Posted by: structureofnews | March 23, 2013

The Scarecrow and the Watchdog

Sounds like the title of a cheesy TV series; but this is a riff off the Tow Center at Columbia University’s excellent report on Post-Industrial Journalism.

In it, the authors talk about the need for both steady, incremental, regular coverage of issues – “scarecrow”‘ journalism that discourages wrongdoing via the potential threat of exposure – as well for more episodic, deeper, investigative reporting that uncovers actual wrongdoing – “watchdog” journalism.  We need both kinds, of course, and certainly doing well on one front can help improve coverage on the other front; but often the two require very different resources and skills.

Scarecrow work, most obviously, calls for more systems and process – and that really brings home how data-driven journalism organizations have, in some ways, a fairly different mission from traditional news outfits, as I noted in an earlier post.

In some ways, that was less of an issue when we had large legacy/mainstream news organization that could encompass both types of missions under one roof – say a Connected China project twinned with a large China bureau and an enterprise team at Reuters.  Or Politifact and the Tampa Bay Times.  But as newsrooms fragment – or new startups like Homicide Watch spring up – how we we make sure we marry the advantages of both deep data-driven beat coverage and broader, accountability journalism, rather than have them drift apart?

For example, the Washington Post published a great series tracking every homicide in the district from 2001 to 2011, showing how fewer than a third resulted in a conviction – a wonderful example of bringing perspective and context to an important public issue.  On the other hand, the data was essentially dated by the time it was published; and it hasn’t been updated since, which doesn’t help a person who wants to find out what’s happening in their neighborhood right now. For that, they have to turn to Homicide Watch, which has made it its mission to track, on a daily basis, every murder in the capital and how each case is progressing through the system.  That’s not to say that Homicide Watch couldn’t in theory do what the Washington Post did, and in fact they do have a 2012 year in review package – but then again they used to have one full-time reporter vs. the Post’s hundreds, so that’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison.

The broader question is, why can’t we bring both models together more often?  Build a Homicide Watch-type organization within the Post, or scale up Homicide Watch to include a more Post-like reporting team?

I don’t work at either place, so obviously I don’t know the answer to that question – but that doesn’t stop me from venturing some possible causes: Culture. Money. Mission.

Newsroom culture is, as I noted in an early post, a huge obstacle to having beat reporters focus on collecting (and inputting) data as part of their daily work, even if it can be shown that, in the longer-run, it will improve their work.  Most reporters still see their output as a story, rather than as the communication of information – and while that does include writing stories, it doesn’t always require one.  Inflexible CMSs don’t help either.

But resources – money – is just as much of an obstacle.  Newsrooms are strapped these days, and certainly many newspapers that make their money off advertising – and particularly print advertising – don’t see a huge upside in developing deep databases.  I’d argue – and have argued – they’re wrong, that building stories off data is a good way to generate content that has a longer shelf-life and value, but I grant it requires a leap of faith many aren’t willing to take.  And smaller outfits like Homicide Watch are often just getting by – they don’t have the ability yet to add more reporters.

And then there’s the more existential question of mission – should news organizations focus more broadly on the broadest public good, perhaps by doing expansive analyses of trends that affect a city and public policy; or should they try to give as up-to-date, detailed information of very specific issues that are perhaps of interest only a small segment of the population, such as tracking an individual murder (albeit that the aggregated information could also lead to that expansive analysis).

It’ll be great to have both, of course, and I would certainly argue that you can – but if you can only do one, which is closer to the heart of journalism?  Or perhaps a better way to put it is – which should be closer to the heart of journalism?


  1. […] Sounds like the title of a cheesy TV series; but this is a riff off the Tow Center at Columbia University's excellent report on Post-Industrial Journalism. In it, the authors talk about the need fo…  […]

  2. It’s funny to see “leap of faith” being used here… Been reading Kierkegaard with great difficulty recently trying to understand this concept!

  3. […] then there’s the question of the many forms of journalism – including the “watchdog” and “scarecrow” kind, the latter which keeps an eye on the day-to-day functioning of institutions.  Who’s to say how […]

  4. […] Which is where the notion of structured journalism comes in.  It’s a way to keep doing great – or at least daily – stories, collecting data that comes through that reporting, and using that to power tightly integrated and smart apps/sites/products for our audiences.That maintains the value of our bundle, at what should be manageable costs, and in many cases serves people better. […]

  5. […] the other hand, that kind of great watchdog journalism isn’t the only kind we need, either.  We need both, and there’s no reason why one can’t help feed the other, and vice […]

  6. […] all the functions that journalism performs – explaining, investigating, watchdogging, etc – simply bearing witness to breaking news events would seem to be low on the totem pole […]

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