Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sign o' the Times: feature reporting hits a cul-de-sac

Three Days of the Condor: watch for our hero at 4:04.

There may be one hope for newspapers in the crowded world of online information.

That hope is the one kind of information in which immediacy doesn't matter: it's investigative and feature journalism, where a picture emerges after months or years of investigation about something that we didn't know before, didn't understand, or weren't able to put into human terms.

This kind of journalism is impossible for TV to do, and something that newspapers used to excel at doing. Ironically, local newspapers have almost completely abandoned it, because it's so expensive and time consuming.

We're told that the Web rewards writers who produce stories no longer than 50 words: perfect for small attention spans and cell-phone screens alike; if that's true, then why would a newspaper assign two reporters to cover one story for six months?

The answer: "for the public good." Remember that old concept?

The New York Times and the boulevard of broken dreams

I was reminded of the need for feature journalism today, when I read the New York Times' long and rewarding look at how the housing bubble hit one neighborhood cul-de-sac in Moreno Valley, California:
"Since January, The New York Times has made regular visits to the fraying neighborhood to chronicle — in print, photographs and video — how, in one small place, the foreclosure crisis has reshaped the view of homeownership as a cornerstone of the American dream."
The full article and images are here. The video is here. Readers' comments are here.

Video: part of any, great newspaper story.

The designers also get in on the action with helpful charts, graphs, and maps, like this one:

Source: New York Times

The article is peppered with fascinating anecdotes and the little, human elements that characterize what happens when an entire neighborhood goes belly up one house at a time and comes back as a different kind of neighborhood altogether.

No doubt, this investigation took a lot of time and cost a lot of money. And I'll wager that there's not a single TV station or website in North America that could've done it as well.

Even better is that this article, though commissioned by a newspaper, was built to work in print and online media.

The idea that stories have to be short online may not be true at all: the Internet has proven itself to be a flexible medium, capable of handling whatever you throw at it: sound, pictures, words, video, and links - if that's not "scope," I don't know what is.

As well, if we can pay for and download books to read on our iPhones - something I just started doing myself - longer-form journalism should be possible to create and market as well, shouldn't it?

Since "immediacy" isn't the key selling point of these stories, you can make them available for a longer period of time without worrying about "breaking news" stealing its thunder.

The New York Times has been particularly great at being ahead of the curve in its online editions, covering breaking news on its iPhone app - supported by the Visa ad that pops up when you load it - and the Times Reader 2.0, which provides you the entire content of the newspaper in the same format as a newspaper for $3.45 a week:

Not to mention the Times mobile site, texting service, and Kindle edition.

The point is that the Times is making an effort to deliver us the news where we can read it, and at the same time continuing to do the in-depth stories that make it an agenda-setting media outlet, not just for print, but for all media.

For other newspapers without the resources, or still clinging to the mistaken belief that they will come back in a big way if they just start walling in online content again, it may already be too late. 

In the movie Three Days of the Condor (see clip at the top of this post) Robert Redford returns from lunch to his job at the CIA, where he finds that all of his co-workers have been killed. On the run from mysterious enemies, he decides that there's only one way he can save himself: by calling the New York Times.

Maybe we've been concentrating on saving the newspaper, when we should've been worried about saving the news itself.


  1. I look forward each weekend to the Saturday Special and Sunday Perspective in the Freep. Kudos to them for keeping that going.

  2. Yeah, but those are only on the weekends, Matt. The Freep has got to do something to get people to buy the paper on a daily basis. Unfortunately they don't have the budget to produce cutting-edge investigative journalism every day, and they have not adapted their newspaper in any of the ways Kenton describes above, except to create a subscription-based "online edition" that covers all the news that one can get for free on their website.


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