By Jason Gillikin | March 11, 2012
Industry journalism resembles a juggling act. On one hand, as a seasoned media professional, a beat writer should exercise the same due care about his subject as any other journalist — including modeling a healthy skepticism about wild claims and a fierce independent streak. On the other hand, people get drawn to specific niches or industries because they like its gizmos or intellectual framework, so it’s hard to avoid the bandwagon of the Next Great Thing. Ergo, niche journalists usually end up with several competing balls in the air. It takes great skill and fortitude to avoid dropping them on occasion.
In newsrooms of yore, writers divided between general and beat assignments. An experienced restaurant reviewer may serve as the paper’s food critic, but wouldn’t be dispatched to cover a house fire, and vice versa. Layers of editors helped weed out the most egregious judgment errors and ombudsmen policed the public perception of a paper’s fairness and balance. Although some types of reporters (usually, the reviewers) sometimes got into hot water over their ties to their sources, in general the system worked well enough.
In the new media climate, though, a change is afoot, and part of it relates to the collapse of the traditional newsroom infrastructure that provided a useful internal check on individual performance. Particularly within niche media markets, blog-style coverage grows and analysis — too often, undifferentiated from mere opinion — clocks in a higher word count than dispassionate reportage. Pick whatever niche media market you wish, the tendency is usually the same. I’ll pick just two to illustrate the point.
First, the tech world. The mainstream glossy mags often provide favorable coverage to the companies that serve as their sources. And why not? Favorable coverage generally translates into superior access. The problem with tech journalists — and I include self-appointed new-media experts among them — is that they usually seek the new. Reading the combined RSS feeds for a dozen high-profile news and opinion sources makes one think he’s in an echo chamber: 500 articles but only 20 different subjects. Right now, everything’s about Pinterest and SXSW and the “new iPad.” The evolution is predictable: A few highly sourced pros bring up something, then the mid-tier bandwagons follow their lead, and then the lowest rung comes in with its unconvincing attempt at differentiation (e.g., the resident curmudgeons who then try to tell you why Pinterest is just a fad or SXSW isn’t all it’s cracked up to be or why you really don’t need the new iPad). Moral of the story: A few memes gain currency at levels disproportionate to their significance for a few weeks at a time, then they’re replaced by the next meme while the old is largely forgotten. Lost in the mix is any sense of proportionality or willingness to be critical about a new product or service. Just think: Last year’s hot new apps at SXSW have faded or collapsed; this year’s hot apps are almost surely going to be irrelevant a year hence. One would think a reasonably bright journalist would develop the pattern recognition necessary to craft work product that understands this dynamic.
Second, the climate-change world. Think what you will of the various disputes about climate change and man’s role therein, a few points ought to be utterly non-controversial — e.g., that certain things can be measured, that correlation does not imply causation, that science evolves over time as the data become clearer. But think about most reporting about climate change you’ve read. How much of it was genuinely dispassionate and relentlessly scientific? Sometimes it reads pseudoscientifically, but is nevertheless affected by selection bias. Whether you’re a fierce climate change activist or a skeptic of environmental doomsday claims, the reporting from a technical perspective remains remarkably and consistently deficient. Ideology trumps coverage. Either anthropogenic global warming is an incontrovertible truth, or its a fraud. Climate journalism thus becomes a fight between dogmas instead of a subject of serious inquiry, and journalists fall into a camp (with those rare folks who try to walk the middle ground largely shunned by both sides). Net result? Readers lose and truth dies a death of a thousand cuts.
So, what’s a niche writer to do?
First, avoid the bandwagon. Just because everyone else is talking about something doesn’t mean you need to. And if you do have to discuss it, at least aim to be balanced. Don’t fawn over subjects or fads. Don’t peddle the same hype everyone else is spewing. If something’s good, praise it. If it sucks, say so. If it’s well-adopted to some purposes but not others, make this clear.
Second, cultivate real depth about your subject. Go beyond the superficial. Know enough to separate the wheat from the chaff and to know when you’re getting BS’ed by a source. Understand when a topic is getting too ideological or when the current emperor in the niche’s mindshare really doesn’t have any clothes.
Third, provide useful analysis. If I had a nickel for every “how to use Pinterest for your small business” articles that ran under prominent bylines in the last month, I’d have enough cash to enjoy a fabulous steak dinner. Newsflash: Pinterest has very little applicability for 99 percent of businesses. But the desire to game SEO or to look relevant means people are going to write Pinterest articles. If you want to write about Pinterest (or any other topic currently in vogue, regardless of the niche), then go for it — but remember that your job is to provide useful information to readers, not to gain street cred with fellow bloggers or your sources or to increase your Klout score.
I remain convinced that beat journalism represents journalism at its most promising. But like any idea, the devil is in the details — and one such major detail is the competence of the practitioner. Good beat reports speak truth to power and cut through hype with laser-like efficiency. Lazy beat reporters merely struggle to remain on the bandwagon and serve as a mouthpiece for the attitudes, assumptions and interests of the powers-that-be within the beat.
Thus my plea to beat writers of any stripe and any niche: More critical analysis and less fawning, please.