Not offending people is not an option for newspapers

“Not offending people is not a business model. You have to have something to say” – Dan Froomkin, PDF 2009.

Inoffensive, “objective” journalism isn’t good journalism, it’s good business. At least it was before the Web. In a world where printing presses — and by extension, competition — are scarce, it’s good business to try to appeal to the largest audience possible. A good way to appeal to the largest mass possible is to try not offending anyone.

This naturally leads to journalism that tries to triangulate both sides and sit somewhere in between. Not every story or issue has two correct sides. Good journalism is about trying to find the truth, but the truth can be offensive to people who don’t want to hear it.

Writing a story about climate change? Get a scientist on the record talking about how it is happening, then go find someone to say that it is not happening or that man isn’t causing it. Then make no determination of which side has more evidence or what the preponderance of science supports.

Instead, take the inoffensive — often ineffectual — middle ground. Let readers “decide” based on the “evidence” presented. This will usually lead to many stories and issues appearing as if there is consensus. Offense minimized.

Then came the Internet, and smart people didn’t want this limp reporting anymore. They wanted experienced and knowledgeable journalists to help them make sense of it all. People want journalists to help them find the truth, no matter how offensive that truth may be to some.

This has become a problem for newspapers. The notion of modern objectivity doesn’t serve journalism, it serves making money. At least it did.

After the Web took off, niche publications, blogs, social media, etc began to flourish. Suddenly it was OK to offend people. Suddenly it was OK to tell people what they didn’t want to hear.

Why? The barriers to entry for starting a Web site or blog are incredibly low. Building a printing press took a large investment. A good way to pay if off — and rack in monster profits — was to try to appeal to as large of an audience as possible. But starting a blog is free and building a professional Web site is a fraction of the cost of a printing press (let alone operating and running said press).

Now appealing to everyone doesn’t make business sense. At least, it’s not a requirement.¬†Suddenly it makes sense to appeal to niches.¬†The nicheification of content is at the core of the Web. People have diverse interests, and the Web allows those interests to flourish.

Want to write about just science stories? Start a blog for free, and you’ll probably find more success by not trying to be in the middle ground all the time. If you’re knowledgeable about a topic, people want to hear what you know and think.

I don’t envision a future where we see giant 1,000 person newsrooms anytime soon. But if newspapers want to survive, they’ll have to consider creating passionate journalism again. They’ll have to consider offending people.

They key to offending people is to be right. I can respect someone who challenges my beliefs when they are right. After all, that’s a main way my beliefs change over time.

To bring this back to the lede, newspapers need more Dan Froomkins, not less. Dan was not afraid to offend people, and at one point, he probably challenged everyone’s views. He was willing to tell the truth and be fair and honest.

His brand of objectivity wasn’t to give both sides to every story, but for him to try his best to find the truth. And that can often be “offensive.” But that’s also what made Dan so popular and respected.

People are turning to blogs and new media outlets precisely because they find much of traditional media too afraid to tell the truth. But if newspapers accept that objectivity isn’t about telling all sides to every story, but rather about finding the truth, I believe they’ll find better success moving forward on the Web.

  • I aggree with you about objectivity bein mainly a business model. Historically speaking, that’s true of mainstream journalism. However, I don’t think that the nichefication of cultural production has much to do discovery of the truth through challenging one’s own and other peoples’ beliefs; indeed, it seems that myself and most of the other people I know are more likely to read blogs that reinforce our beliefs and fit them better than the mainstream media do. You might not, but you’re probably in the minority.

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