On Writing (Part 1): What is Good Journalism?

. Tuesday, September 15, 2009
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Since blogging has become an extended writing exercise for me that unites academic, professional, and personal interests, I’ve been focusing a lot more on journalism lately, both reading more widely and reading books about writing.

Most of us have the ability to identify countless examples of problematic (or flat-out bad) journalism and criticize it, especially when it comes to the coverage of women’s sports.

However, the much more difficult challenge that I constantly struggle with is actually identifying specific characteristics “good” journalism beyond broad abstractions like “intellectual journalism” or technocratic guidelines for reporting on women’s sports.

What exactly do good journalists do? And how might we apply it to writing about women’s sports? More importantly, how does that influence digital media outlets?

While it may feel tempting to say that there is no universal standard of “good” traditional journalism, patterns have emerged in the reading I’ve done about journalism over time.

Journalism as excavation

As I’ve been reading about journalism it occurred to me that whether it be the hip-hop journalism of the early 1980’s, I.F. Stone’s political journalism throughout the 20th century, or even Stephen King’s description of his brief career as a sports reporter (yes, the horror writer began his career covering high school basketball), there seem to be common characteristics of “high-quality” journalism.

Last Wednesday, I stumbled upon Andy Rooney’s video essay shown at Walter Cronkite’s memorial, which coincidentally echoed what I had already been reading.

[Walter Cronkite] was a great anchorman in the news business because his greatest contribution was not his knowledge or his expertise, as great as those were; it was his steady holding to what was most important. Every writer, every news man or woman who’s worth anything, secretly hopes that he or she will have some good influence on the world. It’s a preposterous wish, of course, but he had it. If it can be said about any individual in our business that he’s been a force for good in the world, Walter Cronkite was that person.
As alluded to in Rooney’s comments, “quality” journalism – whether broadcast, digital, or print – is predicated on the writer’s ability to identify the most important angles of a situation to create a story and present insights that help us reflect on our own perception of the world. That probably strikes most people as obvious at some level, but how one goes about that is much more difficult…at least if you’ve actually tried to do it.

Perhaps more concretely, in his New York Times bestseller On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King provides a vivid metaphor for writing stories to illuminate the difference between plot-driven and situation-driven writing. Given that journalism is generally situation driven, his description is instructive for journalists as well.

Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small, a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer.

I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do so because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau…The situation comes first.
In reflecting on the journalists or writing that I most admire, this attention to the situation during the “excavation” process is exactly what makes their writing great.

Last Thursday, SBNation’s launch of its redesigned website, which includes an innovative “StoryStream” feature, struck me as an interesting lens through which to explore all of these questions.

What strikes me as most significant about SBNation’s approach to sports journalism is that it represents a convergence of the best principles of “traditional” journalism and “fan journalism”. Although SBNation has not previously covered women's sports, their model of journalism has potential to enhance the way women's sports is covered.

Next: How social media can enhance traditional media...and the connection of all of that to women's sports...