Recently, SmartNews (my employer) hosted Carl Bernstein, the distinguished, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, at the Watergate Hotel during the annual Online News Association conference in Washington, DC.
Under a full moon on a warm DC evening, Mr. Bernstein inspired us all to strive harder to make use of the powerful “reportorial platform” the digital era provides us to seek out, “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
Mr. Bernstein reminded us that it is not the job of the press to undo a candidate or knock a one out of office. The mission of the press is to uncover the truth, in context and developed through great investigative reporting so that the people may make the important decisions that drive our democracy.
But lately the press has been,
disfigured by celebrity, celebrity worship, gossip, sensationalism, manufactured controversy (particularly in the press), denial of our society’s real conditions (good and bad), and by a political and social discourse that we (the press) the politicians, and the people have allowed to devolve into a cacophony of name-calling, idealogical warfare and, especially, easy answers to tough questions
He pleaded for all journalists to keep their focus on the larger story. Even with the new tools available today, it is the unique perspective and context that comes from knocking on doors and “shoe leather” reporting that will unearth the truth required by our democracy. To gather that truth we all needed to be better listeners.
His remarks concluded with a quote from his editor at the Washington Post, the late Ben Bradlee.
The more aggressive our search for the truth, the more some people are offended by the press. So be it. I take great strength knowing that in my experience the truth does emerge. It takes forever sometimes but it does emerge. Any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to democracy.
Amen to that.
This interview with Ben Huh, the founder of the site that made cat memes famous, is over five years old but relevant today. People crave a viewpoint and personality. News organizations that sterilize their presentation of facts lack the color necessary to get attention in an ever more crowded market.
Is it possible to communicate the facts of a story in a balanced way without sacrificing your voice? Ben Huh thinks so and
I think — among entrepreneurs, too — there’s an idealistic notion that there is a truth, a singular one truth. Among journalists, there is “the truth,” slightly liberal, slightly populist, but most of the time it’s “We’re the truth.” If you ask the people who watch Fox News who is credible, they’ll tell you Bill O’Reilly is credible. Maybe I disagree. Maybe I believe that he stretches truths a lot, but the fact of the matter is, it’s human biology to seek out shared perspective.
Creating a singular measure of credibility is a slippery slope to censorship. Like, “Oh, these people are not credible, so maybe we should all act in concert to not print their things,” or discard them. The world’s greatest ideas come from the crazies, the people on the fringe. For a while, they’re not credible, but then one day they are. So that’s a very, very dangerous idea. It smacks of centralized mind-control to me. And I’m probably extrapolating from what he’s saying really to the extreme, and I’m sure there are good ideas, but a universal credibility measure? Even if they could create such a thing, why would you? It’s very Orwellian. I don’t like that idea at all.
Facts are very important. Facts are absolutely important. What society’s gotten really good at — we’re actually really good at the facts. What we’re really bad at is the dissemination of value-added interpretation of the facts.
If you look at great journalists, it’s not because they were able to convey the facts, it’s because they were able to convey part of the emotion on the things that are subjective to the right audience. Like Anderson Cooper down in New Orleans. That was his break-out moment and he was like, “this is B.S.” He kind of went off the rails a little bit, and became a guy who decided that he was a guy who was going to say what he wanted to say. I want more of that in journalism. It’s a very, very dangerous tool, because it’s a tool of emotion but I think we are lacking that. I think journalism became very sterile.
This thing called objectivity is B.S. We are being subjective merely by deciding what to cover and what we decide not to cover. I don’t like the term “partisan papers,” but I’m okay with the idea of more differentiated perspectives.
Two perspectives of the modern war correspondent in this age of the personal brand and selfie sticks.
We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it. That’s why, when the forces of man or Mother Nature whip up chaos, both broadcast and cable news outlets are compelled to ship the whole heaving apparatus to far-flung parts of the globe, with an anchor as the flag bearer.
We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy. It’s a job description that no one can match.
– the late David Carr in Brian Williams, Retreading Memories From a Perch Too Public
The correspondent retelling war stories surely knows that fellow correspondents had faced the same dangers or worse. More important, they knew that the GIs or Marines they were on patrol with or with whom they were sharing an outpost faced these and greater dangers every day. The troops obviously were the story; not the reporter. To brag about one’s own little brush with danger was unseemly; it was simply bad form.
– former Wall Street Journal war correspondent, Peter Kann, Things a War Correspondent Should Never Say
Richard Engel, please take note.
It’s gone now but someone that I follow on twitter pointed out that it’s been six years since Adrian Holovaty posted, A fundamental way newspaper sites need to change In this post, Holovaty, the man behind the micro-news site everyblock.com, and, as far as I’m concerned, the original data-journalist, speaks to the new landscape in which newspapers sit and how they need to change to serve their new readership that is used to links that let them dig thru to the original source of information.
He also speaks of an ancillary value to taking data out of the content blob which is a newspaper article and storing it as meta-data alongside a story.
Then there’s the serendipity advantage. When I worked for LJWorld.com, we worked with the local weathermen to create a weather site that displayed the weathermen’s forecast for the next few days. I made them a Web interface that let them enter the predicted high temperature, low temperature and sky conditions — all in separate database fields. There really wasn’t any reason to use separate fields for these values other than the fact that the site’s design called for presenting the temperatures in a different color than the conditions, and we didn’t want the weathermen to have to remember to insert the HTML coloring codes in the right place. But it wasn’t until several months later that we reaped some real benefits of databasing the information, when we were putting together Game, an exhaustive database of local little-league teams and games. (Yes, you read that right.) We created a page for every little-league team and every little-league game, and when it came time to create the game pages, one of us said, “You know, these games tend to rain out a lot. It’d be really cool if we could somehow display the weather forecast for each game.” And, boom! One of us realized that we already had weather forecast data, in nice, sliceable-and-diceable format, thanks to our database populated by the weathermen. Ten minutes later, our little-league pages displayed weather forecasts. Serendipity.
This is the fundamental lesson so-called old media is still learning. There is hidden value in saving your content into a form that machines can read. SEO is more than just a “black art” to help goose traffic coming from Google, it’s also an important part of your editorial workflow that will pay off dividends in the future when you respond to new opportunities.