Be a better journalist by unlearning what you know

More than a decade of training journalists to work online has taught me that the first thing people must learn about producing great journalism for the Web is to unlearn some of the assumptions that they’ve developed about reporting and writing the news.

Some of those lessons to be “unlearned,” if you will, apply specifically to online journalism, and we’ve written about many of them on OJR: writing, editing, sourcing, etc. But there are many beliefs that today’s journalists would do well to “unlearn,” no matter the medium in which they work.

Each of the three following statements are generalizations about the news business that I’ve heard from at least three journalists or editors in the past year — enough to convince me that these generalizations are widely held within journalism.

And, in my opinion, they all are wrong.

We need to “unlearn.”

Three misconceptions

Today’s audience suffers from too-short attention spans

How many kids do you know that read the last three Harry Potter books (870, 652 and 759 pages) cover-to-cover? How many did it in one weekend? If you don’t know several, you must not hang around elementary-aged kids much.

Attention spans are not the issue. Competition for time is. People will drop everything to read 800 pages, if it offers a thrilling narrative like Harry Potter. But they won’t waste a moment on garbage. The Internet puts the average reader a few clicks away from everything from the best of the BBC and the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town to Will Leitch’s latest rant on Deadspin and TalkingPointsMemo‘s dissection of Washington news. There’s simply too much good stuff out there for publications to get away with vapid reports.

If your content is not grabbing an audience, don’t blame attention spans. Blame your inability to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

It’s not the readers’ attention spans that are at fault. It’s your content.

You can’t get too detailed, or you’ll lose your audience

Has any newspaper tried applying that logic to its college football or NFL beats? If one had tried that, there’s probably a good reason why I hadn’t heard about it: that paper’s likely out of business now.

Football fans crave minutiae. They understand the topic and feel insulted by anyone who wastes their time explaining the basics instead of getting to the detail of what happened during the game, and why. Sure, there are many other readers who don’t know the difference between a false start and offsides, but an editor who chases them by directing staff to dumb down their reporting risks losing their far more loyal audience of devotees.

You can find readers like this on other beats, too. Check out the huge audiences at sites like DailyKos (politics) and the Housing Bubble Blog (real estate). People crave minutiae on the topics of interest to them. HBB doesn’t spend time explaining the alphabet soup of SIV, HELOC and ARM. And that hasn’t kept the site from attracting tens of thousands of readers a day.

Don’t want to leave new or unfamiliar readers stranded? Fine. Let hyperlinks do the explaining for you. Don’t lose your topic’s most informed and loyal readers by slowing down the narrative with elementary explanations.

(Now, if your staff is underreporting coverage because they don’t know enough about a given topic to write like an expert, that’s a different problem — and the topic for a future column.)

Journalists don’t know math. Heck, most people don’t know math, either, so journalists don’t need to bother

How many reporters do you know with teams in fantasy sports leagues? Do you know people who have figured out how many calories or carbs they can eat a day, or how long they need to run to work off a dessert? (Okay, judging from the physiques in a typical newsroom, that might be a bad analogy. But still….)

That’s math, too.

Not to get all Yogi Berra on you, but if you put math (or anything else) in a context that readers can understand, well, they’ll understand it.

Numbers are too abstract for most people to comprehend without additional context. But fantasy sports fans get the significance of a 300-yard passing game. They can figure out the relative values of deals involving 90-yard running backs, six-catch wide receivers and 200-yard QBs. Dieters can compute how many carbs and calories they can eat at one meal, and how they’ll have to adjust what they eat at the next as a result.

So who says that those same readers can’t handle a story about war profiteering in Iraq? Or incarceration rates within various communities? Put the numbers within those stories in a context from readers’ personal lives, and they will understand better the scale of data you’re reporting.

The good news?

Here’s the good news for all journalists: there is a proven audience out there for long, complex reports loaded with data. Our audience is not the collection of attention-challenged simpletons that too many of us have assumed it to be.

To connect with that audience, however, journalists must report thoroughly, write with authority and place all information in their reports into a context relevant to readers’ personal lives. One commentary can’t teach all those lessons. But I hope that this commentary will help at least a few journalists unlearn three very bad ones.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. I agree 100%!

  2. Marissa VanWingen says:

    I have always been taught that the average reading level of newspapers is that of an 8th grader, giving the assumption that the general public is not exactly intelligent. The misconceptions go along with that assumption, like that today