— journalism festival (@journalismfest) April 30, 2014
This quote is beginning to get some press attention, so I ought to correct the record: I said “masturbatory”, not “masturbating”. Glad that’s cleared up.
In fact, the full quote was captured by the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch: “Breaking news is the most masturbatory thing journalists do. The reader couldn’t give a flying fuck who broke it.”
A bit of context, here: I was giving a talk about wonk journalism at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and in the Q&A I was asked about whether there was a problem with the fact that explanatory journalism doesn’t break news. In particular, I was asked about this quote, from James Ball, at the Guardian, writing about Vox and FiveThirtyEight:
Neither site truly aims to break news on the areas they cover, and therein lies a problem: are readers meant to visit their favorite “regular” news sites, then hop by and see if the newcomers have anything to add (or debunk)? Neither FiveThirtyEight nor Vox has offered quite enough (yet) on any of their specialities to become the first stop.
This, I think, is doubly silly. For one thing, both Vox and FiveThirtyEight are brand new: give them a little bit of time to start getting the breadth and depth they aspire to!
But more to the point, readers don’t care who broke the news: only journalists care about that. If I report something and then you report the same thing five minutes later, then by the laws of the journalistic honor code, you’re supposed to credit me in your story.
There’s one exception to this rule: at newswires, it theoretically matters who gets news first, because news can move markets. (In practice, however, even newswire subscribers aren’t generally fast enough to be able to trade on news before the markets have moved, so it doesn’t really make a huge amount of difference whether one wire gets the news a fraction of a second before the other guy.)
Outside newswires, on the other hand, chasing after scoops is silly — especially in the 99% of cases where the news is certain to come out soon enough anyway. Many highly-respected newscasts and magazines rarely or never break news; conversely, many low-quality, high-velocity websites are constantly churning out microscoops of zero importance. It seems self-evident to me that all news organizations should decide whether or not to publish information based on the inherent quality of the content in question, and the degree to which that information serves the publication’s readers. Instead, far too many news organizations make their publication decisions based on what other news organizations have already published.
Journalists, of course, spend a huge amount of time looking at their rivals’ content. And in their solipsistic way, they generally assume that if they’ve seen a certain story elsewhere, then their readers will have seen that story too. Every journalist in America can tell you about a project they were working on which was spiked when their editor saw something vaguely similar elsewhere — even when the overlap between the two publications’ readerships was roughly zero.
All of which is to say that when journalists start caring about scoops and exclusives, that’s a clear sign that they’re publishing mainly for the benefit of other journalists, rather than for their readers. Take the news, for instance, that I was joining Fusion. That news was published in the New York Times — both online and in print. The story, by Ravi Somaiya, was a great one. But because of scoop culture, it only appeared in the NYT because it appeared first in the NYT: Fusion gave Ravi the exclusive. My own story appeared a few minutes later, which is fine; if it had appeared a few minutes earlier, the NYT would probably have refused to publish anything on the subject at all. Even though the only people who care about such things are a handful of media navel-gazers on Twitter, none of whom read the NYT in print.
The argument for caring about such things is that news dissemination has become increasingly fragmented and social: if you have the news first, then your story gets a headstart on Twitter and Facebook, which is how more and more people are getting their news. But frankly while a headstart is nice, it should never make the difference between publishing and not publishing. Readers come first, and all decent publications have their own readership: they shouldn’t be so meek as to assume that their readers will have invariably found the same news elsewhere, just because someone else’s version arrived a little earlier.
James Ball, like most journalists, assumes that news consumers go to news websites in order to find out what is new, what is breaking. But that’s not true. They go to understand the world, broadly. If Vox and FiveThirtyEight help their readers to understand the world, then they will have done their job. No site is exhaustive, and no site will be better at providing all the news that’s happening in the world, on a real-time basis, than the wires and their clients. If you want to succeed online, you need to find a niche, something you do better than anybody else. And it seems to me that explaining and contextualizing the news is a very high calling, even if you can’t explain and contextualize everything.
Of course, explanatory journalism is dependent upon somebody, somewhere, breaking the news in the first place; in my talk I used the word “parasitical”. You can’t have explanation and context without someone on the ground finding and reporting the facts which can then be explained and contextualized.
What’s more, in many cases the person on the ground, who sees the facts in their real-world context, is often the very best person to be doing the contextualizing. That’s why Ezra Klein, for one, is giving his staff beats and is telling them to go out and report news: talking to sources and spending a lot of time in a certain world is pretty much the best way to get the deep understanding of a topic that is necessary to be able to produce a first-rate explainer.
But reporting news, and cultivating sources, is a different thing from breaking news — from being the person who reports the news five minutes or five seconds faster than the other guy. And if you’re not focused on scooping the competition on something incremental, then you’re going to have more bandwidth available for being able to talk to your sources about the big picture, where the real value is.
So let’s try to move away from scoop culture, and away from journalism-for-journalists. Instead, let’s serve our readers. The real readers. The ones who aren’t on Twitter.