America’s media diet is rapidly changing. Online news sites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are ascendant, drawing millions of readers each month, while circulation at the Washington Post was down almost 9 percent in 2012. Printed magazines are still launching in record numbers, but venerable titles such as Newsweek go digital-only. ¶ Navigating this landscape in Washington, D.C., is a troupe of young, working journalists. Each has one foot in the traditional realm of their predecessors and the other foot . . . where, exactly? Recently, this cohort (featured at right) sat down with writer Kevin Charles Redmon ’09, to discuss the modern media landscape, the technologies that shape it, and the changing role of reporters and editors.
Jaime Fuller I glanced at the channels on a small-town newspaper website the other day, and there were the usual departments, News, Politics, Opinion. And at the end it said, “Cars”—but what I read was, “Cats.” And I thought, That’s the difference between old media, which makes no money, and new media. We used to sell car ads. Now we sell cats.
Kevin Redmon Cat photos and Ryan Gosling memes seem to be the secrets to success for online news sites like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. It’s a little scary. Will our kids grow up in a world without the New York Times?
Ryan Kellett Please. The news of Old Media’s death has been greatly exaggerated . . . by the media.
Brian Fung To its credit, one thing BuzzFeed does really well—which no one had done before—is think about news in terms of the “nugget,” as opposed to the “article.” The idea that you take from a traditional article a quote or an interesting statistic and make that the thing you sell. You’re not selling the article. You’re selling the thing that people will remember and spread around.
Redmon Keeping it shorter, like a quick burst of trivia?
Fung Right. In a print article, you might have five bits of interesting information. Well, BuzzFeed turns that into five different posts, which each get individual attention.
Redmon That kills me. I don’t want to write Web “nuggets.” I want to write long, thoughtful magazine stories. I realize how callow that sounds.
Kellett Keep writing those long pieces. Don’t be surprised when that reporting gets repurposed into nuggets. It’s my job to think about the person who has five minutes waiting in line at the supermarket and how they can get something out of the three months of reporting you did on your story. Some are not ever going to read 3,000 words in a single setting. But can I serve them an interactive graphic or video that tells the same story differently? You bet.
Lois Parshley One of the best pieces of advice I got, starting out, was from my editor at the Atlantic. He said, “You know, it’s great that you want to do long-form stuff. You might be able to do that for part of your job. But we don’t live in an era when anyone gets to do that full time. If you can’t be happy in a middle place—writing some daily Web assignments—then you’re not going to like journalism.” That really struck me.
Redmon Brian, I know one thing you appreciate about the Atlantic is its cult of curiosity. For instance, most Web articles are born at the morning staff meeting, when an editor says, “Why is it that NASA doesn’t take photos of government black sites?” Then someone spends a couple hours researching that question and writing a post about it.
Fung The culture there is very much one of shared discovery. Most news organizations, especially traditional ones, take the stance, “Here’s what you need to know.” With the the Atlantic, it’s very much, “I was wondering about this, and you might be wondering too, so I called up this dude, and here’s what he said, and isn’t it awesome that we were able to find out all this stuff?” I think readers really value the respect that the Atlantic gives to its audience. Another great thing about working there was that everyone had a unique role to play. Everyone had different strengths and weaknesses, a different “game to play,” and the senior editors were great at cultivating those specific talents.
Angela Evancie Did they literally talk about it that way? Your editor would come to you with a story idea and say, “Brian, this is your game”?
Fung Yeah, literally.
Evancie When I started at a small-town newspaper in New Hampshire last year, I really struggled at first. The paper came out twice a week, and I had a five-town beat that I needed to cover in every possible way: local elections, education, crime. I had a hard time producing work that I felt comfortable with. I sometimes cranked out stories in less than a half an hour. I sat down with my editor and told her how I was feeling. She said, “Eventually you learn that only a few stories can be your babies.” You have to give yourself permission to produce work you deem lower quality. That’s as true at a small paper as it is on the Web.
Fung I totally identify with that. I’m not a fast writer, and I spend a lot of time editing as I go. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be not satisfied with the final product. At some point, you’ve just got to let it go.
Fuller The first print piece I wrote for American Prospect was a very daunting thing. I sat down at my computer thinking, Oh my gosh, this is going to be in print. It needs to be the most perfect, timeless writing ever. I turned in my first draft and my editor said, “You need to rewrite this and think way less about it. Pretend that you’re writing a Web piece.” It was a nice reality check. I stopped approaching it like it was War and Peace. I’ve learned that it’s important to stick to your personal voice.
Fung Do you feel like you’ve developed a strong voice?
Fuller I’d say I’m still cooking. But I try.
Fung Voice is something I struggle with every day. I’m doing a lot of policy reporting, which, by nature, is not that exciting. So a lot of translation has to come through in the voice. But to what extent is that a conscious process, honing your style?
Redmon I sometimes pretend I’m writing a radio script—I love NPR’s pull-up-a-chair approach to storytelling.
Evancie That’s exactly what radio writing is meant to be. Editors always tell you, just close your eyes and pretend that you’re sitting across a café table from your best friend, telling them a really interesting story. That needs to come through in your writing and in your delivery.
Fuller No William Faulkner on NPR.
Evancie Right. Ernest Hemingway would be a great radio writer, because he’s all short sentences. In radio it’s “show, don’t tell.” And you get the added bonus of being able to convey emotion with your tone. So you don’t need to say “a solemn ceremony,” because you can just say the word “ceremony” solemnly. You can cut out all your descriptors.
Redmon Speaking of short sentences, let’s talk about Twitter.
Fung Becoming a reporter at National Journal has really altered the extent to which I’m tapped into the national conversation. I’m actually much less hooked on social media than before. A lot of my reporter friends say, “Oh that’s a great thing. You’re spending time contributing to society, instead of making bland cat jokes or sending animated GIFs around.” And that’s true, I suppose. But as a Web journalist, many of the stories I wrote in the past were leads that came from Twitter! I feel like I’m missing out.
Evancie There’s a healthy neo-Luddite streak running through parts of journalism, because there’s something to be said for having a beat and getting to know the people on your beat—your sources, your subjects. I don’t see that happening on the Web. Instead, I see a lot of one-off stories. You don’t ever hear the words “shoe leather” and “blogger” in the same sentence. But those Luddites are battling against a new school that says, “Twitter is absolutely important. This is not only how we’re going to develop better stories, but it’s how everyone’s going to get their news.” To what extent can we use Twitter effectively, but not be totally broken down by it? Or distracted to a point of paralysis?
Kellett There absolutely is such a thing as a Twitter beat. I call it a social media constellation: the digital connections you have with sources, other journalists, and increasingly readers themselves. Reporters must know that the only way to grow this digital beat is by participating in it, not just listening.
Redmon I think about the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, and how Twitter “covered” that story. Journalists were publishing their articles as works-in-progress; some were rife with rumors and bad facts. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
Kellett I’m of the mind that you report the news as it happens with the same high journalistic standards as before. Just be transparent about how you report the story. Readers are smarter than journalists give them credit for.
Parshley There’s some really amazing technological innovation going on, too. Foreign Policy did a couple of e-books this past year, which we dressed up with slide shows and maps. You’re able to take the power of a digital platform—audio recordings, video, multimedia, embedded cartography, infographics—and invest the time and resources you’d put into a magazine piece. I think, I hope, that that’s where long-form is headed.
Redmon I hope so, too. But market forces seem to be working in the opposite direction. You had an experience the other day that I think, sadly, has become typical for freelancers. It was after Raúl Castro announced that he wasn’t going to run for a second term as president.
Parshley Yeah, the Atlantic’s international editor wanted me to do a quick Web hit about it—I’d written about Cuba before, and I’ve been there twice. It was Sunday night, but I wrote back and said, “Sure, I’ll have you a draft by mid-morning tomorrow.” New editor, someone I hadn’t worked with, but I’m comfortable with the subject matter. She responded right away to say, “Oh, and by the way, we can’t pay you.” And I had to write back, “Oh, and by the way, I can’t work for free.”
Redmon A lot of news sites assume that most writers are so excited about having their work published that they’ll give it away for free.
Fuller Most people are unwilling to pay for quality. It breaks my heart.
Parshley So you have to find people who have other jobs that pay the rent—academics or think-tank fellows—who are willing to take the clip instead of payment. Or, you have to find naïve young writers who will do it for free.
Redmon As the model changes, I guess the challenge is to change with it, gracefully. And, you know, still pay rent.
Fung Even if I lost my job tomorrow, I would stay in journalism. Not because I’m enamored with the idea of writing, or because I dream of being the next Seymour Hersh, but because I get a kick out of explaining things to people. I want to help them understand the world better.