviously right.

    I’ve written extensively about how reporters need to better understand and use technology.

    This post wasn’t about technology. It was about practices, so the link bit didn’t really fit.

    But you’re absolutely right.

    As for your last graph, please tell that to Bill Keller at the NYT.

  8. I would disagree with the tip about not covering process. People need more information about what’s going on, and not less. Through our elected officials, we all have the power to influence how our communities grow. Good journalism has a duty to at least give enough information to the reader about how they can know more about what’s going on.

  9. I disagree about journalists not competing with one another. If we are writing just for the sake of writing, what standard do we use to judge our aptitude and ultimately the success of our work? Are we doomed to become a profession of acronyms and abbreviations in order to accommodate the electronic transmission of our stories reduced to another EMSG.
    Competition is not the problem, rather it is the value corporate heads put on “beating the competition,” i.e. number of viewers or readers.
    The reality is circulation and view numbers are important. The more numbers, the more money a company makes. A company wants the best journalists working for it in order to attract more numbers, ergo make more money.
    What they haven’t learned is journalism is like baseball. There are good days and bad days and sometimes it just all comes down to luck. Even the Red Socks kept plugging away, not just for the money but also for the love of the game and the recognition of being a good player.
    Scooping a rival, whether it is someone in your own newsroom or someone down the street, is a good thing. It means you know your beat better than anyone else. It means you have the confidence of people with information that is important to a lot of people. It encourages people to regularly expect good things from you. Or it means you are a damn sight luckier than others. Scooping the competition and having the best story, ahh, now that’s success.
    Plus, competition should not be an impediment to sharing of information or ideas. Rather it is a jumping off point for honest discussion and open debate with other journalists and members of the public.
    I can honestly say if I had spent months investigating a story only to finally get all the pieces to fall into place and then have my editor tell me I had to share credit with someone whose only contribution was to do a voice over, I would be pissed.
    Ambition is good when kept in proportion to one’s talent.

  10. Quit trying to “make a difference.” You are there to report the news, you are not there to make the news. Since this person neglected the single largest problem among all those biased “journalists” out there, it’s a failure and gets a huge thumbs-down.

  11. Journalists used to have editors that required them to have three reliable sources before they ran a story – especially stories that had the ability to destroy careers, alter the course of an election, or in some way cause dire consequences for the subject(s) of the story.

    This has become a thing of the past for the most part with the quest to gain audience share and and/or advertising revenue. Newspapers and magazines are dying everywhere, victims of the instantaneousness of the Internet et al. Even a so-called venerable institution like The New York Times gets it wrong more now then it ever did in the past. Another disturbing result of this lack of fact-checking is that when they do get it wrong (newspapers, magazines, networks, cable) they rarely apologize nor do they have to suffer any consequences for their “mistakes”. Dan Rather did but he resurfaced again on HDNet like nothing happened.

    Journalists are not any more believeable in many instances than the embattled used car salesman. The only difference is that when you buy a vehicle that is a lemon, you’re just out the money for it. When you are the victim of shoddy journalism or a blatantly false attack on your reputation, you’ll never be able to repare the damage that is done to you personally or otherwise. Give me a blown head gasket any day.

  12. Ric, you’re right about the quality of journalism. Editors and reporters must juggle priorities in order to get all things done that is expected of them. So it comes down to choices. “Can I get by with only two sources? One?” Or, “This story could be better, but if the reporter is to get the video that is to go with it done, he won’t have time to rewrite.”
    Reporters spend less time crafting stories and editors spend less time checking them. All you have to do is look at API’s Newspaper Next Transformation Plan. Its admonition is “It just has to be good enough.”
    Good enough … whose good enough? That is a slippery slope and obviously we as an industry are not managing to stay on top of it.
    It’s so disheartening. The news media was long the voice for the people. It was the watchdog over government. Now it’s all about infotainment.

  13. One of the things that was absolutely sacrosanct was not being able to detect a personal opinion, an agenda, or how a journalist would likely vote and who he/she would vote for. I watched Huntley/Brinkley. John Cameron Swayze, Howard K. Smith, and others including the local news anchors when I was growing up, and one of the things that I was always fascinated with was how they (they being the news anchors) personally felt about an issue, or who they would be inclined to vote for in an upcoming election. It was virtually impossible to detect their true beliefs (until Vietnam happened). Why? because they were journalists who subscribed to the firmly held belief (at that time) that they were there to report the news fairly, and without bias. The 2008 campaign for the presidency is a perfect example of how the credibilty of so-called “journalists” from almost every cable/network news agency has eschewed that cherished duty to the public at large. Just watch David Schuster on MSNBC, Eugene Robinson from The Washington Post, Andrea Mitchell, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, Dan Rather, Wolf Blitzer, Charles Gibson et al, for a few minutes and you’ll be able to tell toots sweet what their opinions are about certain stories, or who they will be likely to back and vote for. It is reprehensible. There are no more bastions of neutrality left in this country as far as news journalism is concerned. And in reference to what RuthieT wrote, it’s all about infotainment, money and ratings – nothing else – credibilty be damned – what was our share from last night’s show is all that matters now. I’m glad that I grew up when I did and had the opportunity to see REAL old school journalists at work. SIGH

  14. Great article. Especially I liked the part about the necessity of including real people in the stories, and their opinions. That have reminded me of the difference between the “real” and “official.”

  15. Greenchair,

    I think you overestimate the degree to which journalists are trying to “make a difference.” A lot of journalists are just people who are trying to use their talents to keep the public informed. I’ve been writing for newspapers for nearly 30 years and no reporter has ever told me he or she is in it to make a difference. They’re in it to make a living. There are opportunities to touch people’s lives with stories, and that’s fulfilling when it happens, but it’s a heavy load for a reporter who feels compelled to make a difference to stick with that goal (although I recognize some do). Still, I do think the possibility is always there for any of us, amidst the county ditches, school board budgets and little old ladies with cookie-jar collections. (Nothing against the little old ladies.)

  16. Laurie, maybe you’re right, and if you are, no wonder readership is declining.

    To say most journalists are in it just to make a living lends more support to the whole notion that maybe it’s the journalism itself that is the problem.

    Isn’t it sad to think there are people in journalism just to collect a pay check? And I can think of a whole of things that pay a hell of a lot better than journalism, which makes it even sadder. What’s that line in Citizen Kane, “It’s not trick to make a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.” Of course, at the higher ends of journalism (major metros say), the staff is largely well educated and pulling down checks that would make some attorneys jealous, so maybe it is just about the money all … could explain a lot about circulation declines in Chicago and Los Angeles. But then, why do they hate Sam Zell so much?

  17. […] Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism | Howard Owens Advice on how newspapers should deal with the changes in the infosphere (tags: Journalism newspapers media tips writing blogs via:mento.info) September 8, 2008 | Filed Under Things I’ve found  […]

  18. […] Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism | Howard Owens 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. (tags: newspapers blogging journalism writing) […]

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  20. I agree with most of what you say, but why can’t a process story involve real people? Plenty of stories that show how decisions are made in government get denigrated as process stories, yet they can have the greatest impact in opening government to average people. That’s one big baby you’re throwing out with the bathwater.

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