Monday, May 26, 2008

Howard Kurtz doesn't get it

Howard Kurtz's column today bemoans the recent round of Washington Post buyouts. What he gets right is that it's painful to watch talented reporters like Tom Ricks and Sue Schmidt walk out the door. But what he gets wrong is what the future is about.

Specifically, he says:

"I know, I know. The future is digital. The Web is a cornucopia of fast-moving video and blogs and bulletins and gossip, while newspapers are old, slow and less than hip."

OK, he's right about the future being digital. But he's wrong about contrasting the Web as hip and newspapers as less than hip. It's not about being hip. It's about delivering information to readers in forms they enjoy and find useful. It's not that readers don't want to learn about "Jack Abramoff's dirty dealings" (as Kurtz describes Schmidt's investigative findings) or follow the Middle East that another Washington Post departee, Robin Wright, covered for a quarter century. It's that they don't want to consume the information in the way that newspapers are dishing it out.

Why should this be so surprising? We don't wear the same clothes we did 25 years ago. Our cars have features (cup holders, CD changers) that they didn't have 25 years ago. We don't make phone calls the same way we did 25 years ago. Know anyone who's thinks a landline only is just dandy? So why should we expect that news readers would be satisfied with inverted pyramids and text only?

It's easy to look at online news and dismiss it as nothing but "gossip" and "fast-moving video." Because, sure, among online-only news sites, that's the vast majority of what's out there. Today. And that's key: today. It's like that today, but it won't always be. The reporters of tomorrow are the ones who will look at all those tools and gizmos and realize, "Hey, I could use that to report and tell my story better."

Here's an exercise:
Take the Washington Post's two-year investigation of Jack Abramoff. Read the Post's Ombudsman's column about how it was done. Now, imagine how you might report that investigation today using all the digital tools available to you. Start at the beginning: Imagine how you might use blogs and crowd-sourcing to assist your investigation, long before you have anything meaningful to report. (Tip: Take a look at how Josh Marshall and did just that to uncover the US Attorneys scandal. And then consider this: He won a Polk Award for that story. Some might say that means he knows a thing or two about how to use the digital world to do important reporting.)

Then imagine how you might use "fast-moving video" or slide shows or Google mashups or mobile-phone content to create engaging reports. Just because it's "serious" doesn't mean it has to be reported in 4,000-word, text-only formats. Take a look at the Post's timeline, for crying out loud. Please don't tell me you couldn't come up with something more interactive, more engaging, something that would make people actually want to play with it. Of course you could. And their follow-the-money graphics. Very pretty. But come on people... totally static. With databases up the ying-yang these days, you could easily hook this up so that the reader could slice and dice the data in any way they chose.

The point is, when MSM folks dismiss online technologies as nothing more than the purview of gossips and dilettantes, they are missing the point: The brave new digital world is not the scourge of journalism. It is the savior. Online tools offer journalists the opportunity to do better investigative reporting and find those important stories and then to tell those stories in ways that draw readers in, rather than turning them off.

Photo courtesy of Alejandro the Great

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