Anyone who has taught a morning class at a university likely is familiar with the glazed, blasé look that so many students wear to an early class. But one morning last spring, I watched my students’ faces awaken and their eyes catch fire. For half an hour, they leaned forward in their chairs, talking over one another, each eager to say what they had evidently been holding back for so long.

What was on their minds? They wanted me to know that they really, really hated TV news. And what these journalism majors disliked the most was feeling as though they had to follow the formula drafted by local and network television news. Give’em The Onion online, or Jon Stewart on cable. When my students were given free reign to produce their own video news stories, they gleefully churned out YouTube videos filled with sharp, snarky comment.

Did such a heartfelt rejection of professional news depress me, as their journalism instructor? Heck, no! Their eagerness for something fresh gives hope that tomorrow’s citizens might be better informed about their communities than are today’s.

Rejecting the Formula

How, some might ask, can I feel so optimistic in the face of my students’ disdain for their craft? It’s because the mainstream journalism that my students abhor has become too formulaic, too cynical, and too concerned with internal standards over external truth. My students are eager to avoid simplistic “he said, she said” stories, hyperventilated telling of crime news, and gimmicky in-studio banter that fills so many TV newscasts. Those who are majoring in print journalism also expressed frustration with third-person, institutional writing voices that they said suck the life from what could be more compelling narratives.

When I asked them what they liked about “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and others like it, several said its “honesty.” They admired its fearlessness in calling out newsmakers as liars and hypocrites. The heart of a muckraker beats strongly in my students and, freed from what one of them called the “mind-numbing slickness” of mainstream news reporting, their passion for journalism could again re-emerge.

After I wrote about my students’ criticism on in June, many bloggers, readers, reporters and media critics commented that they, too, shared these feelings. But this does not mean that everyone is eager to move to a postmainstream media world, however. What will the alternative look like? This morning at breakfast, my wife asked, “What will life be like without daily newspapers?”

Well, you’ve been seeing the view for the past few years, I told her. With our local Los Angeles Times employing just half the number of editorial staffers it did in 2001 (from more than 1,200 to a little more than 600), today’s newspaper is very different—less complete, thorough and insightful on so many beats. The same situation exists at many newspapers across the country. Yet even as circulation falls and newsrooms lay off staff at many papers, people remain engaged in their democracy. Look at the record number of people contributing and volunteering in this year’s presidential election. Pollsters and other experts predicted the largest Election Day turnout ever.

As newspapers cut staff and lose market share, readers have more news sources available to them than ever. Partisan-driven online publications, such as DailyKos and RedState, are engaging a new generation of voters, while professionally staffed Web sites such as TalkingPointsMemo and Politico provide solid reporting not only about the candidates but the coverage of them.

The Power of Passion

I’ve been working in online publishing for 12 years now. I’ve edited Web sites for major metro dailies and launched my own start-ups. I’ve seen bosses, publications and corporations fail, while young professionals working outside the media mainstream became millionaires. The ones who succeeded brought passion to their work, the same passion that I saw in my students’ faces when they were given the green light to speak honestly about their field. Their’s was a passion that I rarely saw in the faces of executives dryly mulling spreadsheets and PowerPoints while planning their companies’ online efforts.

Passion makes people work harder. It drives bloggers to post 20 times a day, seven days a week, answering e-mails and IM’ing readers throughout the day and night. Passion drives online community members to read through hundreds of online documents, to interview sources, and to organize rallies to investigate and report issues important to their personal lives and local communities. Passion breeds expertise.

This passion and expertise is what too many news organizations exorcised from their companies as they grew fat off local monopolies and their 20- and 40-percent profit margins over the last quarter of the 20th century. That left them ill-prepared to compete with the passionate competition that the Internet introduced in the 1990’s. During this same time, the public grew bored, then disgusted with journalism that gradually slouched toward “he said, she said, you-figure-it-out” stenography.

Passion connects with audiences. When people see a writer with personal knowledge, training and experience on a beat, who shows their caring and commitment for it, they read and listen. And when that passion is paired with expertise, the audience returns. The Internet has enabled people to blog about their professions and their passions with an honesty and expertise missing from too many newspapers and TV newscasts, where increasingly overworked generalists file superficial reports on issues that they know too little about.

“The more compelling it is, the more drama you provide, the more exciting the payoff, the more people will arrive and stick around day after day,” DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas e-mailed me this week. “You need to build it organically over time by crafting those villains and heroes and getting people invested not just in the story line but in the outcome.”

Sure, many TV news reports try to craft dramatic story lines (with villains and heroes). But my students saw these reports as cynical, shallow, formulaic attempts at storytelling crafted to capture an audience rather than to faithfully tell a story. What they embrace is genuine storytelling, even when such stories are told with less than perfect production values. Indeed, slick production has become so closely associated in their minds with cynical storytelling that they now prefer video reports with a more amateur feel. And something similar is happening in print media; there, readers fear they aren’t getting the “real” story from professional reporters who aren’t allowed to draw conclusions and “tell them the truth.” Instead, they prefer bloggers and those who join in discussions online who are not constrained by “fairness” from calling a liar just that, especially when those writers follow their passion to develop the expertise necessary to make such calls.

We can train a new generation of journalists who will develop the necessary expertise in their fields to call out frauds and crooks, to tell stories faithfully, and to craft narratives in multiple media that connect with readers in an emotionally honest way. But to do this we have to start by admitting, as I did, that sometimes our students are right. Journalists have developed some bad habits that we need to break. Fortunately, we’ve got a slew of passionate readers and writers online who are working to do just that.

Robert Niles is the editor of and producer of He is a former staff writer and Web editor for the Los Angeles Times and Rocky Mountain News.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment