Why not writing a story is innovation
3 min read

Why not writing a story is innovation

Discussions about journalism innovation usually focus on technology: Twitter, RSS, Flash, Django, data visualization, and all the other cool stuff that’s making online news so rich.

But there’s an equally important conceptual aspect of journalism innovation. Newsrooms have to rethink the kind of stories they cover and the way they tell those stories, or all the new technologies could be wasted on news that readers don’t find relevant or interesting.

To do this, they have to practice innovation-by-omission. That is, they need to stop writing stories that don’t deserve to be written.

Newsrooms no longer have the luxury of wasting resources on non-stories — on “the journalism of filling space and time,” as Jeff Jarvis put it. They no longer have the luxury, in an information-overload world, of wasting readers’ time with non-stories or information readers already know. Readers will simply go somewhere else.

Jarvis offers a mental checklist for journalists to consider before publishing a possible non-story:

if you can’t imagine anyone linking to your coverage — if you can’t imagine anyone saying “this was new,” “this is good,” “this was valuable,” “go here for more,” “I didn’t know this,” or “you should know this” — then chances are, it’s not worth saying and in the link economy it won’t get audience, and so it’s not worth making.

Filler news can take many forms. Jarvis singles out reporting on election and post-holiday-shopping days. John McIntyre flags another persistent form of filler — stories based on dubious surveys — in this post. Jack Shafer never tires of exposing bogus trend pieces.

I would add: many stories based on (or directly lifted from) press releases; one-sentence news like stock market updates, shuttle takeoffs, and incremental updates of previous stories; many politics-as-process stories. Even “important” news can become filler. Crime briefs become monotonous after so many days; the fifth front-page story on the Russia-Georgia conflict isn’t likely to resonate.

Most of these story approaches are so ingrained that it’ll take conscious effort to stop and come up with more effective alternatives. But it can be done.

My favorite recent example of innovation-by-omission is a blog post by Daniel Victor, a reporter at The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa. Back in August, Victor was assigned to cover a campaign “event” that the state Democratic Party had touted in a press release: “local residents would ‘welcome John McCain to Harrisburg by unveiling a new video called ‘Jobs’ at a press event.’ ”

Victor discovered — surprise! — that the event was a news-free attempt to manufacture free publicity for the campaign. (His must-read post recounts the details of this discovery.) So he told his editor there was no story. Here’s how Victor describes the “newsroom tango” that followed:

I argued that there was no story, editor argues it’s worth a short story. I write a short story focusing on the similarities with the DNC news release, and the fact the event was pitched to media as an unveiling but really wasn’t at all. Editor quickly wonders if it shouldn’t be recast as a straight “Dems respond to Mccain” story. I argue phony news events don’t deserve real news coverage. Editor finally sees it my way, the story is spiked, and you won’t read about it in my newspaper.

Thank goodness for that. We in the media can do our part to actually aid the discussion by checking these events out, then promptly ignoring them when they turn out to be duds.

Just because local politicians are speaking, and just because a reporter spent an hour listening to them speak, doesn’t mean we need to report on it.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know if a story is worthwhile without doing some digging, as Victor did. The definition of “filler” will vary from newsroom to newsroom; my idea of filler could be another person’s scrapbook keepsake. What’s important is that newsrooms at least have this discussion.

Once newsrooms better define their idea of filler, it’ll be easier to stop those stories before they start. It’ll also make it easier to come up with better ways of treating certain subjects.

For example, “scrapbook news” — county fairs, local events, awards — could be a place to start experimenting with crowdsourcing. National or world news that has become filler because of the nature of wire coverage could be made relevant through linking. Local political coverage could focus more on how policies will affect readers and less on news-free campaign events. And crime coverage could become more data-driven and be integrated “into a health & safety site, because violence is a public health issue,” as Jane Stevens suggests.

There are many things newsrooms need to do differently to survive the coming years. But one of the foundational changes they must make is to listen to Daniel Victor. Sometimes there’s just no story.