Feb 16, 2011

Cracking open the reporter's brain pan

One difference between a good reporter and a bad one is that a good reporter usually knows a great deal more about a story than he or she is able to squeeze into a single article. In the old days (BI: Before Internet), the workaround to this information choke was to give the reporter a series, or a niche beat, or even a book. When the institutional/insider knowledge built up to dangerous levels, a reporter might even get a column.

But all of those solutions cost money. Today, mostly the blog serves as the information release valve. The problem is, however, that blogs demand too much and too little at the same time. They need constant feeding, but only want snacks. But for readers to care, the reporter needs to craft the bite-size story into something akin to a funny joke. That's a talent in and of itself, which means many blogs are full of time-consuming flops, flabby and/or caustic criticism, or boring notebook detritus.

As a radio producer, my job is, in part, about giving reporters a chance to say all the things they couldn't fit into a story (after they recount what they did put in the story). Then we give the story a second life by getting people, often experts, to talk and debate. The key is the host - the interlocutor who directs the discussion and asks the questions.

There are news and commentary sites springing up that follow a similar model. Calbuzz, started by Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts, is one such outlet. On occasion, it allows good journalists to go deeper into the weeds on stories than most general interest newspapers, but they have an audience that will willingly follow. In this case, too, the two hosts - and their curiosity - drives the conversation.

A good example of this is today's special report from Gene Maddaus, political writer at the LA Weekly. Maddaus took exception to some overly generalized CW on Calbuzz and, in response to his message, the editors asked him to write what most good political writers wish they could cram into their campaign coverage - but don't.

This kind of interaction improves journalism without robbing anyone of their valuable time (Gene didn't have to post the piece if he didn't want to) and without mindless consolidation or content-farming other news outlets have embraced (cough, AOL, cough, MediaNews).

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