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September 1, 2009

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The Second-Day Story

Even as the news business fluxes and freaks out, its history and culture continue to provide useful tools for thinking about the world. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, as journalists have been in the thinking-about-the-world business for a long time.

Case in point: Matt cross-posted his great parts-of-stories-you-don’t-usually-get post over at, and in the comments there, Roy Peter Clark wrote:

I think what we need is something a bit different from explainers. I don’t have a term for it, except maybe for “anticipators.” The reporter does not just report on what just happened, or even look back a stretch. The reporter needs a crystal ball, based upon solid research and continuing coverage.

The old PM daily writers knew how to do this and we may have to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear: that is to learn how to write a second day story on the first day. Keep up the great work, pal.

Emphasis mine. How great is that? “Write a second-day story on the first day.”

First, it definitely flows into Matt’s five concrete steps to improve the news—particularly number four, “track the unknowns.”

Second, it’s so much bigger than news! Isn’t that what great science fiction is? Isn’t that what we try to do here at Snarkmarket at least some of the time? “Write a second-day story on the first day.”

P.S. Yes, I realize I just implicitly compared journalism to science fiction. Oops.

Posted September 1, 2009 at 2:25 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


Well, I think there's a good and a bad way to do a second-day story. The bad way is what business and sports and political journalists do All. The. Time, aka, guessing based on hasty generalizations and "gut."

The bad way is: Obama won in Iowa. The polls show Obama up in New Hampshire. Ergo: Hillary is done. (Maybe that was just the 100th day story, way early.)

The good way is: Democratic leaders are sending signals that they may try to pass health care legislation through the budget reconciliation process. How would that even work? How might it change the bill?

That's not a crystal ball at all. It doesn't predict the future, the way Jim Cramer predicts stock prices or Terry Bradshaw predicts football winners. It describes and explains a hypothetical event that may or may not happen, and maps its probable consequences.

You're explaining an event so that if and when it happens, people know what it means. That's good journalism.

Tim: bingo.

Robin: A surprising number of Old Journalism tricks, techniques and talents turn out to be highly useful in the digital world. The old "rewrite man" who pulled info from numerous sources and combined in into a coherent narrative could run a hell of an aggregation operation; wire services reporters were adept at writing, rewriting, "writing through" and so on without any fixed deadline or permanent final story; and so on. RPC has nailed one, too; Tim's elaboration is pretty near perfect.

Also, I've found that often it's the old-school native reporters, who basically roam around in fedoras smoking cigars and muttering about linotype machines, who take to things like blogging most naturally. This isn't universally true. But I've had the pleasure more than once of watching veteran reporters thrill to a new medium.

This reminds me, Jacqui Banaszynski told the most wonderful story a while back. (I may get the details of this wrong, I'm no Jacqui Banaszynski.) When she was a reporter in Duluth, she said, her story-finding routine involved weekly calls to a list of sources - pastors, housewives, teachers, secretaries, you-name-it. She'd ask them to basically read her the notes that were on the fridge, the church bulletins and notes from school. Then, she'd go over the notes with her editor. Together, they'd decide what merited follow-up for a story, what might be relegated to a brief, etc.

She said, in paraphrase, Sometimes I can't even imagine what I'd have done if I had today's technology. It would have been my list on steroids. I loved that.

This also reminds me that I still have to write a few posts out of the marvelous session I had with Howard and others in DC. A draft post title in Newsless offers a hint: "The future, in context."

Wow, cool. I like the idea of fridge door notes as a kind of citizen journalism (channeled through a journalist amanuensis).

Now imagining an alternate universe where most people have simple scanners and know how to use 'em, Tim-style. And as a matter of course, they scan stuff -- bulletins, notes, flyers, forms -- and it automatically zips off to their local news organization. That's what citizen journalism looks like in this world: simple digitization, really. Get the stuff into the system, so the journalists at HQ can browse, analyze, connect, investigate.

Robin, Boy Wonder, thanks for the shout-out. I'm a medievalist by training and disposition. I'd probably write on sheep vellum if I could get enough of it. So my instinct is to go back to the future. Another example about to be published on a comparison of writing on Twitter with other forms of short messages from the past. My favorite antecedents turn out to be memorable Western Union telegrams. A Hollywood reporter sent one to a famous actor to verify the actor's age. The exchange of messages went like this: Reporter: HOW OLD CARY GRANT? Cary Grant: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU? How's that for economy?

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