Journalism art and craft, Pulitzer edition

Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) has been talking today with a few folks on Twitter about community needs and journalism, drawing me and others in. It got me thinking about that ongoing question of what defines successful journalism — quality — in 2012.

For too many journalists, still, quality is defined by peer recognition. This is the season of journalism prizes, of course, and it  bursts into full bloom on Monday with the Pulitzer Prize announcements, previewed here by Roy Harris Jr. for Poynter. The winners of these contests, especially the investigative efforts, always inspire me and remind me of the transient but glorious experience of being recognized, as my former newspaper The News & Observer of Raleigh was  in 1996 with the gold medal for public service. The Pulitzers shifted to online entries only this year and are gradually adapting to digital shift.

During my 11 months working outside a newsroom I puzzled a lot over how we define journalistic quality and impact today.  I’ve judged plenty of journalism contests, and in every case heard plenty of grumbling from other jurors about the length and format of entries. My own family reminds me regularly that they appreciate journalism but wish we’d all get to the point a little quicker and more succinctly. And almost no one outside journalism pays much attention to our contests — this is peer recognition, important, gratifying and inspiring but perhaps not definitive. (Pop quiz: How many of last year’s Pulitzer winners can you name? Bonus: How many non-journalism winners?)

I welcomed an antidote to insular thinking the other day at a gathering called TechRaking 2012, organized by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Google and held Thursday at the Googleplex in Mountain View. Brian Boyer, news applications editor at the Chicago Tribune, gave a short talk on art versus craft in journalism. Boyer works with clay and used an analogy of making coffee mugs with handles that were lovely but functionally deficient versus making cups that you could hold and drink from easily. Art is about beauty; craft, Boyer noted, produces utility. As a pottery lover and journalist, I loved this comparison. Journalism should be useful. I’m thinking about this as I dig into my new role as executive editor at Southern California Public Radio.

Colleague P. Kim Bui, social media and community for SCPR, tweeted on Boyer’s talk this way.

And Lauren Rabaino blogged Boyer’s presentation for 10,000 Words, focusing on Boyer’s three questions to ask and answer before building a news app: Who are your users, what are their needs and what can you do for them?

That seems as close to gospel as anything. Boyer added that journalists need to “fight your urges” — to make elaborate timelines and maps, for instance, when a simple address-based lookup might serve users better.

This isn’t to knock contest winners. Work that serves the public well often is recognized by journalism prizes. If we begin with Boyer’s starting points, journalists and our communities can come out winners.

 

 

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