January 29, 2005

Redefining the Language of Journalism

The language of journalism is changing. The terms that define the components of the craft are in flux. The vocabulary of newspapers is under challenge by both critics of the industry’s rigidity and by evangelists for new forms of journalism. The result: A journalistic Babel where confusion reigns.

I have been in a lot of newsrooms in the last year for Tomorrow’s Workforce, some as large as this one and some as small as this one. All desire to improve their journalism in some way, but, apart from their individual strengths or weaknesses, all struggle with two ingredients critical for change: A common definition for success and the institutional means to arrive at one.

In other words, the editors and reporters working at these newspapers want to change their newspapers, but their vocabulary – words like “story” and “beat” and “reader” – refers to forms and conceptions that, while still valuable, are ridden with journalistic baggage and lack the flexibility to embrace new meanings.

Specifically, faced with questions like “how should we ‘cover’ the city council?” or “what does the education ‘beat’ look like?’ or “what components should a news ‘story’ have?”, newspaper journalists have difficulty imagining non-traditional, even bold answers using these traditional terms.

Moreover, because of the inherently defensive, and therefore risk averse, culture of most newsrooms, editors and reporters are unpracticed and unskilled in having frank, directed conversations about the quality of their work, its measure against an articulated ideal and how they might adjust what they do to meet new standards.

The concept of “news as a conversation” is popular among those, me included, who believe news organizations must remove the walls between the “producers” of news and the “consumers” of news (it’s time for newspapers to think of themselves as “enablers” of news). Before newspapers can have a conversation with the community, they need to learn to have one with themselves.

Roy Peter Clark, the Poynter writing guru, once wrote that “the most valued quality of the language of journalism is clarity, and its most desired effect is to be understood.” He was referring to the words and structure of stories, but I think the sentiment can be applied with equal validity to the language used by journalists to describe what they do.

In order to change, newspapers need clarity. In order to evolve, newsrooms need understandable goals. In order to refocus their talents as well as develop new ones, journalists need a vocabulary that fosters creative thinking.

Because each newspaper should have its own language, an individualized lexicon reflecting the priorities of the newsroom and the needs of the community (which should coincide), I’m going to resist the temptation to offer my down redefinitions. However, there are, I think, a common set of questions journalists should ask to begin this process (and I’d like to hear your view of others I’ve overlooked). Among them:

 What is a “story”? What information should it contain? Which is the most important? How long must it be? How can it be presented in a form that is most useful to readers? What elements besides words are essential?

 What is a “beat”? How, for example, should “education” be covered? How can we minimize institutional coverage in favor of stories about people and their concerns without abrogating our responsibility to, as one reporter once told me, “keep an eye on these scoundrels?” What skills are needed for good beat coverage? How do we ensure that our reporters have them and our editors permit the reporters to use them?

 What is our role as a “watchdog”? How do we move from “gotcha” to context so the community believes we are on their side? How transparent should our reporting be? How much documentation can we provide that so we can not only underwrite our findings but also demystify our process?

 What is a “Page 1 story”? What purpose does the front page serve? Should that purpose be the same every day? If it’s for the most “important” stories, then what does “important” mean? Important to whom and for what?

 What is a “reader”? Once that meant someone who read the newspaper; now it may be someone who uses the web site or hears about a newspaper story through a blog or is someone who still reads the paper once a week for something quite specific. The question then becomes: Not what do readers “want,” but what do we want readers to “do.” It is moving from providing information to creating experiences.

There are many other questions, of course, some dealing with fundamental issues like the nature of news, the civic role of a newspaper, the shift in reporting from data-provision to truth-telling or the diminishing value of newspapers in the print-online equation. But while I think newspaper journalists should chew on these issues in order to be media literate and self-critical, they are too carbo-rich for daily digestion in the newsroom.

What I am trying to get at here is development of a basic set of standards on which all can agree in any given newsroom. What are the standards for good story-telling, for beat reporting, for Page 1, for engaging the reader? What is the answer to the question: How do we do things around here?

Identification of those standards – and the language that describes them – is a first and critical step to creation of a culture of continual self-assessment and ongoing change within a newsroom. It is the foundation for construction of a cycle of what I call Choose, Learn, Do and Adjust:

Set a goal (more reader-centric education coverage, e.g.), give reporters and editors the tools they need (new story forms or knowledge training, e.g.), put the new work in the paper, then measure the results (remember to define what you mean by success) and begin anew.

Continual change. Ongoing learning. Constant conversation about quality and connection to the community. This cycle requires a comfort-level with ambiguity and ever-shifting vocabulary that enables newspapers to imagine change. The first step toward building that culture is a conversation that begins with the question: “What do we mean by …”

(Cross-posted on morph.)

Tag It!: , ,

Posted by Tim Porter at January 29, 2005 01:19 PM


Your post really nails it. I was fortunate to work in a small newsroom where there was continual conversation about a lot of the questions you pose. And it resulted in a great working atmosphere and some good journalism. In the end, the problem was that it was continual conversation based on the question "How can we do this better?" without having taken the first step and asking, "What is the this we're trying to do better."

Now the issue is how to cultivate the environment for the conversation.

Posted by: Mark Hamilton on January 30, 2005 08:24 PM
Post a comment