I am sure the public editor of the New York Times will be thrilled to know that Monday is ‘free advice day’, so he is in luck with the question he posed this week in his column: Occupy Wall Street: How Should It Be Covered Now? . The piece includes some great advice from the men who were asked, and some even more good advice in the comments section, from the wider audience. But, as it’s free advice day I thought it would be wrong to pass up the opportunity.
In a post on Friday I suggested that OWS has some lessons for newsrooms, many of which missed it as OWS had not announced itself as a ‘proper story’ at the door and therefore had created confusion and upset . There are many things about the story which lend it to different coverage, not least how a network of followers and participants are consuming information, largely through social networks which bypass mainstream media. The question that Arthur Brisbane poses is a valuable one which takes this out of the realm of theory and asks; you are the assignment editor at the NYT, what do you do?
It is self-evident that this is a backyard story for the NYT. It is home territory and should be covered better by the New York press than by anyone else. But it is also international, and sprawling, and highlights a plethora of complex questions, all of which the NYT is more than adequately equipped to tackle, in terms of volume of coverage, the Times topic page is already a pretty rich resource. However, something has happened to news coverage which means that story count is not the only indicator, or indeed any indicator, of how well a story is covered. Judging by the attention data boxes on the NYT site, OWS is not of overwhelming interest to its audience, even though it has been the cause of rioting and arrests across the nation, and internationally.
If the NYT doesn’t already have such a thing, it needs an Andy Carvin on OWS. The fabled head of social media strategy for NPR who dropped everything in December last year to aggregate the unfolding drama in the Middle East – from Washington – and has pretty much not stopped since. For stories with long horizons, readers and users need to know who to follow, who is going to tell you when something is happening, who is going to join the dots and point to the best sources. Greg Mitchell at The Nation did a similar job with his daily blogging of the Wikileaks story as it unfolded, and is doing something similar now with Occupy. I didn’t necessarily want to know what was happening every day, but when I did, he was the first place I turned because of his comprehensive coverage. Assign someone to be the journalistic air traffic controller for OWS, then make sure they are visible beyond their own website, this story has to be covered within the network that created it.
What about the content? Should it be as Arthur Brisbane says, about class warfare (middle-class warfare?), about wealth disparity in knowledge economies? There are so many avenues he suggests, which is true, so don’t block any off. The truth is that many of these subjects are covered all the time, by news organisations, magazines, academics, economists, even political parties. Occupy Wall Street offers a prism through which to re-examine them or project them further. Has it moved the dial in Washington? That’s a daily question. So the New York Times should be aggregating all the best topics around all these resources and commissioning in a similar manner. At the weekend I had a book recommended to me I would not have normally thought about reading, Raghuram Rajan’s Fault Lines, through a conversation about OWS.Has the Times used its wealth of knowledge to push out better information?
The Times could take all the signs, from all the protests,or just some of the signs from Zuccotti Park, analyse the complaints and then point to the best reporting, context and writing on these subjects, and invite contributions too.It is as they say, not rocket science.
The third point on ‘How?’, would be one to push back to the NYT . ‘Why?’ Why does the news organisation want to cover the story? Because, whilst there are people sleeping in tents in the middle of Manhattan it really is a story. But to what end? I sat in on a really interesting talk at Columbia last week by academic Nikki Usher from George Washington University . Her time at the New York Times on its business desk as part of a study raises the significant question of how stories about the financial crisis were covered and to what effect (the tempting answer to this is ‘none’). One thing the NYT and many other news organisations did between 2000 and 2008 was write volumes of stories about the housing bubble, trade defecits, personal debt, banking fragility etc etc. But somehow it gained no traction with the banks, the SEC, the Fed. So what does the NYT want from its coverage of OWS?
If it wants to engage a new audience, then it needs to be in Zuccotti Park and on social networks, covering the story for the social real time web. If it wants to enhance its news reputation then it needs to create and project its best contextual journalism and opinion into this network. If it wants to own the story it might want to think about throwing open the doors of the Times swanky event space and holding some public events around each of these vital topics.
Oh, and just occasionally, it might want to put an external link into its stories. But that might be going too far.