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Journalism’s “lingering” problem: The style reporters are taught in J-school drives away online readers 12/12/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in TimeSpent.

An article in American Journalism Review notes that Internet news consumers don’t really like “hanging” with the leading newspapers – not even long enough to read an article, much less absorb an ad. The typical reader of the comprehensive NY Times stays around for just over one minute per day– which was, believe-it-or-not, three times longer than the nine next largest papers. By contrast, the fairly generic news sites of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft hold onto their audiences more than twice as long.

The problem is that the winning formula taught in journalism schools is a loser on the web. Journalists are trained to write in a boring style – in a detached and objective manner with a serious and authoritative tone. They are also taught to write in a boring format — an “inverted pyramid” with the key points at the top and content becoming less and less interesting the deeper you get. By contrast, blogs are succeeding by dumping this formula, engaging readers with opinions and a variety of styles, and using links to “outsource” the more obscure material to other sites. If newspapers continue to refuse to challenge their own stale methods, and find new ways to get readers to hang around, they will soon not be around.


1. Peter - 12/13/07

Your observation is true to some extent. For certain topics or news pieces, the “inverted pyramid” style article feels boring even in NYT, and I prefer to read two or three opinionated blog pieces about it.

But there are other topics which require complex investigations, or talking to many different people, and you will find that bloggers are not usually capable of or willing to do that.

My feeling is that we need both.

2. Cassandrina - 12/13/07

The main problem is in language.
Why are not more people reading books?
It is not only the web that has assisted this; books are printed in vast numbers but written in styles that are both boring and tedious.
After all the lauding over celebrity literature how many people have actually finished a Salmon Rushdie book – very few I reckon.
Even so-called popular newspapers have styles so pretentious they are laughable.

3. Adam Gurri - 12/13/07

What do you mean, “why are not more people reading books”? In my area alone, we have a big Borders, right across the street from a gigantic Barnes and Noble, all opening during a time when Amazon is huge! People are reading plenty.

Moreover, while they may not be reading Rushdie–something I won’t lose any sleep over–working at Borders I can tell you that they are at least buying the classics; Dickens and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to name a few.

4. Steve Boriss - 12/13/07

Peter, I agree that a variety of styles is necessary. But Old Media has picked one — serious and authoritative– as if it is the “correct one.” For instance, compare broadcast where every evening news anchor is forced into being serious and authoritative, sometimes failing miserably (e.g. the formerly perky Katie Couric) with more flexible cable TV. Cable has everyone from the crusading (Olbermann, O’Reilley) to the matter-of-fact (King) to the strikingly beautiful (Fox, CNN anchors) to the funny (Jon Stewart) delivering news and opinion.

5.   links for 2007-12-13 by andydickinson.net - 12/13/07

[…] Journalism’s “lingering” problem: The style reporters are taught in J-school drives away onlin… The problem is that the winning formula taught in journalism schools is a loser on the web. (tags: newspaper education training) […]

6. Nigel Barlow - 12/14/07

An interesting point Steve and it was the pyramid style that we were introduced to firstly on my course at University of Central Lancs.I can vouch for the fact that the style gets ingrained in the brain and it can be very difficult to braek out of it.

However to be fair to our course,the second year combines the teaching of other print styles and well as web writing.Perhaps ten it is a case of only some journalism schools

7. Bill Wallace, California State University, East Bay - 12/20/07

As a journalism instructor with 34 years of experience in the Mainstream and Alternative media, I would argue that inverted pyramid is not the problem. The problem is that people aren’t interested in news these days that doesn’t fit their own preconceived notion of what is going on in the world. In my opinion, that is why leftists flock to left “news” sources and rightists flock to right “news” sources — and why none spend much time on those sites when they do visit: they drop in only to see their own views reflected back at them.

Those who blame inverted pyramid don’t pay much attention to what newspapers and their web sites actually print these days, apparently. The pyramid has been superceded by anecdotal ledes and delayed element leads, quotations, color ledes and ironic constructions. News stories run the gamut from the Wall Street Journal format (which begins and ends with an anecdote), to free narrative, “martini” and “hourglass” formats and a variety of others. The only time the pyramid gets used these days is in breaking news, bulletins and stories where the facts are so complex they can’t be handled any other way.

In fact, the “generic” news sites you mention — Yahoo, MSN and Google — all primarily run Associated Press copy and AP is by far the greatest user of inverted pyramid in today’s media. That style is even recommended in the AP Guide to News Writing by Rene Cappon, which is, incidentally, the handbook for the wire.

If people are “hanging” longer with these generic sites, maybe it is because they prefer the inverted pyramid stories they are more likely to find there than the other story types found on the other sites.

Besides noting that people pay more attention to blogs than news sites is like saying people like science fiction films more than documentaries. The factual content in most blogs is derived primarily from the mainstream media. Very few bloggers do any primary news gathering themselves.

8. Steve Boriss - 12/20/07

Bill, Actually, I think it is fine that people flock to news that fits their worldviews rather than be stuck on someone else’s — the center-left view of mainstream media who falsely claim to be objective (BTW, I think objectivity is impossible). Jefferson and the founding fathers wanted a multitude of voices, not a few presenting their ideas as the only “truth.” I’d also say that reporters have largely not been developing their own news stories, but have been relying on news sources and newsmakers who will no longer need them as middlemen to get their stories out. I’m expecting the reporter function to be phased-out over time and for news outlets to be editors and aggregators.

9. Bill Wallace, California State University, East Bay - 12/21/07

Steve Boriss wrote:


Actually, I think your response makes my point that people who criticize the mainstream media — whether because of its alleged dependence on the inverted pyramid, its alleged over-dependence on official sources of information or some other weakness, real or imagined — are generally only superficially familiar with how the news media operates in the first place.

There is a lot of “content” in the much reviled Mainstream Media that not only is NOT provided by official sources, but is actually suppressed by them. And the fact is, if you backtrack the “news” material that appears almost anywhere on the ‘Net, usually you will find that the factual information it is based on originated somewhere in the Mainstream Media.

I worked for 25 years at the San Francisco Chronicle and did primarily investigative reporting. The stories I did — systematic studies of police violence, corruption among municipal building inspectors, the failure of state occupational safety and health laws to protect workplace hazard whistleblowers, etc. — were not stories that could have been done by relying on spokespeople. Most investigative reporting is a search for facts that officials and newsmakers don’t want people to know about in the first place.

My experience at the San Francisco Chronicle was not unique. Almost every day, newspapers around the country publish factual information that somebody in official circles did not want made public.

I am talking about factual news stories, here, not opinion columns — which, in my opinion, is what most blogs actually are.To be sure, there are a lot of time serving hacks in the media who look no further for a story than the next press release to rewrite. However, there are also a hell of a lot of people who are digging deep to do what Investigative Reporters and Editors co-founder Bob Greene once referred to as the “reporting, through one’s own work product and initiative, [of] matters of importance which some persons or organizations wish to keep secret.”

Those are stories that are not planted in the media by officials or spokespeople. And they are, quite frankly, stories you simply do not see in blogs. Most bloggers I have read are more interested in commenting on what they think is going on than they are in actually finding out what is going on. Being able to dash off a snarky comment about something is a lot more fun than getting out the shovel and doing any serious digging for underlying facts.

Besides, doing real research requires time, effort and resources most bloggers don’t have. News organizations, like them or not, have those resources and can afford to give reporters the time to do the work.

Believe it or not — and I suspect you won’t — some news organizations actually expend those resources and give reporters that time.

I worked at what is generally seen as a mediocre publication for a quarter century but still broke a lot of stories that served the public interest. Those stories cost money to produce — and, on occasion, defend in court — despite the fact that my publishers, originally the DeYoung and Theiriot families and later the Hearst Corporation — were notoriously cheap. And I was only one of many reporters doing that kind of work. In fact, the last three years I spent at the Chronicle, I worked full-time with a team of three other reporters and an editor on what was essentially one story — a detailed examination of the culture of violence in the SF Police Department. Admittedly, the story ran for more than two weeks when it was finally published, but what blogger spends three years on a subject before he writes a single word about it in his blog? I know of none. Not one.

I don’t deny that investigative reporting by solo Internet jockeys is possible, but I am still waiting to see it become the standard mode of operation for people on the ‘Net — or even something that happens occasionally. And you could very well be correct that reporters will eventually become obsolete. But if everybody on the ‘Net is simply editing and aggregating from already available sources, who is going to generate the “news” one finds in the type of investigative reporting I have described above?

As for your comment about opinions, I don’t disagree that a lively exchange of them is a good idea. But opinions without factual backup are just a lot of talk — and as far as I am concerned, posting opinion for circulation only among small cliques of true believers hardly contributes to public discourse.

10. Steve Boriss - 12/21/07

Bill, frankly I don’t believe in investigative journalism and will not miss it. I don’t think journalists are taught the proper skills, e.g. forensics and law, and I don’t like the fact that targets do not have the protections they would otherwise receive. I do believe in whistleblowers, who now have access to the Internet. Most of the investigations that journalists pride themselves most on were mostly about giving whistleblowers access to a medium for communication — something that was once precious, and now is not (e.g. Watergate, Enron). Perhaps that was not true of yours. I also believe that journalists have lost their way — they are supposed to be protecting the public from government intrusion on our natural rights, like free speech — instead, mainstream news tends to side with government and often makes the private sector look bad. So in general, I do not subscribe to the way Modern Journalism has defined “news” and am looking forward to consumers re-defining it to meet their needs. The way journalists define news will become increasingly irrelevant.

11. Bill Wallace, California State University, East Bay - 12/23/07

I rest my case. You haven’t sufficient familiarity with investigative reporting to have a reasoned opinion on the subject and you seem to think that the complaints of individual whistleblowers will somehow find their way into the computers of enough people surfing the ‘Net to mobilize a mass movement to correct the problems they are complaining about. That is patent nonsense. The Internet has decentralized information, no concentrated access to it. Finding relevant information on it takes time and skill — you can’t simply Google the truth.

You clearly have faith that citizens will be able to find out how the government is screwing them over by setting and reading blogs. I have no such faith.

12. Steve Boriss - 12/24/07

Bill, Reporters are simply middlemen. America did not have a single full-time reporter before the 1820’s. Not only was there news before then, but the public still received enough information to stage the most important Revolution in history. Criticizing people who don’t have your deep knowledge of how today’s investigative journalism is practiced is like criticizing car makers who could not tell you how to make a buggy whip.

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