Posted by: structureofnews | June 11, 2012

Artisanal Journalism

How many types of cheese are there, and how many ways are there to make them? And similarly, how many types of journalism(s) are there, and how are they created?

It seems obvious, but perhaps it bears restating: There isn’t a single solution to the Future of Journalism, just as there isn’t a single journalism.  And it’s important to remember that, because we too often focus on one kind of journalism – the best kind, perhaps, but still just one kind – or the various sides in the discussion/debate talk past each other because they really mean completely different kinds of journalism.

The kind we love to celebrate – and bemoan the heralded death of – is the award-winning, deeply-investigated, wonderfully-written accountability journalism.  The kind that wins Pulitzers and topples governments.  It’s hard work, often involving talented professionals doing months (or years) of single-minded, painstaking digging.

Call it artisanal journalism.  And it’s critical stuff – the kind of thing that arguably helps democracy function better. And if we could certainly use more of it.  But because it’s hard work, and because it takes talented individuals, there’s probably a natural limit to how much of it we’re likely to get.  It doesn’t scale easily, as they say in the world of digital business.

Which makes sense.  Hand-crafted artisanal cheese (or chocolate) doesn’t scale easily, either.   That’s part of its value.

And even if great artisanal journalism scaled easily, it’s not the only kind of journalism we need.  Perhaps it’s heretical to say it, but we also need industrially-produced process journalism.  Put another way, we need not just Kindle Singles, but Kraft Singles as well.  (I can’t believe I said that.)

That’s not to say that Kraft Singles – those highly processed, hideously yellow slices of pseudo-cheese product – are better than artisanal cheese lovingly made in Brooklyn basements by dedicated craftsmen focused on turning out works of art.  It’s that both kinds of products have their place in the world (and anyone with young kids knows the value of having some processed food in the house.)

The point is – without torturing this analogy too much – we need more than just artisanal journalism.  Not just because it doesn’t scale, but also because society has other needs, beyond great accountability and investigative journalism.  Want to know what happened on your street?  What happened at the school board meeting?  Which streets are closed for today’s parade?  Those aren’t needs that get fed by every-so-often great works of journalism, but by day-in, day-out reporting and presentation of information and, hopefully, context.

True, some of these needs are being met by non-journalism organizations and sites, and you could certainly make a case that others can do at least as good a job as we can fulfilling these needs.  But there are good reasons why journalists/journalism organizations should embrace these duties.

We could certainly make a case that it’s part of our self-declared mission, which is giving society the information it needs to function better.  I’d also argue that doing some of the day-to-day reporting – covering every school board meeting, say – helps us build towards doing those bigger-picture, higher-end accountability stories.  And I believe there are good business reasons for doing that kind of daily reporting as the building blocks of a more sustainable business model.

Not to mention that if we cede those functions to other types of organizations, we lose a chance to have a say in how news and information are produced and delivered to people.

All of which feeds into a broader question of what journalism is and what it’s evolving into.  If an organization takes campaign contribution data, cleans it up, sorts it, and provides a useful interface to let the public explore it – is that journalism?  Does it need a 5,000 word story to go with it to make it journalism?  A series of blog posts?  More context in the user interface?  What about fact-checking politicians‘ statements?  Or tracking the progress of every homicide in the DC area?

What makes something an act of journalism vs. an act of information-gathering? How artisanal does the work need to be, vs. how industrial it is?

It seems to me that as we rethink journalism for this new digital age, there are three distinct skills/parts of the process:

1. Information gathering – whether through talking to people, reading documents, scraping the web, interrogating databases, or some other means of asking the right questions and collecting and verifying the answers.

2. Presentation – everything from a tweet to a 10,000-word piece, graphics, data visualizations, photo slideshows, documentaries and forms yet to be invented.

3. Publication – not just getting it in print/on a show/online, but the entire process of thinking about what news product should be presented, and how.  Should you report on politicians’ statements, or create a site that tracks how truthful they are?  How much automation/machine-generated content should you embrace?  What focus and audience should you aim for?

All three parts don’t exist in isolation, of course; how each one is done/conceived affects the other; if Politifact is built a certain way, reporters have to file reports to fit its data structure.  Great photos speak to print layouts that show off the work; rich databases call for smart user interfaces and visualizations.

Much of the artisanal journalism we celebrate tends to be great narrative – works that exist, in many ways, in isolation from the news organization that created it.  A Pulitzer-prize winning story from the New York Times could, in a parallel universe, just as easily run in some other newspaper.  But as we move into an age where we can and should be developing new forms of content and new ways to deliver it, shouldn’t we be spending more time celebrating that skill/process as well?  (As the Pulitzer board did, arguably, when it gave a prize to Politifact.)

It’s not as sexy, obviously, to talk about data structure and site design than to discuss wonderful tales of narrative journalism.  But it’s just as important.


  1. I like the idea of “artisanal journalism” but I’m not sure it’s a good analogy or evolution for what we think of as investigative journalism. Pulitzer Prize winning pieces out of the Washington Post and NY Times require a lot of resources, when you really get down to it. “Artisanal” has the connotation of scaling down — i.e. instead of a factory farm, butter made by hand. In the journalism world, I picture a blogger hunting down a local story on his own dime, not a marquee name from the Times being flown to Afghanistan by the corporation he works for. The analogy doesn’t quite jibe for me. Although I do think you rightly identify a category that we should value. Don’t you think “artisanal journalism” will operate on a different (smaller, more local) scale?

    • It’s not the world’s best analogy, I agree. I meant artisanal in the sense that it’s bespoke – resources (whether the full backing of the NYT newsroom or a lone blogger juggling spare time off work) devoted to a single end: often a story or a series of stories, as opposed to an ongoing feed of information that an audience can rely on.

      The contrast, if you like, is with the day-to-day work of a news site, where information is needed to feed specific elements of its structure, whether the weekly politics column or (in the case of Politifact) that day’s or week’s fact-checking.

      So yes, I agree that “artisanal journalism” works at various scales, depending on how much resources you throw at it. At local levels – and certainly with a blogger/independent journalist working in his or her spare time, that may be the best use of limited resources.

      But those stories, while great, don’t feed the day-to-day information needs of societies regularly enough. A great expose of the corrupt school board is sorely needed, but so too is a great searchable database/story structure of board decisions and discussions.

      We need to debate/discuss how to save both kinds of journalism, I think.

  2. Whatever it’s called, the point is correct. So go ahead and abuse the analogy for a moment. The operative word for Kraft Singles is “processed.” So isn’t it time for journalists to accept that certain kinds of non-artisanal journalism that is processed, even to the point of being machine-written, may actually help their business overall, may differentiate their artisanal brands, even may help free up or create resources for producing artisanal journalism? The biggest downside may not be the quality of non-artisanal journalism relative to the demand, but the job security of journalists who long have had to crank it out like machines anyway. As technology inexorably advances, journalists will find that more and more of the raw material of their craft will be processed (and structured) whether they like it or not. Another trend to get ahead of, or lag behind …

    • I agree – I think we need both kinds, and embracing technology to help us perform both missions is a good idea. The risk is, as you note, job security. But it’s a trend that will happen in any case, so we need to find ways for it to help us rather than hurt us.

  3. An artisan works with his or her hands; a journalist with his or her mind. Why not simply call it Professional Journalism?

    • I guess my point is that both types – processed and artisanal, if you like – are both (or can be both) professional journalism.

      I used the term artisanal to mean somewhere between bespoke and hand-crafted – as a deeply reported investigative narrative often is. And processed more to mean daily coverage, sometimes to a template. (Not that templated means bad; Politifact is in effect written to a template, but that didn’t stop it from winning a Pulitzer.)

      Great narrative is great when it comes out, and certainly serves a useful need; but on a day-in, day-out basis, we also need regular information about the world we live in, and we increasingly want it on demand – not only when a newspaper/news organization wants to write about it.

      Both are necessary, I think, to the future of news, and to the value we provide readers/society. And both are/can be populated by professionals.

  4. […] background-position: 50% 0px ; background-color:#101010; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 3:52 […]

  5. The real-time tracking (no pun intended) of London underground activity posted to the Transport for London site might exemplify the kind of informational work you’re espousing here. Does this kind of service qualify as a species of journalism, though? On the other hand, does it matter what we call it?

    • Abbott,

      At some level, I don’t think we really care what we call it, as long as a societal need is being met. That said, of course, journalists do care whether it’s called journalism or not, but as much for internal reasons as anything else.


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  7. […] sustain quality journalism in the digital age.  In a way, this recalls the distinction between “artisanal” and “industrial” journalism, but questions of efficiency – and hence sustainability – […]

  8. […] Which is a good – if late – reminder that it’s vitally important to focus on what your readers/customers want and need, rather than just on what you want to do, important though it might be. […]

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