The expansive projects that Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron announced today is good news for narrative journalists in two ways: The paper plans to expand the Sunday magazine (we hope it resurfaces as a home for deeply reported, beautifully told stories), and to launch, under the leadership of economics policy correspondent Jim Tankersley, an ambitious web initiative exploring policy through narrative storytelling. The news is good in three ways, actually: The Post, on instructions from the company’s new owner Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, is hiring. From the New York Times:
The crucial question, and the one that preoccupies Mr. Bezos, Mr. Baron said, is, “How do we produce growth?”
“And obviously our growth,” said Mr. Baron, “as well as the growth of institutions like The New York Times is likely to come from the digital arena.”
There has been fervent speculation about Mr. Bezos’s intentions since August when he announced that he was paying $250 million in cash to acquire The Post. Many hoped he would try to reinvent the ailing newspaper business just as he had revolutionized retail at Amazon.com.
Mr. Baron said he believed that Mr. Bezos “was purchasing The Post in order to make more of it, rather than make less of it.” That became clear in their discussions about the paper’s initiatives. “His entire business history is oriented around growth,” Mr. Baron said.
Tankersley’s policy project follows the high-profile departure of Ezra Klein, the Wonkblog creator who recently moved to Vox Media, which publishes The Verge, Eater, Curbed and SBNation. On yesterday’s NewYorker.com, George Packer posted a look at the Klein move and what it may signal:
Everything seems set up for success in digital journalism—money, eyeballs, software, brands. Everything except one thing. “One big obstacle to long term media success remains: quality,” (the New York Times‘ David) Carr concedes. But once that final hurdle is cleared, once the quality box is checked, the losers will be the “legacy” news organizations, those currently staffed by non-digital journalists, being abandoned by their biggest names, and suffering from such low self-esteem that they tremble at the mention of content-management systems and can already smell their defeat at the hands of Vice Media, ESPN.com, Re/code, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, Curbed, Eater, Racked, SB Nation, The Verge, and Our Next.
The Post’s new digital policy-and-storytelling platform will feature “a steady stream of data-driven, narrative stories,” Baron announced, “with words, photographs and video; vibrant graphics that explain complex trends; and a variety of frontier-pushing approaches to engage readers in conversations about how to solve America’s biggest problems.” Tankersley, whom Baron has called “one of the nation’s top writers and thinkers about economic policy,” is building his team now. He arrived at the Post in 2012 with a multilayered background in digital, magazine and newspaper reporting: Most recently he was at National Journal, and previously he wrote for the Toledo Blade, the Rocky Mountain News and the Oregonian. He won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, for a data-driven series, co-authored with Joshua Boak, on Ohio’s economic decline, and was a member of the ‘Coingate’ team that was a Pulitzer finalist.
We caught up with Tankersley this afternoon, to talk about what’s ahead.
Storyboard: Tell us about this new project.
Jim Tankersley: This is an idea I have been kicking around for a couple of years. Just a quick backstory: I got into journalism because I really like stories, and I like telling stories, and I felt like stories were the best possible way to help people understand very complicated things about the world around them. It’s the most important thing that journalism does. I got my start at some papers that were just fantastic at that —
The Oregonian and the Rocky Mountain News —
Right. The Oregonian — the culture of narrative there is just unparalleled. They had profile-writing workshops with Jack Hart, and you got to pick the brain of all these amazing — Julie Sullivan and Tom Hallman and Rich Read, who’s probably the biggest influence on the kind of stuff that I write now. And then I went to the Rocky, which was such a different metabolism — we were writing like three stories a day. But it was also loaded with really great writers, including my friend Jim Sheeler, who went on to win the Pulitzer. Jim and I started a writing group together at the Rocky. We’d get together and drink beer with a dozen people and talk about each other’s ledes and read writing that we liked aloud. It’s always been in the back of my mind that this is my favorite thing that we do. A couple of years ago, it started to stand out to me — I was at the National Journal at the time, writing magazine stories, and writing stuff online — that despite all the talk about policy that has proliferated in these amazing sites, there wasn’t a place on the web for policy talk and story. And that there should be. And that story was probably a much broader thing than just longform. There are different ways that people learn, and different ways that people connect with information; we could tell them stories in really interesting ways. Nobody was trying to think: How can we show policy in the real world by telling people stories? So I started kicking around with a bunch of different people various iterations of a plan. Then I came to the Post at the end of 2012, just to write. I am working on a large series right now, a narrative series, about the economy, with a lot of data underpinning it, and I have been running various chunks of that and working out the writing concepts with Eli Saslow. One of the amazing things about working at the Washington Post is that Eli Saslow sits about 20 feet away from me. And so we were talking one day, in these discussions about these stories, and we both kind of started talking about how we wished there was somewhere online that collected work that people around the Post do, and made better use of it, and built on it for this idea of using stories to understand important things. We started talking about it a little more formally, and he encouraged me to write up a pitch, which I submitted to my editors. And in the really exciting-slash-challenging environment that has come upon us in the digital space, they hit the gas. They greenlit the project, and now I get a chance to try to make it work.
What kind of stories do you have in mind?
We’re not talking about the details yet but I think it’s fair to say that we’re going to try to do a bunch of different things, but they’re all unified around the idea that we want to help people understand the big important issues in America, and the policies that deal with those issues, and how those policies affect people. The way we’re putting it is that we’re going to tell stories on a very frequent basis, much faster than I think a lot of folks expect you can do with narrative, online. We’re going to frequently tell narrative stories with human drama, to help people understand things. We’re gonna tell stories with numbers and pictures, and really try to engage a different sort of person than the traditional in-one-chart kind of reader. And then we’re going to try to find ways to directly engage the audience and invent almost a new kind of storytelling. We don’t know exactly what it’s gonna look like, but we’ve got some pretty good ideas.
Tell me more about the ideal reader.
Wonkblog, which is our franchise in this, and which I have contributed to and I love, we are rebooting that, obviously with new leadership. This is not a replacement for Wonkblog; this is a supplement for Wonkblog. Wonkblog has what I would call a core readership: It’s people who really care about policy and come back often to find out new and provocative things about policy. But our theory is that we can reach a large segment of readers who are just as interested in the impacts of policy but not as interested in the day to day of it. Many of those readers have been core newspaper readers for a long time, and I also think that many of them are core digital audiences that we want to go after. When I talk to young people in college classes, or when I’m out and about, doing stories, they tell me how they get their news; they’re interested in important things, but they don’t always connect with the way that we’re telling them about those things. Whether it’s really young readers or legacy readers, who’ve traditionally found us in print, I think we can reach a wider audience by telling stories.
You say there’s no place like this on the web but was there a model for this, or a shadow model?
There’s not a model or a shadow model. There are sites that do a really good job of different parts of this.
I don’t want people to think we’re trying to be one particular site, because we’re not; we’re trying to invent something we think doesn’t exist. But I’ll give you some examples of sites that I like to read. I think that Quartz, which is an Atlantic Media property that they created while I was at National Journal, which is in that company and I know a lot of folks that work there. I think they do a really good job of telling stories visually. When I think about a site that’s great at meshing data — because it’s going to be so important for us to not just have stories with interesting anecdotes but to tell you something true and empirical about the world — when I think of sites that are doing great writing with data, I think about several sports sites. Grantland is probably my favorite of them. There are a bunch that range in levels that involve superfandom, but one is FanGraphs; I visit them almost every day. And then Grantland at the other end: It has absolutely changed the way friends of mine who are casual fans view basketball. The way they write about defense and breaking down statistics about how one player adds value — they can tell stories about players and tell you sort of the drama stories of a sporting event while working in this advanced analysis that’s insightful.
Basically everything Zach Lowe writes about the NBA — he has, for several of my friends, changed the way they watch basketball when their team is playing defense, because he is so good at explaining, and showing you with clips and videos and screen shots, what a team is trying to do defensively and how a particular player is contributing or not contributing to that. The writing is very conversational; he’s just a very clear writer who comes at it from this “Wow, isn’t basketball cool?” perspective. It’s very narrative, to me. He also writes about human beings who just happen to be professional basketball players, and brings out some real drama. He’s not the only writer out there who’s doing this kind of thing but he’s a good example of a writer who has the power, from new types of storytelling, to change the way readers are interacting with the thing he’s writing about.
You’ve been very public about saying you’re hiring. What are you looking for in a good narrative journalist?
It’s exciting to be hiring. I’ve worked in newspapers — with the exception of the National Journal — basically every day of my life since I was 15, and for a big period of that time it was dark days at a lot of places. A lot of cutting, a lot of — the Rocky Mountain News doesn’t exist anymore. This feels really different. We’ve got a scenario now where all the digital frontiers are being explored, and we’re getting resources for it. I’m sort of part of this wonkosphere that’s exploding with a bunch of new properties, and a lot of new people in that space suddenly find themselves in high demand. I’m looking for someone a little different from what I think maybe Nate Silver is looking for or David Leonhardt is looking for, or that Ezra is looking for. We’re looking for people who understand policy and know what a good study is and what a bad study is, and how to tell the difference, but who also are great reporters who will spend that extra time in the passenger seat of the pickup truck or across the kitchen table, or hanging out at the back of the union hall, to get the real narrative detail that brings characters to life and helps animate the stories we’re talking about. We’re looking for really strong narrative writers. We’re looking for people who care about people, who are really good at listening to people, and who are good at building from a micro to show a macro picture. That’s a specialized skill set but I’m really impressed with the people I’ve seen so far. And that’s just for the writers. We’re also hiring data people; there’s a wide range of possibilities for what they might do for us. They’re essentially people who’re going to help us tell these stories in different ways and who have a different way of thinking about issues. And then, probably the first hire we need to make is we want to get an editor to come in and help me run the hiring process and build this and get it ready to go.
How big will this team be?
We’re not sure yet. There’ll be at least several writers detailed to the team. And this is the really great part: The Washington Post is the perfect place to do this, because we have dozens of people around the room who do this already. Some of the most exciting coffees and lunches and everything else that I’ve been having have been in our building with people who do this sort of work, who would like to do it in a webbier way, who would like to engage in the process of building a digital platform to better showcase the work and might like to try some new things along the way.
How will this project relate to, or affect, the narrative team that’s already in place, under David Finkel?
First off, I am an enormous David Finkel fan, as I think every good writer in the world is. I think that his team does amazing work, and we’re not trying to do something different or to supersede them at — I think these are very complementary. And in fact Eli, who has been as involved as anyone, and maybe more involved than anyone else at the paper in helping me develop this, is on that team. So Eli’s gonna write for this site and I think other members of that team will write for us, too. They do amazing, home-run narrative journalism. Part of the excitement of being here is having David Finkel down the hallway to go pepper with questions like, “What’s the best way to be doing this story?”
Does that mean March? April? May?
I think “spring” is the best answer. It will happen in the spring.
What does this development mean for the future of narrative journalism?
My hope is that we are going to find new and inventive ways to bring narrative to more people digitally, and that we will be able to show that some of the fears about narrative in terms of the limits of its audience and how much of it you can produce are unfounded. We’re doing this because we really believe in the power of stories. What this hopefully means for the future of storytelling is that it will work and that other people, both around our own newsroom and around the journalism world, will see it and say, “Yeah, I want to do more of that, too.” This is the important part of the answer: My real hope is that this this isn’t really about narrative or about storytelling: It’s about readers. What I hope it will end up doing is create an experience that helps more people understand better the important stuff that happens in and out of Washington that affects their lives. That’s something that Sandy Rowe drills into you and Peter Bhatia drills into you at the Oregonian from Day 1 — “We are here for the readers” — and that every good editor since has drilled into me. This isn’t about preserving a form per se; it’s about trying to build on a form that we know helps people understand things.