Monthly Archives: September 2012

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.