Bring me the hed of Jackie

Externally focused vs. internally focused journalism.
Content vs. service.
Volume vs. value.

Externally focused journalism is: “I will tell your story to the world. The world needs to know this story to be informed.” Internally focused journalism is: “I want to know the needs of your community. I will help inform you so you can meet your goals.”

The mass journalism we have long practiced — taking on the job of informing the whole world — is externally focused. Contrast that with the social journalism program we have started at CUNY, in which we tell students to start with a community and learn its needs first, before deciding the reporting and storytelling that should be done. That is internally focused. External journalism makes content. Internal journalism performs a service. External journalism seeks volume. Internal journalism seeks relevance. They are not mutually exclusive. But the starting point matters.

This is not a post about Rolling Stone and Jackie but they and Columbia’s report about them make a convenient example — an emblem, as it happens — of external journalism. Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erderly said: “We know there is a story we want to tell about rape on campus. Because we are storytellers, we must find someone’s story to tell to the world. Jackie will do.”

In his reaction to the Columbia report, NYU’s Jay Rosen does a brilliant job of identifying the characteristics of such emblematic journalism. “Maybe ‘a single, emblematic college rape case’ does not exist,” he writes. “Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.” Maybe, he asks, this could be a flaw not just of Rolling Stone’s procedures but of the structure of magazine — or call it long-form or investigative — journalism itself.

I am reminded of my days as a cub assistant city editor, only 21 and fresh out of J-school, on the Chicago Tribune. I was assigned to copy edit the work of the paper’s Task Force. I remember the day when I watched, wide-eyed, as the fearsome managing editor gave his charge to the group’s reporters and editors. The big editor told them to always start with a victim. Then, before a single phone call was made, a single fact reported, he started at the end of the process and wrote a hed. I was shocked to see him order the group to go get the story to go under it. What he was saying was, “Bring me the hed of Jackie.”

In our social journalism — and entrepreneurial journalism — classes I find myself in frequent and sometimes passionate disagreements with students about journalism as advocacy and service. I relish these discussions because they challenge me and my ideas; that is what leads to posts such as this.

In the social class, one student disagrees with me when I say that we must begin with observing, listening to, questioning, and empathizing with a community before we can know what journalism is needed and what we can contribute. No, he says, start with the cause. He has a point.

Example: My colleague Sandeep Junnarkar came to class to talk about a project he and others at CUNY are working on to not only report on mold in New York public housing — publishing what they find in the New York Daily News — but also bringing the tools of social media to bear to give the residents of infested buildings what they need to be informed and also to fight for their rights and their health. I asked Sandeep: If the class had gone to the community first — as we advocate in social journalism — and asked them their problems, would they have listed mold first? Probably not, he answered. So these journalists quite properly started with the cause and reported it to the world (external journalism as content) but also stuck around to help them solve their problem (internal journalism as service).

Contrary example: Rolling Stone. They started with the cause. Their goal was to get a story, to justify the hed. In the results, we see the moral hazards of their circumstances. I disagree with Bill Keller, ex of The New York Times, when he blamed “the metabolism of the internet age” for what happened. No, the business motive at work here is as old as mass media and the yellow press. Rolling Stone wanted to sell magazines. Don’t let the facts, thorough reporting, and intellectual honesty get in the way of a good cover billing. I’m not saying that is what motivated all the players here. Many of them were probably driven instead by the cause. And what’s wrong with fighting for a cause?

“If it isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism,” I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts. “Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest?”

Now here’s where my entrepreneurial student will disagree with me. I say that to produce quality, trustworthy, effective journalism, we must move past our old, mass-media metrics and ways, past a business built upon cover billings and clickbait. We must see journalism as a service and thus must measure our effectiveness whether we help a community solve its problems.

Example: Vaccinations. I say it is abundantly and scientifically clear that vaccinations are safe — they do not cause autism — and effective. Thus, if we decide to cover the issue of vaccination to help a community — say, the schoolchildren and teachers and parents of New York — then we must judge our work not on how many people read/liked/shared/tweeted our stories. No, we should judge our effectiveness on the basis of the impact we have on the proportion of the school population that gets vaccinated. My student disagrees with me, saying our job stops at informing the community. And she has a point.

Example: Rolling Stone. If its reporter and editors had started with the community and its needs, they would have found more than just one alleged exemplar of the cause; they would have verified the truth of what was happening (was it an epidemic and how do we know?); they would have asked what they could do to help solve the problem of sexual assault of women on campus. Perhaps telling the story to the world off-campus is not the best tool. What if informing — and educating — women and perhaps more importantly men on-campus is the better path? I’m not necessarily arguing that Rolling Stone or any journalists to take on this issue are capable of prescribing the solution. But I am suggesting that we should be able to judge their effectiveness on whether their work helped solve the problem, whether it not only increased awareness of the problem but decreased incidents of it.

There’s a lot of talk in my world about measuring media impact. To borrow my West Virginia father’s word, I find most of the talk bassackwards. Most of the research, discussion, and tools I see emerging in this field are mediacentric, asking how much audience and traffic our stories got, how many shares and likes we got, how often we were quoted, and how much time and attention we attracted. (Attention is a better metric than reach, frequency, pageviews, and clicks but I will argue in a later post that it, too, can corrupt.)

Instead, our measurements of our value must be public-centric. We must start measuring journalism’s value on whether and how it improves the lives of the people it serves. That is why I still argue (and will probably continue to argue with my social journalism student, which I’ll relish) that journalism must start with a community, discerning its needs before deciding what journalism and what tools (besides just stories and content) to bring to its service.

The only escape we will find from clickbait, cover-billings, and shoddy, yellow journalism will be creating value in the lives of the people and communities we serve, value that they not we judge. That is the only way that we will be able to then extract value from our work to support it. And to do that, we will need to build not only new metrics but new business models built on relevance, quality, and value.

Rolling Stone’s story was just another example — and there have been many before and, I fear, will be many to come — of mass-media motivations gone wrong: We need the big story to sell magazines. We need the big story to change the world. We need the big story to get enough tons of eyeballs sold at five cents each to eek out a living.

I would not just look at more fact-checking, more editors, more procedures. Like Rosen, I would question the form and the models. I would start by asking: What does the community of women on campus need? Let’s start by asking them. What would help them improve their lives and keep them safer? That is the answer we should be seeking. Did we help them meet that goal? That is the way we should measure our value to them.

That is internally focused journalism.