Why journalists shouldn’t be threatened by the most-viewed NYT story of 2013

The Atlantic’s post on Friday about the list of the top New York Times stories of 2013 has prompted some interesting discussions.

The most-read story of the year was a dialect quiz — you answer questions about how you talk, and you’re shown which parts of the country mostly closely match your dialect patterns.

It’s a data-driven interactive quiz based on 350,000 survey responses collected by an NYT graphics editor. It’s a game. It’s not an article.

The Atlantic post says this:

“Think about that. A news app, a piece of software about the news made by in-house developers, generated more clicks than any article. And it did this in a tiny amount of time: The app only came out on December 21, 2013. That means that in the 11 days it was online in 2013, it generated more visits than any other piece.”

A journalist friend of mine expressed dismay that the quiz didn’t answer the why and how of the issue. It lacked context and utility, he argued, and he compared it to a Buzzfeed list.

Here’s what I think: Journalistic standards for importance and excellence can get in the way of providing a product people want to consume and use. Turning the research behind this quiz into a story would be valid and informational. But it’s not the only way.

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Journalistic transparency in a red-state-blue-state world

What should we as journalists share about ourselves? When does our disclosure enhance our credibility? When does our transparency lead to a deeper connection with our audience?

In my Participatory Journalism class last week, we muddled our way through those questions. And the questions came up again in the Columbia Missourian newsroom on election night. (That is, after all, how we teach here: We look at principles in the classroom, and reinforce them on the job.)

We talked in class, of course, about the View from Nowhere. We talked about where we’re all coming from, and what perspectives we bring to the choices we make as journalists. We all have biases that we bring to story selection, to the framing of stories, to the questions we ask, to the decisions we make about word choice.

We talked about this modern, American notion that we should all step outside ourselves to do Proper Journalism — a notion that doesn’t always hold up if you work in a small town where everyone knows all about you, or if you work elsewhere on the globe, where partisan journalism is expected and preferred. I got to rant about the word objectivity, and how being separate from what we cover doesn’t always lead to journalism that’s reflective of its intended audience.

It feels safe to say that nowhere is the “o” word more invoked than in the case of Journalists vs. U.S. Politics. We don’t share our opinions or ideologies publicly. We don’t admit we have them. Heck, sometimes we don’t even vote.

Here’s the thing: This drives me crazy, and I’d love to see it change. But politics doesn’t feel like the right area for us to experiment with transparency, especially at a community newspaper.

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Don’t give your money to me! And other advice for innovation in journalism

The Carnival of Journalism topic this month is innovation in journalism, and how folks with money to spend should spend it. Specifically mentioned are the Knight News Challenge program and the fellowships at the Reynolds Journalism Institute (which I’m lucky enough to be a part of this year).

My advice for folks in a position to invest in journalism boils down to this: Don’t give money to me. In fact, don’t give money to anyone with my skill set or ideas.

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