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Writing for Right Now: “Iterative Journalism”

[By Thom Fladung, Hennes Communications]

It’s called “iterative journalism.”

For journalists, it’s a profound change. With profound implications for anyone caught up in a news story. Put most simply, it means this: Stories are published online as they’re reported, in pieces. Once basic facts are known, the story goes online . Calls are still made to key sources. But if you don’t take that call or return it fast, the story is going to be posted online without you.

In its highest, best use, iterative journalism is dynamic, tailored to the immediacy and interactivity of the Web. Readers’ questions and suggestions shape developing stories. Sources who in a previous age might have taken days or weeks to respond are flushed out. The very process of journalism is opened to everyone.

Big, breaking stories can be reported in real time as important facts become known – perfect for the modern reader on a smartphone. A story published iteratively by one publication can be picked up on by others, which then do additional reporting and explore new angles, building toward a better end for readers.  A skilled iterative journalist can construct an investigative package, piece by piece, over days or weeks, right before the readers’ eyes. It can yield great journalism.

Arguably, it’s blown much-needed fresh air into rooms full of people grown staid and out of touch with readers. (An old newsroom joke: What are the four most depressing words in a newspaper? “First in a series.”)

It also can lead to lazy journalism. (For a scalding review of iterative journalism, see Ryan Holiday’s book “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.”) A reporter can skip calling every key person – much less checking facts and claims against other credible sources. If the basic facts are known, no additional effort is necessary to include nuance.

And for news outlets, speed is paramount: Being first with the breaking news means being first (or close to it) on that Google search page. That can mean thousands more readers – and additional revenue to the news outlet.

In the pre-Internet age, legions of journalists were schooled by tough editors who screamed, “You don’t have the story yet!” After more calls, more research, sitting outside source’s offices, leaving business cards in doorjambs, sending certified mail…journalists prayed they had enough of the story so that editor would stop screaming.

That basic journalism tenet – we don’t print the story until we have the entire story – has been shattered.

What might it all mean to you? If you or your organization is thrust into the news, be prepared to quickly respond and get your side in that crucial first story that sets the tone for each of the follow-up iterations.

Media-savvy news subject know how to respond in a crisis and how to talk to a reporter to buy time. We suggest to clients that, if your point of view is not in the original online story, resist being added as an “update” to that story. Why? Many readers will never see the updated version. When was the last time you went back to check if a story was updated? The more effective course: If you’re not in the first story, ask for a new story, with a new headline, with your point of view reflected.

Iterative journalism is neither bad nor good. It just is. And if you or your organization might be in the news, you need to understand it.

Thom Fladung is vice president of Hennes Communications.  He is also the former managing editor of The Plain Dealer, Detroit Free Press and Akron Beacon Journal.


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