While helping to organize the next Journalism that Matters conference - which is going to take place at Yahoo's Silicon Valley headquarters, Chris Peck, Chris O'brien, Martin Reynolds, Kara Andrade and others helped to map out the relationships that exist in a traditional newsroom. It is called Value Network Mapping and an example of it is show to the right.
While creating this network map we talked about newsroom practices of old (watch this video) - so that we could later tear them apart in a web-centric distributed newsroom. What I found interesting, particularly when describing newsroom values to non-journalists in the room like Kaliya Hamlin, who I think understands the web innately, was that journalists really do have a strong culture. We have our own words: Nut graf, billboard, lede - we have positions or social hierarchies, stringers, copy editors, reporters, we have a set of values, neutrality, accuracy, etc. These are all signs of a culture. It's that same culture which many people think needs to be utterly redefined this year. So I thought I'd take this post to re-think some of the very basic aspects of our culture.
Artifacts of Newsroom culture
The Lede: Why it's spelled wrong.
It's not a made up word. It's pronounced lead -- as in "I am in the lead," but when newspapers were printed back in the day people used to get it confused with lead (the metal) which was in the ink. So to clear the confusion between production matters (how much lead is in the ink) and editorial matters they changed the spelling.
History of the "Inverted Pyramid"
At least the story I was told: The inverted pyramid became standard during the days of the telegraph. There was always a fear that the line would get cut and transmission would end abruptly. With that looming over every reporters head, they would transmit the most important information first - until the reached the least important information, creating the inverted pyramid we know and love.
What do we need from these?
- Brevity - reader's still have short attention spans. Even worse online with blue hyperlinks everywhere.
- Clarity - KISS
- Accuracy - Duh.
But there are some aspects of the lede that we don't need anymore.
- Distanced voice: Blogs are personal. We live in a fractured media world where we rely on individual people, not organizations, to let us know what's going on. Can we be quick and personable at the same time?
- The spelling: It's great to pay tribute to the journalists of old - but not if it means confusing readers. They should be the center of what we do now, not old production matters long since passed.
- Start with the nut graf: It's a stretch - but if done quickly, it might serve better than the who, what, where, when approach that saves the nut for the 4th or 5th graph.
Of course - every written story is unique. The point isn't to erase old standards to create new ones. My point is simply to take a step back - realize we are ingrained in a culture that was defined a long time ago - and systematically unpack everything we do. From how we contact sources (phone and email versus Facebook or Twitter) to what we envision as our final goal (to inform versus to enable).
Update#2: Paul Conley does me one better: a bit more history on the four-graph lede and SUGGESTIONS on how to create your own lede.
I dont think you distinguished between different types of news stories.
A nut graf up top is simply a hard news lede - the inverted pyramid.
A feature story, a narrative by design will have the nut graf lower. That's the point, at least according to narrative mongers who say you need a human to pull readers into the story. Putting the nut up top turns into a hard news story.
I have a complicated relationship with feature story and formatting. I kinda despise the feature story that uses one person to illustrate a "trend" (Jack Shafer at Slate has a recurring feature on bogus trend stories) as though one example proves something.
I can find a person to illustrate anything. To me, that's the feature angle on the hard news he said/he said stories the MSM loves to write. Some people say evolution, some people say intelligent design. The jury's still out and I guess we'll never know. Hope you enjoyed that "objective" yet totally pointless news story!
At my tab, we're all about "narrative," but out stories have to be 8-10" which makes it impossible in most cases to do narrative well, except for the occasional slice of life story. But I haven't met or read the genius yet who can combine compelling narrative and a nuanced news report in a piece that small.
So I like the hard news lede even on feature and narrative stories, unless the protagonist is so compelling she demands a instant introduction. And I believe in leaving "important" information farther down a story, if doing so improves the writing.
For what that hodgepodge is worth,
Update number two: