The Internet doesn’t work on a daily schedule. But even more importantly, it abhors the absence of voice. There’s a reason why opinion writing tends to dominate the most-read lists on our “news” sites. Indeed, what we’ve seen is that Internet communities tend to form around voices — informed, passionate, authoritative voices in particular. (No one wants to read a bored blogger, I always say.) --Dan Froomkin (source)
I hadn’t realized it had been over three years since I attended Harvard’s Nieman Conference, but the date stamp doesn’t lie. I checked back because I saw Dan Froomkin, who I’d found to be one of the more memorable speakers that year, is still actively involved with the Foundation, authoring a series of blog posts on the future of news. The particular segment that caught my eye was entitled “Why ‘playing it safe’ is killing American newspapers.”
Froomkin was an “early adopter” of blogging as far as newspapermen go, joining WashingtonPost.com in 1997 and being the long-time writer and blogger for “White House Watch.” Looking back over my notes when I first heard him speak and what he’s saying now, I’m surprised by how little they’ve changed.
Continue Reading His suggestions, boiled down to their meaty goodness:
Passion is a good thing
Then:<blockquote>“He also talked about the divergence between the blogosphere and your editor-next-door: the former values passion, the latter espouses dry objectivity. Froomkin pushed that “passion is a good thing,” as long as it was not partisan directed and was instead passion for a topic coupled with meticulous accuracy. Wariness for those who would take his words, however: Froomkin also noted that he was pushed out of news for his zealotry in taking to task the White House press confs.”</blockquote>
Now: <blockquote>If we were to start an online newspaper from scratch today, we’d recognize that toneless, small-bore news stories are not the way to build a large audience — not even … The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.</blockquote>
Get past the article obsession
One thing he also proposed is pushing out agget (raw data) for users to sift through as they see fit. How does this fit at a college paper? Give people the numbers: financial, admissions. Repost campus group minutes, upload the interviews, run a Flikr photostream of photos you don't use, but maybe someone will find useful or fun. For a profession that seeks truth and openness, journalists are not exactly the ideal sources, and editors are loath to let the readers see the nitty gritty. Another of his proposals: a news blog. Just the facts, but keep them short and to the point. How many more stories could be hit, and how much more quickly could a paper break stories? He also suggested using the news blog to debunk rumors: the short style is ideal for the myth-busting that so often is done but never sees the printed page.
Knowledgeable beat reporters aren’t just stenographers, they are translators, educators, referees and analysts. If we’ve got people in our newsroom who really understand how a certain city or county works, or who are experts in certain policy areas, they should be sharing and showcasing their expertise in live discussions and blogs; should be answering reader questions and composing FAQs, should be on Facebook and Twitter, should be publishing and allowing readers to contribute to their beat notes, and should be writing and updating primers on key players and key issues. And much of the material they create for online should end up in the paper as well — quite possibly instead of the dry incremental news stories they currently produce. They should essentially become the anchor for a community of people who share an interest in that beat. And by making it clear that our beat reporters are not faceless drones, but knowledgeable and accessible figures, we can reconnect with readers who may otherwise decide they may as well go somewhere else for their news.
One other interesting note: At the time, Froomkin said Washington Post was considering throwing out comment moderation on the condition that all comments are tied to a user’s verified real name. It was a noble goal, perhaps, but one the Post eventually passed on in favor of allowing more traditional pseudonyms.