Revitalize reporting with passion

Jay Rosen has me thinking (again) about what makes good reporters good. I’m going to take a different path from his “Politics: Some/Politics: None” piece. But it’s in the same family.

As I think about the qualities of good reporters, I check all the usuals — hard work, tenacity, fearlessness, curiosity. Then I get to one characteristic that I rarely talked about as an editor: a deep, abiding passion for a subject. Not for the task of reporting, which everyone professes to have, but for a subject, such as public education or mental health or social services or religion or government.

By definition, passion means a strong, intense feeling — and it seemingly conflicts with the idea that reporters are supposed to be detached so that they can be objective. Seemingly. Whether it does or not no longer really matters. It is beyond time to make changes in how news organizations work. (How many Times-Picayunes, Plain Dealers and, now, Oregonians will it take to wake up?)

Here’s what I mean: Traditionally, when newspapers have a reporting vacancy, they hire the best available candidate. They look at work experience, resume, clips and institutional fit. And it often works.

Where it falls apart — particularly now when reporters are moved around like players in musical chairs — is that reporters are often stuck on a beat in which they care little about the topic. Or worse, newsrooms are so short-staffed that reporters cover some of everything that moves — think TV newsrooms. Reporters become expert at nothing.

But now, when the need for inspired content is so strong, when readers are turning away from journalism because it is boring or uninspired or, worst of all, uninformed, it is time to emphasize passion.

Imagine a reporter who is fascinated by what and how children learn reporting on schools. Or a reporter who cares deeply about a community’s oppressed and covers social service agencies. A reporter who is fascinated by the uses and misuses of power and gets to cover politics.

My belief is that they would report and write such topics with passion, with vitality and with insight. Would they stray from the centerline of traditional objectivity? Absolutely. Would that make their reporting suspect? Not if they build their journalism on facts and write with authority. Would it make their reporting better? Of course.

Newspaper managers would like it, too, for reasons beyond strong journalism. It’s most likely that the reporters with a passion would work with passion. They’ll ask more questions, talk to more people, gather more information. (And they’ll work longer hours, probably off the books!) Editors would need to help reporters remain reporters rather than editorial writers, but editors do that now to a certain extent.

Best of all, it would make newspaper journalism — TV journalism, too, for that matter — more compelling to read and talk about. People would react and respond to what is being written, and isn’t that emotional/intellectual response what you want?

Don’t think you have enough people on staff to undertake this? Reporters have to cover a variety of events to fill the paper or the airtime? Got it. Make sure they cover some topics among those in which they are passionate about. Start small and it will grow.

The key, of course, is to make sure the newspaper understands and embraces the topics that are important to its community. It is no longer necessary to be everything to everyone. That’s what the Internet is for. Now a news staff needs to focus on the vital few and hire reporters who will cover those topics with passion.

Coincidentally, this morning I read a piece at Nieman Journalism Lab about the success of Upworthy, a popular site that emphasizes meaningful, emotional content. It quotes Sara Critchfield as saying, “I tell my writers, ‘If you’re not feeling it, don’t write it.’” That is a good motto.

5 thoughts on “Revitalize reporting with passion

  1. Isn’t this the way we used to run our newsrooms? I can think of quality people we had at the N&R and other papers who were pretty passionate or knowledgable about their beats. We wrote with “authority.” But for the sake of “freshening up” coverage and moving folks around for developmental reasons — bringing in fresh blood, etc — we shifted them into roles that didn’t suit them. Looking today purely from a community journalism viewpoint, what papers really need are reporters who understand and are part of the communities they write about. That’s the “authority” of today, and readers can perceive it easily. If you don’t know the players, the background and what drives the issues, you’re simply faking it and won’t connect.

  2. Hey, it’s old home week! Good thoughts by both Johns, and of course an excellent “what he said” by Lex.

    I would just add that it has really hit home to me the last few years that, as the editor, the sense of passion has to start with me. I can’t expect my reporters to have passion if I don’t have it, and then some.

    You must impart a sense of mission and urgency, and then show them you mean it by not veering off the path. Then get excited when they hit the mark and show it (if you aren’t excited when they do, you are in the wrong business).

    And, in line with John Robinson’s comment about the danger of reporters becoming “experts at nothing,” if you are asking them to do X, quit distracting them by throwing W, Y & Z in the way. You can’t pump a reporter up with expectations of aggressive and enlightening government coverage, for example, then assign them every cicada or warehouse fire story you can’t find an owner for.

    That’s a passion killer.

  3. What Sutter said, particularly the last part.

    As a reporter, I always figured that the job would be tension between what I had to do and what I wanted to do, story-wise. YMMV, but for me personally, particularly after things started to get bad, I figured as long as the ratio of had to do:want to do never exceeded 2:1, I could put up with things pretty much indefinitely. But toward the end, that ratio did indeed exceed 2:1, and that was one of the reasons I accepted a buyout.

  4. This is one of the reasons I’m in the process of setting up, and the Center for Accountability Journalism. We need reporters to be passionate and knowledgeable, and to embrace their role as surrogates for the public.

    I’ve been preaching the value of beat reporters in our new media environment since 2004:
    And here’s the 2009 version:

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