On elephants, obsessions and wicked problems: A new phenomenology of news

Goodbye to the beat

The first “beat reporters” were probably the men sent by newspapers to hang around the criminal courts in the early 19th century. Today almost every news outlet is organized around fixed beats: “financial markets”, “real estate”, “technology”, and so on. These are now so ingrained that we see them as an actual description of reality—the things the world is made of.

Yet the beats aren’t so much an objective taxonomy as a convenient management tool, devised for an old technology. When news came in a sheaf of pages it made sense to divide them into sections—domestic, foreign, business, and so on—with an editor and a team of writers for each one, and make each writer responsible for a slice of that section: a beat. Matching people to pages made managing the newspaper easier, and covering all the news in each beat allowed it to be comprehensive—which was how it could appeal to the most readers and get the most sales.

Online, however, trying to be the one comprehensive publication makes no sense. Readers can browse hundreds of news sites at no extra cost. That drives the sites to specialise. Yet most still structure themselves around fixed sections and beats. Slide your mouse across the navigation bar at the top of almost any news site, and there they are, the phantom limbs of the newspaper creatures of old. It hasn’t occurred to them that when there are no pages and sections to constrain you, you are free to reframe your description of reality too.

At Quartz, we’ll try to fit the framework to the audience. We want to reach a global, cosmopolitan crowd, people who see themselves as living “in the world”. They are keenly aware of how distant events influence one another; their lives and careers are subject to constant disruption from changes in technology and the global economy.

So instead of fixed beats, we structure our newsroom around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena—the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in. “Financial markets” is a beat, but “the financial crisis” is a phenomenon. “The environment” is a beat, but “climate change” is a phenomenon. “Energy” is a beat, but “the global surge of energy abundance” is a phenomenon. “China” is a beat, but “Chinese investment in Africa” is a phenomenon. We call these phenomena our “obsessions”. These are the kinds of topics Quartz will put in its navigation bar, and as the world changes, so will they.

Seeing like people, not like organisations

This is both a practical and a philosophical shift. Practical, because reporting these themes within a traditional beat structure is difficult: they often cut across beat boundaries, taking in politics, economics, technology, and other issues. Our journalists have to be, to some extent, all-rounders, who aren’t afraid to get outside their usual expertise and track the topic they’re following wherever it leads.

And philosophical, because it means changing what might (a little pretentiously) be called the phenomenology of journalism. Phenomenology is about how we structure our  experience of the world. Beats provide an institutional structure. Obsessions are a more human one.

What I mean by this is that when people notice a change in the world around them—a phenomenon—they don’t care what beat it belongs to; they just want to know what caused it. The institutional framework answers the question like the blind men in the Indian parable who are brought an elephant and asked to say what it is. The one who touches the elephant’s leg says it is a pillar or tree trunk, the one who feels the tail declares it to be a rope, and so on. But to unpack something like the financial crisis you can’t simply talk about securities, interest rates and banking regulation; to understand China’s activities in other parts of the world you need to be more than just a China specialist; to comprehend climate change you need science, economics, domestic and international politics, and more besides. To explain the world’s big phenomena you need to see (or feel) the whole elephant.

Quartz’s wicked problem

Doing this is hard, of course. It’s hard firstly because our institutions—academic, governmental, journalistic—create specialists. It takes time for someone to learn enough about each specialism to do good work that cuts across them. It’s hard secondly because while beats are pretty well established, reasonable people may disagree on what does and doesn’t count as a “phenomenon” worth paying attention to, or where its boundaries should lie.

And that’s because of a third difficulty: A lot of the phenomena we want to look at are so-called “wicked problems, a term used in policy and management studies. Jay Rosen of NYU, who has written thought-provokingly about how journalists might report on them, outlined the traits of a wicked problem thus:

It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.

Climate change is the archetypal wicked problem, but there are lots of others, like obesity, domestic violence, the drug trade, and certain epidemics. And then there are phenomena that are not necessarily problems, but are complex in the same wicked way: demographic change, the shifting role of the state, the long-term effects of the financial crisis. Even once you’ve identified a phenomenon worth covering, how do you make it manageable? How do you decide where it starts and ends? How do you follow it as an incrementally evolving news story while also helping your audience grasp the bigger picture?

That’s what Quartz will have to figure out. Reframing news in this way is its own wicked problem. Let’s see how we do.

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59 thoughts on “On elephants, obsessions and wicked problems: A new phenomenology of news

  1. [...] the day like climate change, right to die, and so on. A manifesto from one of their key signings, Gideon Lichfield, formerly of the FT, sets out their modus operandi in preliminary terms. More to come I’m [...]

  2. [...] this link: On elephants, obsessions and wicked problems: A new – news thing This entry was posted in finance and financial, financial problem and tagged almost-every, [...]

  3. [...] Goodbye to the beat The first “beat reporters” were probably the men sent by newspapers to hang around the criminal courts in the early 19th century. Today almost every news outlet is organized aro…  [...]

  4. [...] visited Mediagazer in the past 24 hours surely took the time to dive into Gideon Lichfield’s explanation of what, precisely, Quartz News intends on doing upon launching later this [...]

  5. How will data be used to make up for lack of specialization as well as better defining the assumptions defining these wicked problems? For example, what data-sets will Quartz utilize when analyzing the long-term effects of the fiscal crisis? What type of access will journalsits have? I ask because too often journalsits are stuck with old/incomplete public data or data pushed (and massaged) by a PR firm via a think tank or non-profit proxy. An investment banker pays a lofty fee to access diverse sets of information. How do you bridge that gap?

    Sasha Issenberg does a better job explaining this gap in the context of political campaigns http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/01/why-campaign-reporters-are-behind-the-curve/?gwh=71B6E883F5D5245200FCABD614DD71A7 When there are hundreds of millions going into proprietary data, how do journalists keep-up?

  6. [...] On elephants, obsessions and wicked problems: A new phenomenology of news « news thing – newsthing.net – Gideon Goodbye to the beat The first “beat reporters” were probably the men sent by newspapers to hang around the criminal courts in the early 19th century. Today almost every news outlet is organized around fixed beats: “financial markets”, “real estate”, “technology”, and so on. These are now so ingrained that we see them as an actual description of reality—the things the world is made of. Yet the beats aren’t so much an objective taxonomy as a convenient management tool, devised for an old technolo…  show all text [...]

  7. Gideon says:

    First, I don’t think what we’re doing means a lack of specialisation. If anything, the reverse. We’re not trying to be the comprehensive news source, but to focus on certain topics. A reporter may not stay on the same beat for years on end, but she’ll spend a period being much more focused on a narrower topic. (And our journalists do have broad areas of specialization: energy, finance, technology and so on; we’re not, as a rule, throwing people at subjects they know absolutely nothing about.)

    As to data, like many news orgs we’re going to pay for certain data services. A significant proportion of our small newsroom is a team of data/code journalists, led by the formidable @zseward, who will specialise in looking for better ways to tell stories using data, and who are keenly conscious of the pitfalls of the misuse of data by the media and those the media cover.

    I agree that the broader problem that Issenberg’s piece points to (thanks for bringing it to my attention) is a real one: journalists, who tend to be generalists, are up against advanced specialists using increasingly sophisticated tools. Newsrooms are starting to catch up but there is a divide. How to bridge that is a whole other conversation ranging across what journalism schools should teach, whom news organisations should recruit, the role of community/networked reporting and crowdsourcing, and a bunch of other stuff.

  8. [...] Do judge for yourself by reading this. [...]

  9. I like your analysis.

    Beats are indeed hopelessly out of date (three big dailies in my background) as most of the compelling stories today require multi-disciplinary thinking and awareness of the ways these issues collide. Violence could be one of these — whether physical, emotional, financial or intellectual.

    My first book was about women and guns, and the reason the subject (which terrifies most journalists) is so interesting is that it wanders across almost every possible subject area, from municipal/state and federal legislation to lobbyists to feminism to psychology, etc. Good luck with quartz. I’d be interested in doing some work with you!

  10. cartoonmick says:

    Much of Australia’s “news” reporting has deteriorated into strong bias in favor of either the left or right political parties.

    As a result, there is little accurate reporting of the actual news.

    Instead, the opinion of the paper is given in a manner which rides on the back of the topic being “reported” on.

    It’s all rather pathetic really, as the majority of Australians are aware of what they are doing, and can see right through the farce.

    It’s not happening with all news outlets, just a good majority of them.

    Still, it feeds me with plenty of material for my political / editorial cartoons.

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/

    Cheers

    Mick

  11. This is a fantastic post. I’m in broadcast news and I will say this isn’t just thought-provoking, but thought-challenging. I still think the “beat” has a place, but a vastly different place than traditionally.

    Thanks for the post!

    –Jeremy

  12. [...] France-Presse | The Economist | Nieman Lab | Ad Week | News Thing | Quartz Tumblr Atlantic Media is about to launch its much-buzzed-about global business news [...]

  13. Great initiative Gideon. As an ex-journalist (now in communications), I think a great deal has been lost from traditional news organisations with the removal of editors and sub-editors who had the ability to cross beats and create whole stories. It is quite depressing to see the volume of errors and the lack of ‘forming’ of stories as digital publications have grown and cost cutting has removed layers of subs.

    The growth of multimedia journalists has redressed some of that loss in terms of skills, but I still miss those encyclopedic, chain-smoking cantankerous old buggers, who knew how to expose holes in a story with a few incisive pen strokes.

  14. rmk says:

    You make some really interesting points about journalism.

    I agree with you that a lot of things blur across boundaries, but I still appreciate some of the traditional divisions — if I go to the New York Times website I can go straight to the section I’m after and read opinions or whatever else. I think these divisions may not always be the best for storytelling but they do help readers make sense of a more general publication.

    Maybe tags are the future. You can tag something as multiple things and divide that way.

  15. [...] France-Presse | The Economist | Nieman Lab | Ad Week | News Thing | Quartz Tumblr Atlantic Media is about to launch its much-buzzed-about global business news [...]

  16. yournotmonalisa says:

    I like the idea, it gives a new twist on our everyday news.

  17. Hello G Lichfield (and readers)- Was thinking of something similar to this while driving to work this AM : “Even once you’ve identified a phenomenon worth covering, how do you make it manageable? How do you decide where it starts and ends? How do you follow it as an incrementally evolving news story while also helping your audience grasp the bigger picture?”
    My thought was about how I’ll write a blog on a topic such as brown fat, or stress and stress and the prefrontal cortex, then go off and cover something else. There is more news on brown (even beige) fat, and what stress does to the pfc, but I don’t take (have?) the time to follow it…and can’t tell if the reader cares.
    But in terms of the question, “How do you make it manageable?” my goal is to figure out what aspect of the subject most affects most peoples lives (not just about the PFC and memory, rather how stress affects the PFC and memory, for instance). Anyway, this is what brought me to that story, the fact that stress affected how my pfc functioned…
    Quartz sounds most intriguing…will be watching to learn more.
    Science news is the best!?! ~Kari

  18. [...] On elephants, obsessions and wicked problems: A new phenomenology of news. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  19. sjlewis says:

    Reblogged this on Sailing Leeward and commented:
    Excellent article!

  20. I find a lateral connection to a lecture I gave on consumer behavior and strategic planning. We tend to gravitate towards old habits and what we know, surprisingly enough unquestioningly so. If we look at the models we use, whether we are trying to predict the behavior of weather, markets, consumers or some engineering system, they are based on assumptions. Oddly enough when things go wrong, for instance with the world economy, we fiddle about with the parameters and totally ignore that the underlying assumptions are no longer valid. How do we expect a model set up to work with markets catering to post war Germany, the UK and USA to yield accurate results after we throw China, Russia, India and Brazil into the mix. Are we so conditioned by experience (?) and old school sacred cows that we can’t adapt to the rapid changes of an evolving world that have been biting us in the proverbial for the past decade or so?

  21. elizabethweaver says:

    This post proposes divergent thinking and hopefully analysis at its best. This way of viewing the wicked problems is how we may begin to effectively solve these problems and eventually see how much broader a phenomena is in actual scope than when broken into individual parts, which usually misses the issue entirely. Thank you.

  22. [...] explains on his blog that Quartz will say “goodbye to the beat” as the organizational structure for staff and content: Instead of fixed beats, we structure our [...]

  23. yousufhaq says:

    What is interesting is that despite the drastic change in mediums (paper to online) there is most likely a large distribution of the element of truth that always prevails. However in our web infancy we have numerous small entities all vying for control. It will be interesting to see what the web looks like 100 years from now when large established institutions will rule the net and the freedom and openness we experience today becomes historical fact.

  24. [...] En af de mest spændende indspil om journalistik og medier i den forløbne uge var fra nyhedschefen på det kommende amerikanske erhvervsmagasin Quartz, Gideon Lichfield, som på sin blog skrev om magasinets journalistiske tænkning: [...]

  25. Quartz says:

    [...] coverage is rooted in a set of defining obsessions: core topics and knotty questions of seismic importance to business professionals, from the rise of [...]

  26. [...] launch; mobile users will have to find the site using their mobile web browsers. Journalists will pursue “obsessions,” like China’s consumer market and mobile payments, rather than [...]

  27. [...] launch; mobile users will have to find the site using their mobile web browsers. Journalists will pursue “obsessions,” like China’s consumer market and mobile payments, rather than [...]

  28. [...] launch; mobile users will have to find the site using their mobile web browsers. Journalists will pursue “obsessions,” like China’s consumer market and mobile payments, rather than [...]

  29. [...] launch; mobile users will have to find the site using their mobile web browsers. Journalists will pursue “obsessions,” like China’s consumer market and mobile payments, rather than [...]

  30. [...] coverage is rooted in a set of defining obsessions: core topics and knotty questions of seismic importance to business professionals, from the rise of [...]

  31. [...] launch; mobile users will have to find the site using their mobile web browsers. Journalists will pursue “obsessions,” like China’s consumer market and mobile payments, rather than [...]

  32. [...] launch; mobile users will have to find the site using their mobile web browsers. Journalists will pursue “obsessions,” like China’s consumer market and mobile payments, rather than [...]

  33. [...] France-Presse | The Economist | Nieman Lab | Ad Week | News Thing | Quartz Tumblr Atlantic Media is about to launch its much-buzzed-about global business news [...]

  34. [...] die jüngst gestartete Nachrichtenseite Quartz – qz.com. Einer der Redakteure von Quartz beschrieb das Selbstverständnis des Vorhabens so: Slide your mouse across the navigation bar at the top of [...]

  35. [...] Gideon Lichfield, editor of an about-t0-launch business news site Quartz, writing about what’ll make the site different. I like it a lot as a model – The idea that writers don’t have particular [...]

  36. [...] business site, launched on Monday afternoon following much fanfare this summer. Straight off, users responded to its decision to organize content by flexible “obsessions” rather than beats, its [...]

  37. [...] sites like Atlantic Cities. And Quartz is the latest example of this principle in action, as is its focus on “obsessions” instead of beats. “It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital, [...]

  38. [...] sites like Atlantic Cities. And Quartz is the latest example of this principle in action, as is its focus on “obsessions” instead of beats. “It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital, without [...]

  39. [...] shift, and worth looking at a bit more closely. Gideon Lichfield, one of the staff at Quartz, described the idea as a reader-centered approach: Beats aren't so much an objective taxonomy as a convenient [...]

  40. [...] idea is best understood by reading Quartz news editor Gideon Lichfield’s slightly nerdy but persuasive rationale for abandoning the beat.  As he explains, “Today almost every news outlet is organized around [...]

  41. [...] certain restless curiosity and dilettantism, what fledgling news site Quartz recently called “obsessions.” It requires unpacking the dynamic interplay of physical, economic, and political systems. [...]

  42. [...] certain restless curiosity and dilettantism, what fledgling news site Quartz recently called “obsessions.” It requires unpacking the dynamic interplay of physical, economic, and political systems. [...]

  43. [...] a certain restless curiosity and dilettantism, what fledgling news site Quartz recently called “obsessions.” It requires unpacking the dynamic interplay of physical, economic, and political systems. It [...]

  44. [...] a certain restless curiosity and dilettantism, what fledgling news site Quartz recently called “obsessions.” It requires unpacking the dynamic interplay of physical, economic, and political systems. It [...]

  45. [...] a certain restless curiosity and dilettantism, what fledgling news site Quartz recently called “obsessions.” It requires unpacking the dynamic interplay of physical, economic, and political systems. It [...]

  46. [...] a blog post from Quartz editor Gideon Lichfield, about the guiding ideas behind the [...]

  47. As a B2B marketer, this makes total sense. This is B2B marketing 101 — to position your brand on client goals/pains. Every consultative selling methodology tells you to focus in this way (Solution Selling, Customer-Centric Selling, etc). Yet this is missing from most B2B media on both the traditional publishing and marketing side. The best B2B sales people get this intuitively, but often fail to rally their firms around consistent, sustainable positions.

    B2B marketers commit the same “beats” mistakes — often publishing around boring, archaic taxonomies of industry lingo. At the same time, smart B2B marketers like IBM are constantly repositioning their brand narrative around big ideas – obsessions they believe in. Financial services firms such as BlackRock are also waking up to this and taking a stronger stand with their brand on a core set of obsessions.

    Rock on Quartz.

  48. K Bod says:

    Brilliant…spot on… we needed something like this ..posted from on Wise Blog

  49. Peter McKay says:

    Reblogged this on Peter McKay and commented:
    As someone who’s covered a couple of different beats in the old-school sense for newspapers, this post rang soooo true:

  50. Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz and commented:
    Very interesting.

  51. [...] die jüngst gestartete Nachrichtenseite Quartz – qz.com. Einer der Redakteure von Quartz beschrieb das Selbstverständnis des Vorhabens [...]

  52. Thank you for your function. Article aided me a good dea

  53. [...] Twitter (and elsewhere), there’s been a lot of conversation about beats. Quartz has switched to “obsessions” but no one really knows what that [...]

  54. Greg says:

    Hey Gideon – How about an update on how/whether this coverage construct is working in the story creation process?

  55. [...] Twitter (and elsewhere), there’s been a lot of conversation about beats. Quartz has switched to “obsessions” but no one really knows what that [...]

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