Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thinking About News: Part II

This is Part II of Thinking About News. Find Part I here. Find Part III here.

Parts I and II:
What do I think about the evolution of (And yes, this gets review-y.)
Part III:
What have I learned about my own relationship to news and information?
What are the implications for the community?

This is Part II: Thinking About News
In this part, I am going to give specific examples about why the length of articles, the search function, and the capacity (aka the numbers) of the reporters are all related. I'm going to use education articles for my examples, but please don't take that as a critique of David Jesse's work. Take it as a critique of the organization. I could have used other subjects (government, business...) but this is, after all, an education blog.

You probably know (if you read this regularly) that I have a particular interest in the Willow Run schools. They should have everything that makes for good journalism: a series of past scandals, continuing poor graduation rates, a school board takeover on the part of activists (and a school board that is working really hard now). They are in a fight for survival, but there is hope for rebirth. In the new model of reporting, although the facts are there, the narrative gets lost. 

Let's try a search. We'll start with the term Willow Run. Here is what I get (see above):  Notice that the first article is an article about General Motors' Willow Run plant from April 25th. The next two articles are about the schools, from June 30th and June 24th.  OK, so they are all Willow Run, but obviously not ordered by date. As it happens, I want to focus on three articles that all came out the same day. I don't think I'm going to find them this way, but I know they were written a couple of weeks ago.
It turns out that they were written--all by David Jesse--on July 16th.
I saw the first one on the main news page.
Doris Hope-Jackson. Do you remember her? The last Willow Run superintendent? They are still trying to figure out a way to terminate her contract, and she has a history of litigiousness.

It was only until much, much later (because every few days I go back and take a second look at the education feed to see what I missed, and I generally have missed something) that I found that David had actually written, not one, not two, but three articles--all on the same day, all about the same location (Willow Run).
Here are the other two:

So, let's see:

The Willow Run schools are still holding hearings on Doris Hope-Jackson; they are revamping the high school to qualify for state funding (because their numbers are so dismal); and the state accepted a deficit elimination plan, which counts on increased enrollment (even though enrollment has decreased every year for more than a decade).

All of these articles are (if I recall correctly) between 300 and 400 words. Are they related? You bet. And yet even the interested observer might not find all three articles, even though they were published the same day.

Do you get the sense that they are related? Do you understand how the pieces fit together? Not from the articles. Further, I would submit that you cannot create a cogent narrative with these complicated stories if you limit yourself to 300 or 400 words.

Willow Run is a district with an interim finance director  and an acting superintendent. Who created the deficit elimination plan? The interim/acting people? Or the people before them? What do outside observers think--is the district likely to succeed?  Is there "digging" here? Is it investigative? I know that David Jesse is very knowledgeable, but I don't think he has much time for investigation because he is the only education reporter. (Yes, I do know there are some freelancers who fill in.) There are eleven school districts in the county, plus charter schools and private schools. Who has time for detailed investigation?

Even if David Jesse had the time, I don't think he could write up really good investigative work in 300 or 400 words. Wasn't that the promise of the web? You wouldn't be limited to "so many inches." Maybe with longer articles, this could have been two articles instead of three.

How likely is someone to know that all three of these things are happening at once? The way things stand now, it's not too likely for a casual reader of Although there are links provided in the body of the article, there aren't "related article" links in an obvious spot.

The article about the hearings has some automatically generated "related articles."

One of them seems related...the other one? An Ann Arbor police officer whistleblower lawsuit? Just because the tag is "lawsuit?"

The other two articles did not display any "related articles" at all.

What about the "tags?" Those are supposed to link articles in some way, right? (They should work like labels work in this blog: click on the label "WISD" and you should get articles that somehow involve the WISD.)

The tags for these articles are as follows:
Deficit elimination plan article: Willow Run school board
Revamping high school plan: Willow Run school district
Hearings for Doris Hope-Jackson: Doris Hope-Jackson, lawsuit, Willow Run school district

That is, in fact, how the tags work at on Willow Run school district and you get the second and third articles, but not the first--that first article was not tagged with the school district tag.

So, here is the summary. Short articles are fine for an article about the weather. When you have a district with a) a long history of trouble among both the board and staff; b) poor student outcomes; c) decreasing enrollment; d) charter schools moving into the area; e) annual deficits f) a history of rosy projections that don't meet outcomes g)more recently, hard work on the part of staff and board to tackle the problems head-on h) employees under fire who have a history of litigiousness... then short articles don't do anyone a service. They contribute to the atomization of our understanding.  They don't support the sharing of investigative knowledge.

Journalists are taught to "tell the story." Sometimes I think, though, that we mistake who/what/why/where/when/how for the story. Those are the facts. The story is the narrative. And whether the subject is education, or government, or business, at you get the facts, but you often miss the story.

I need and want the trees, but I also need and want the forest.


  1. The Doris Hope-Jackson story is much, much longer than can easily fit into a single newspaper story. I have collected some of the stories that other papers have written (since 2003) on Arborwiki:

    To really tell this story with some sense of completeness, a newspaper is going to have a really hard time in 300 or 600 or even 1200 words. You'd want to go back to the lawsuits in Dolton and Calumet Park, Illinois, and figure out how it came to be that she ended up in Willow Run after two run-ins with school boards.

    At some point there's enough material for a long magazine article, or maybe even a book.

  2. So maybe the Willow Run example wasn't the best one? Although you are right, it would make a great long magazine article, the Chicago Tribune was able to write a fairly complete article about Hope-Jackson's interviews in the Harvey, IL school district in just over 600 words.

    My point is that has lots of articles that are really not much more than lead paragraphs--and this is but one example, perhaps not a perfect one.

    Thanks for the arborwiki link.

  3. And Ed, I should have added that I believe part of the reason for the short articles is that in the "river of news" format, there is an emphasis on prizing headlines over substance. In other words, the powers that be would prefer that someone write three very short articles rather than one comprehensive story. Instead of one deadline a day, there is the constant push for "something new." Unfortunately, that doesn't serve the public very well. In addition, there is emerging evidence that it burns journalists out quickly. See for example, this recent New York Times article, "In a World of Online News, Burnout Starts Younger."

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