Inventing journalism

I’ve been reading Guns, Germs & Steel for months now.

(I take these bound paper items you people call ‘books’ slowly sometimes.)

There’s a number of striking stories about technology, innovation, and invention in the chapter I’m in the middle of right now. One of those stories is about the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was actually devised to slow typists down, lest the hammers jam.

And there’s quite a bit in the book on geographical barriers to the diffusion of innovation, the sort of thing I read and wrote about (still writing about) as a grad student.

When I think about barriers to innovation in newsrooms, I’m usually picturing a variety of ‘cultural’ stoppers built up over the years by organizational hierarchy and interaction, whether we’re talking about organization within a given newspaper or the industry as a whole, or even the marketplace pressures that act as distractions and push us off course — away from our core mission.

It’s striking to me how much the re-invention of news these days is really just a move to go back to the (pre-Watergate?) basic responsibilities of journalism:

  • Serve the community.
  • Bring disparate facts together to form a larger, clearer picture.
  • Tell necessary stories that otherwise vanish into obscurity.

We gather information, see the narrative elucidated by the facts, and tell the story in the best possible way to get the thesis of the narrative across to our readers, viewers, listeners.

That’s the goal of journalism, right?

(Feel free to answer that in the comments.)

The shape and size of the community will vary, the reliability of ‘facts’ depends on much craftwork, and the clarity of our narrative depends on our artistic skill.

Keep these three variables in mind — community, facts, narrative — and you can tell your story in any medium, using the technology and tools of your choice.

Journalism can be that simple. Hemingway wrote text, Capa took pictures, others shoot video or design Web interfaces, but we all flip those three switches. Community, facts, narrative.

Howard Owens has a list up of “Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism.” Note that none of those ten things really fit into this triad of variables, but what they address are all the distractions that get in the way when we try to think about those three things.

When we worry about whether our story will make it to A1, that stops us from serving our readers. When we cover meetings, we think too much about the process and not enough about the narrative. When we ignore our readers we forget our audience, our purpose, and our community.

Keep community, facts, and narrative in mind when you read Rex Sorgatz’s interview with Adrian Holovaty about Everyblock.

Think about how the facts that Everyblock surfaces can serve your community and how they form a narrative.

So run every piece of text, image, video, data, or commentary that you produce through those three filters as you work. Let’s re-invent journalism by doing it.

This post is part of the February Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Bryan Murley at the Center for Innovation in College Media. 

3 thoughts on “Inventing journalism”

  1. I love that book.

    Another lesson I take from it: Advantageous technology spreads because those who adopt it survive and conquer those who don’t.

    Call it innovation Darwinism, or survival of the early adopters. The isolated don’t often last.


  2. @chris – Exactly. I now spend a great deal of time in my day job at reaching out to isolated rural and suburban editors and publishers.

    The drive behind ReportingOn has a lot to do with ending the isolation of the beat reporter.


  3. Diamond’s book, to me, boils down to the idea that it is natural resources, not the intelligence of particular groups of humans, that predict who will dominate who. I’m not sure what the lesson for journalism is.
    These days I’m actually trying to read Origin of Species. The idea that an individual’s random mutations give it a leg up on passing on its characteristics makes me think that what’s most needed is a helluva lot of journalism experiments producing random mutations.


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