The Student Reporter conference “Building an Obsessions Newsroom” kicked off with keynote speaker Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. Rosen has written extensively on modern changes in journalism on his blog PressThink, including an exploration of the concept of “obsessions,” or more user-centric reporting, through networked beats.
In his keynote address, Rosen returned to the definition of obsessions and provided six different ways of thinking about it.
1. Obsessions are about the 1 percent.
The 1 percent rule in journalism claims that out of 100 online viewers, 89 will read the article, 10 will interact, and only one will become a contributor. Today, journalism isn’t so much about getting information out to those 89 people; instead, it is about pulling in that one active reader, with quality reporting and a great story. Obsessions are geared toward this 1 percent, engaging readers to become personally invested and obsessed themselves.
2. Obsessions begin as simple questions by ordinary people.
The top downloaded episode of the popular “This American Life” program on NPR is “The Giant Pool of Money,” a one-hour explainer on the mortgage crisis. This began with journalists who were wondering—just like everyone else at the time—how this massive financial crisis could happen. It was not the economic expertise of the writers that blew up the story but the obsessive quality of their reporting, all driven by a simple question that had baffled them and the public.
3. Obsessions deal with the “how,” not “what.”
People often are aware of what is going to happen, especially when it comes to political or business-related events that build up over time. So the real interest lies in how the events will happen and how they will unfold in the big picture. Obsessions have the advantage of being “telescoped” to this single event. Take, for example, the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009 (COP15). Following the before, during and after would reveal the multiple “forces” at play leading up to the event, such as the growing scientific evidence of climate change, the emerging role of private solutions, and the geopolitical context in which these negotiations were happening.
4. Obsessions are both a cause and a subject.
Obsessions are things that we believe in. At the same time, they are a cause, by virtue of the writer’s obsession. There is a desire to provoke change, but it is treated from the perspective of a journalist, a “newshound” who wants to document, write about and analyze the cause. “An obsession like that is built out of a kind of commitment to a better world, and that commitment … generates a journalistic curiosity that also becomes part of the obsession,” Rosen said.
5. The best obsessions are unsolved problems.
Good problems for journalists to tackle are those that continue going unsolved. As they develop, these problems open up new questions for the writer to obsess over, and generate spaces of “journalistic intrigue,” or curiosity for both journalists and readers. “It’s by following the progress of a problem that you develop a journalistically valuable niche,” Rosen said.
6. Obsessions are fun.
In the end, the only thing that really matters for journalists in choosing an obsession to report on is this question: What makes you happy? What makes you want to get up in the morning, eager to start working? Obsessions should give you immense pleasure.
In a way, obsession journalism is about bringing the “spirit of blogging” to journalism. The subject is narrowed and followed continually over time. It is intensely concerned with a single matter, yet it opens up a whole other set of questions that are somehow connected. This is the original advantage of blogging and reflects on obsessives: “To try and follow the world through news reports is a very choppy experience, but an obsessive carries you right along,” Rosen said.
But how do you deal with the fact that “most people are coming in the middle of the movie?” (Meaning that most people don’t have the background knowledge necessary to grasp the story presented to them.) Where stories exist beyond just lame facts, the journalist must remember the readers’ perspective: How does all the information they’ve consumed add up in their mind?
Building on-ramps to your story, Rosen advises, can help. Citing the recent rise of explanatory journalism, as led most notably by Ezra Klein and Melissa Bell’s Vox.com, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and NYT’s Upshot, he said that on-ramps not only provide context for readers but also create future consumers, who return for updates.
Overall, both explanatory journalism and obsessions reporting by individual journalists anticipate the reader’s experience, because readers’ interest and engagement determines the success of an obsession.
Greenpeace/Lauri Myllyvirta under Creative Commons