“Story is king”

Originally published at reesefelts.org.

“Content is king.”

It’s a popular maxim among online news producers: The more content you have published on your website — regardless of the quality — the more people will end up on your homepage.

But this hunger for content is partly to blame for the deluge of Internet news minutia which lacks any real, lasting value.

It’s time for a revolution.

Two recent occurrences gave me the courage to defy the aforementioned “king.” The first reminds us what good content is. The second highlights the importance of how we publish and exhibit good content:

1. It’s been months since I read David Simon’s Homicide, but my mind is still buzzing from his approach to journalism.

Simon’s nonfiction narrative profiles Baltimore homicide detectives during the course of a year as they slog through the lowest depths of humanity. It reads like fiction but it’s all fact.

It’s reporting, but how do we categorize this type of journalism?

Writer Richard Price enlightened me with his foreword from the book.

David Simon isn’t just a journalist, he argues. He’s a documentarian, a chronicler, he said. As such, he has the duty to spend real time with his subjects and to present the truth.

Price describes the chronicler’s vow this way:

“As a chronicler I will honor you with the faithful reporting of what I see and hear while a guest in the house of your life. As for how you come off, you dig your own grave or build your own monument by being who you are, so good luck and thanks for your time.”

Reporters frequently evaluate and identify their primary audience. Simon’s focus was and continues to be on the people that he’s chronicling. He knows he’s faithfully reported on a topic when its principal actors have been accurately portrayed.

It’s easy for me to say that Simon’s work in Homicide went beyond mere reporting. But that’s not fair.

While his work was more comprehensive than typical beat journalism, perhaps it was simply an example of what good reporting should be. As Price said, good reporting is chronicling.

Besides, many good beat reporters work hard to live up to the same ideals as the best chroniclers. There are still men and women across the world working hard and spending real time with their sources to give audiences the truth.

To his year-long profile of a homicide detective unit, Simon added years of experience as a crime reporter with The Baltimore Sun. For reasons of his own, he thought it necessary to document Baltimore’s killing streets in a way that wouldn’t have been feasible for a daily newspaper.

The lesson here isn’t what can or cannot be achieved by a given news outlet. The lesson is in the mindset of the journalists and their employers as individuals.

Simon’s idea to embed himself inside of a particular topic still seems radical despite the influx of behind-the-scenes exposes and the rise of niche reporting.

Simon didn’t just take us behind the scenes. He didn’t just expose. He documented. He chronicled.

But most importantly, he delivered by telling us a compelling story.

2. I recently interviewed a film archivist named Skip Elsheimer. In addition to his archival work, Elsheimer shows films from his collection at public screenings.

Elsheimer pointed to the problem of people getting information overload from websites like Google News and YouTube.

“With all this content, we’re going to need people to curate it,” Elsheimer said. “To present it. To say, ‘Hey, here’s some thing things I dug into this giant well of data and I’ve pulled out these things.’”

It’s true, and equally applicable to the news industry. Reevaluating the manner in which a story is chosen and presented is becoming increasingly necessary as the amount of content being produced isn’t likely to subside anytime soon. To Elsheimer, that means increasing the number of archivists and content aggregators willing to pull out a story from all the noise.

But this leaves us with a conundrum: Should we bother with bottomless content gathering if what is gathered has little redeeming value?

What content producers should be asking themselves right now is the same question every consumer is asking: Is this content worth my time?

The importance of that question will continue to grow in the years to come as the amount of content increases in relation to the amount of time viewers and readers have to spend on it.

There’s a better maxim to live by — one that provides content consumers with the complete, accurate story they need, but that gives content producers a better sense of direction when crafting their story.

At the beginning of this piece I called for the removal of one ruling monarch.  I suggest we replace it with another:

“Story is king.”

Long live the king.

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