August 09, 2004

More is Fine, but Better is Better

Jack Rosenthal, sitting in for Daniel Okrent on the New York Times' public editor desk, bemoans the compression of the news cycle, the subsequent diminishment of both the public's and the news media's attention span, and the opportunity these conditions create for serious journalism.

Says Rosenthal:

"With such saturation coverage, news gets used up faster, decaying rapidly Public curiosity, let alone the public interest, is exhausted, and the mass media are quick to look for some new sensation even if that means leaving important issues unresolved. News grows old before its time."

"Saturation coverage now seems inevitably to exhaust the public and leave the media eager to move on. But that means the spotlight goes dark even when the wrongs endure. That, in turn, suggests that this all-news environment is creating a new responsibility for The Times and other serious media: systematically to look back, recall and remind."

Jeff Jarvis interprets Rosenthal's observations as wistful yearnings for the "the allegedly good old days when The Times and the big media outlets controlled the news cycle. More news is good. Choice is good. Citizens controlling their media is good. Fragmentation is good. "

More news is better than less, and the transference of publishing power from the few to the many is also better, but I don't see Rosenthal arguing against either of those. To me, he is correctly identifying a critical weakness of modern mainstream journalism: The inability to complete the job, to finish telling the story before moving on to next piece of breaking news.

Newspapers, with their complex production and distribution processes, and are particularly unsuited to this inattentive form of journalism, which favors the ephemeral level of "reality" news typified the elevation of the ordinary to the extraordinary, such as the slayings of a "Lori" or a "Laci." Despite the ability to report first to the web, the hard-copy newspaper must by its nature arrive at in the hands of readers after they've had the opportunity to get the latest news from the tube or the Net.

As I've said before, what can separate newspapers - and other news organizations that choose to devote themselves to depth over breadth - from the "the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention" is quality. [ Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism. ]

When fragmentation is commonplace, focus is a differentiator. When stories are abandoned in favor of whatever breaks next, follow-through becomes a selling point.

Back in those heady dot-com days, those of us who were webbies all talked about stickiness, getting those eyeballs to stay on the pages. Newspaper readers want stickiness, too. Hit-and-run journalism won't work for newspapers any more.

Once again, it's time to emphasize the difference between "media" and "journalism." The first is a delivery method, one that is continually changing and producing not only the "widespread attention deficit disorder" Rosenthal laments, but also the capacity for citizen publishing Jarvis extols. The latter is a set of standards for conveying information.

These journalistic standards are not inflexible (nor should they be) and neither are they limited in use by only "professional" journalists, but they can be employed, especially by newspapers, which have more newsroom resources than all other news organizations, to create a concentrated level of reporting that is becoming increasingly uncommon.

Watchdog reporting, explanatory reporting, narrative reporting - all these are opportunities for newspapers. When Jarvis says more is good, I agree, but more alone is not enough. Quality matters. Depth counts. In the end, better is better.

Posted by Tim Porter at August 9, 2004 09:50 AM