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News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News: What I Will Say at SXSW is where and how Jay Rosen lays out his current thinking on new agendas for whatever journalism will become after we’re done with the current transition.

He has long been concerned with how explanation is “under-emphasized in the modern newsroom” and offers excellent examples of how explaining should work, as well as ideas about how to institutionalize it. For example, “The goal is to surface the hidden demand for explanation and create a kind of user-driven assignment desk for the explainer genre, which is itself under-developed in pro journalism”. He adds, “Are there other ways to surface this kind of demand?”

I’d call attention to the imperatives of stories, and the role that might be played by new sets of well-explained facts that can help frame or re-frame a story.

See, stories are what assignment editors want. They’re also what readers want. And stories are different to some degree from the current vogue-word narrative. They do overlap, but they are different.

A few months back I visited the subject of story in What’s right with Wikipedia? — a piece I wrote in response to a What’s Wrong With Wikipedia story that had run in the Wall Steet Journal. I don’t know if that story was part of the WSJ’s GOP-aligned “What’s Wrong With Everything Liberals Do” narrative, but in any case I felt the matter needed explaining. Some Wikipedians did a good job of showing how there wasn’t much of a story there (read the piece to see how). For my part, I felt the need to explain what stories are actually about, which is problems, or struggles. Said I,

Three elements make stories interesting: 1) a protagonist we know, or is at least interesting; 2) a struggle of some kind; and 3) movement (or possible movement) toward a resolution. Struggle is at the heart of a story. There has to be a problem (what to do with Afghanistan), a conflict (a game between good teams, going to the final seconds), a mystery (wtf was Tiger Woods’ accident all about?), a wealth of complications (Brad and Angelina), a crazy success (the iPhone), failings of the mighty (Nixon and Watergate). The Journal‘s Wikipedia story is of the Mighty Falling variety.

In his piece Jay mentions what a good Job the Giant Pool of Money episode of This American Life did of bringing sense to the country’s financial crisis. This gave rise to the PlanetMoney podcast, which is also terrific at explaining things. PlanetMoney feeds some of its best stuff to NPR’s news flow as well. One good example is Accidents of History Created U.S. Health System, which made it clear how we got to our wacky employer-supported health insurance system. Go listen to it and see if you don’t have a much better grasp on the challenge, if not of the solutions, currently on the table.

My point here, or one of them, is that the real story isn’t Obama vs. Intransigent Republicans (the Dems’ narrative) or Sensible Americans against Government Takeover (the Reps narrartive), but that we’ve got a health care system that burdens employers almost exclusively, rather than individuals, government (save for VA, Medicare and Medicaid), or other institutions. It’s an open quetion whether or not that’s screwed up, but at least it’s a question that ought to be at the center of the table, or the “debate” that been both boring and appalling.

This is consistent with what Matt Thompson says in The three key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, # 2 of which is WHAT WE MISS (1): The longstanding facts. But we also miss seeing the role that longstanding overlooked facts might play amongst the three story elements: protagonist, problem and movement. Take the problem of employer responsibility as a structural premise for health care. By itself, the problem just sits there. We need a protagonist and a sense that the story has movement. In the absence of either, we look for other defaults. Thus we cast Obama and his opponents as the protagonists, or to get into characterization as the issue if the topic gets logjammed, which it has been for awhile. So we hear about problems with the president’s charactrer. He’s not leading. Or … whatever. You can fill in the blanks

Meanwhile, we live in a world where employers are almost nothing like they were when the current health care system solidified at the end of World War II. In many towns (Santa Barbara, for example) the (or at least a) leading employer is “self”. Tried to get insurance for your self-employed butt lately? How about if you’re older than a child and have a medical history that’s other than perfect? Scary shit. Does the Obama plan make things better for you? According to this story in CNN, “Health insurance exchanges would be created to make it easier for small businesses, the self-employed and unemployed to pool resources and purchase less expensive coverage.” Hmm. “Easier” doesn’t sound like much relief. But doing nothing doesn’t sound good either.

So the easy thing is to go back to covering the compromise bill’s chances in Congress, and the politics surrounding it. That at least makes some kind of sense. We have all our story elements in place. It’s all politics from here on. Bring in the sports and war metaphors and let automated processes carry the rest. Don’t dig, just dine. The sausage-machine rocks on.

As Matt says, “… rarely do we acknowledge what we’re pursuing. When our questions make it into the coverage at all, they have to appear in the mouths of our sources, resulting in paltry, contorted pieces like this one, from the AP. Or they’re attributed to no one, weaseled into a headline that says only, ‘[Such-and-such] raises questions.’ Whose questions? Not ours, certainly.”

I also wonder if we’re barking up the wrong tree (or down the wrong hole) when we obsess about “curation” of news — a favorite topic of mainstream media preservationists. Maybe what we need is to see explainers as advocates of our curiosity about the deep questions, or deep facts, such that they might become unavoidable in news coverage.

This, of course, begs the creation of whole new institutions. Which is the job that Jay has taken up here. Let’s help him out with it.

[Later...] An additional thought: statistics aren’t stories.

I remember hearing about what were later called the killing fields of Cambodia, after refugees reported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were murdering what eventually became more than a million people. Hughes Rudd delivered the story one on the CBS Morning News, as I recall between items on the Superbowl and Patty Hearst. He said that perhaps half a million people were already dead. But the story wasn’t a story. It was an item. It wasn’t until Sydney Shamberg ran “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” in the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine that the story got real. It got human. It had a protagonist. It became a movie.

I thought about this when I noticed there were exactly no comments following my Gendercide post. Here’s the fact that matters: countless baby girls are being killed, right now. But that’s not a story. Not yet. Not even with help from The Economist. I think the job here isn’t just to get more facts, or even to get the right name and the right face. The story needs its Dith Pran, and doesn’t have her yet. (Or, if it does, news hasn’t spread.)

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I don’t go to TV for Journalism any more, even though I’m sure there’s plenty left: needles scattered thorugh a haystack of channels and program schedules that have become so hard to navigate on satellite and cable systems that it’s just not worth the bother. So, while I wait calmly for TV to die (and it will, except for sports), I go to other sources, most of which are on the Web, but some of which are still in print.

The New York Times, for example. This last week we took a bus down to New York, where we visited museums, went kayaking in the Hudson and did fun family stuff. Each morning we were greeted by the Times, which still astonishes me with the quality and abundance of its Good Stuff. We saved a bunch of it to haul back and read on the bus along the way. I still have the stack here. They are, let’s see…

The Times’ treatments of serious subjects — say, for example, President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court — are both essential and unequaled in their thoroughness. For any subject I care about, I’d rather mine the depths of the Times’ coverage (that last link leads to dozens of  pieces) than take on faith the opinionating — or even the in-depth coverage — of all but a handful of other papers; especially those with sharp axes to grind. (Even though I often enjoy those. The Wall Street Journal‘s especially. Here’s WSJ take this morning on Sotomayor.)

The Web and the World are well-met by an easily-navigated website and a fine newspaper. I can think of many ways the Times could do a better job; but right now few if any others (the Washington Post, primarily) are in the same league.

Which is why I’m annoyed by the likes of Bloggingheads, and the Times’ video section in general.

For example there’s this: “Hanna Rosin, left, of Double X and Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School debate the sincerity of President Obama’s anti-torture pledge.” I like both these talking writers, but not in a she-said/she-said setup that sinks down into the lame argument culture that Deborah Tannen argued against (unsucessfully) long ago.

There’s some great stuff in there. This piece about Venezuela’s Motorizados, for example. And I suppose this David Pogue take-down of the Verizon Hub is fine; but I’d rather scan Pogue’s review (even though it does drag my eyes across two pages, so I get “exposed” to all those ads I turn to white space with AdBlockerPlus).

But why imitate bad TV?

Television, almost from the beginning, suffered from the need to turn programming into advertising bait: packing material to fill time time slots between spot breaks. What the New York Times is doing with Bloggingheads is imitating one of the most annoying conventions of a dying institution. The Times can do better than that. So can the blogging heads that don’t talk nearly as well as they blog. (At least not in this format.)

In Dave Winer and Jay Rosen‘s latest Rebooting the News, Jay points out that debugging, which works so well for software and hardware, has not been part of the culture of BigTime Journalism. (The proximal example involving the Times and Maureen Dowd is summarized well by Scott Rosenberg.)

A larger issue for me is a structural one visited by David Carr in his review of Newsweek’s wholesale changes. Sez Carr,

The makeover represents a rethinking of what it means to be a newsweekly, but no redesign can gild the cold fact that it remains a news magazine that comes out weekly at a time when current events are produced and digested on a cycle that is measured with an egg timer, not a calendar…

More notably, the new Newsweek will no longer attempt to re-report and annotate the week’s events — an expensive, unsustainable approach to making a weekly news magazine. The magazine will not scramble the jets and deploy huge resources to cover a breaking story unless, as Mr. Meacham put it, the magazine is “truly adding to the conversation.” Instead, the reimagined magazine will include reported narratives that rely on intellectual scoops rather than informational ones and pair them with essayistic argument.

The wonky, government-centric DNA of the magazine is dominant in the new execution, which may have been the idea. The first redesigned issue includes an interview of President Obama by Mr. Meacham; a feature on the retired life of the last president; a look back at the last treasury chief; a profile of the speaker of the House; and a column by George F. Will, who will always be George F. Will no matter what typeface you render him in.

So, what’s “the conversation” Meacham is talking about? Whatever it is, it shouldn’t exclude the helpful voices that come from outside Newsweek’s customary sphere. Much of Dave and Jay’s conversation in their Rebooting podcast is about the subject of listening. They come at it from the angle of empathy, but that’s what real listening requires. If you’re really listening, you’re not ignoring, and you’re not preparing a dismissal or an excuse to pivot off the other party’s points to more of your own. To listen is to accept the speaker as a source.

Journalism without sources is not worthy of the name. Journals today have more sources than ever. And the abundance of sources requires better jouralism than ever. Much of this journalism will have to be original rather than derivative. He-said/She-said fighting-heads is derivative. Worse, it suggests a structure that is inherently narrow and even misleading. It assumes the issues can be reduced to pairs of competing views, each from a single source.

We are still only at the beginning of journalism’s great Reboot. It’s hard for big old papers like the Times to be the boot and not the butt that the boot kicks. There is so much to protect, and that stuff is so much easier to see than the sum of stuff that’s still left to pioneer.

Yet the frontier is much, much bigger.

This weekend I heard second-hand that the Times is on its way to rebooting the late Times Select, by another name. In other words, it’s thinking about putting its content behind a paywall again. And, in so doing, leading the way for the rest of its industry to do the same.

I hope this isn’t true, though I suspect it is, for the simple reason that it’s easier to protect the known than to pioneer the unknown.

Toward the end of Dave & Jay’s podcast (at 32:45), Jay reports that he dropped off  Howard Kurtz’s Relaiable Sources, as had Dave. Neither found it to their liking. Which makes sense to me, because Kurtz’s show is television. And television is a highly mannered game. Those manners are fast becoming anachronisms. Jay’s critique of elitist journalism — what he calls the “Church of the Savvy” — is as much about manners as it is about other skills required for mastering The Game.

That game is, as Jay puts it, insideous, because it’s manipulative by nature. Manipulation and reporting are not the same. You might find manipulation in conversation, but it’s not a healthy thing, even if getting manipulated works for you.

Jay says that the power of The Church of the Savvy is in decline. He gives good reasons, to which I’ll add one more: it’s adapted to television, and television as we know it is a near-absolute anachronism.

Last night I had a long talk with an old friend who is a very wise and quiet investor. A measure of his wisdom is that he’s navigated his way through the crash, and is being very smart about what’s coming along as well. While our conversation ranged widely, it centered on television. His take is that TV is a Dead Thing Walking. From the investment standpoint, you short the satellite guys first, and then the cable companies. There are many good business reasons, starting with the abandonment of the medium by advertisers (for all but, say, sports). But the primary problem is that the audience is walking away. They’re going to Hulu and YouTube and other workarounds of the Olde System. There will be many more of these than the few we already have.

It would be wise for survivors among other Olde Systems not to ape what’s failing about television. Among those failings are forms of journalism that never were. Also the convention of locking up content behind paywalls and indulging in other coercive subscription practices. Nothing wrong with subscriptions, of course. You just don’t want them to be self-defeating. Times Select was exactly that. So are all cable and satellite TV deals. (A la Carte hasn’t been tested, but will be, as a desperate measure, probably much too late in what’s left of the game.)

The bottom line isn’t that the Net is changing everything, even though that’s true. It’s the need to comply with the nature of the Net itself. That nature is both cheap and immediate. The cost of connecting is veering toward zero. So is the distance it puts each of us from the rest of us, and the digital resources we require. There will be costs involved. There will be businesses in providing resources. But they won’t be the old scarcity games. They will be abundance games. That is, games played on a field defined by abundance and to a large degree comprised of it as well.

What’s scarce are talent, originality, and the arts to which both are put. We need to find new and Net-native ways of determining value and paying for it. That’s what the VRM community is doing with EmancPay. If anybody from the Times (or any journal tempted to lock up their content rather than to reboot the market in more creative ways) is reading this, talk to me.

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