Startup site manifestos are press criticism

They all have mission statements speaking to what is missing from news and how they plan to fix it

On the first day of The New York Times’ existence, back in 1851, an editorial titled “A Word About Ourselves” appeared, proclaiming the newspaper’s aspirations. It promised:

As a NEWSPAPER, presenting the news of the day from all parts of the world, we intend to make THE TIMES as good as the best of those now issued in the City of New York—and in all the higher utilities of the press—as a public instructor in all departments of action and of thought, we hope to make it decidedly superior to existing journals of the same class.

Essentially a critique of the press as it stood in 1851, as The Times vowed to rise above the sensationalism that dominated the era.

Today, we have seen the proliferation of new news ventures thanks to some fortuitous changes in the funding environment, such as venture capitalists, tech philanthropists, and big companies willing to take a chance on actual content produced by journalists as opposed to funding platforms or aggregators. And they all have mission statements speaking to what is missing from news and how they plan to fix it. From The Upshot to Vox to PandoDaily to FiveThirtyEight and beyond (just look for “about” pages for videos and letters to readers), we are experiencing manifesto overload.

Still, what all these statements of principles say are important, underscoring a perceived lack of quality longform journalism, data journalism, or in the case of PandoDaily, useful quick hits. The implication is that traditional journalism simply doesn’t offer readers this kind of news in the existing environment—that it’s not doing enough to give us what we need to know, and these sites are going to offer an alternative way to give us the public information that is the perceived obligation of journalism.

Looking across a sampling of these manifestos, a common theme emerges: a desire to return to what Harvard professor Tom Patterson has called “knowledge-based journalism.” Knowledge-based journalism is Patterson’s way of describing explanatory content, news that offers in-depth context and analysis of events and social issues. Patterson argues that this has been lost for a variety of reasons: the decline of newspapers, the rise of the immediacy of the Web, the rise of sensationalism.

The idea is that democracy would be better served with explanatory journalism. This problem—that the “daily miracle” lacks sufficient context—has been expressed for years by thinkers from Walter Lippmann to Columbia Journalism School’s James Carey to Jay Rosen.

In an age of information abundance, the problem just gets worse. There are more news sites producing immediate content with 24-7 updates. These outlets are available at the touch of a button. All of this information means that readers may get a confusing portrait of what actually may be the most important and meaningful news of the day. These new ventures, then, promise to offer some better knowledge-based journalism, rising above this noisy din.

First Look’s intro video talks about this torrent of information that people face each day without guidance, promising to “bring back to journalism what is lost—powerful stories in compelling packages” because “these days we are overwhelmed by all manner of media competing for our attention.” The goal is to offer longform journalism in a way that guides people to the “important” issues at hand.

And The Upshot promises to serve as “navigators for the news” by “helping readers make connections among different stories and understand how those stories fit together.” By offering better data journalism as told through interactives, The Upshot hopes to provide more than just text to bring users a different way to understand the issues covered in news each day—from politics to social concerns.

Vox’s promotional video has Ezra Klein talking about the issues with ‘vegetable journalism,’ news that is good for you. Klein proposes killing off the journalism-as-vegetables metaphor, arguing that his site will do more—and boldly proclaiming that he hopes Vox will be this central source of public information.

BuzzFeed, too, offers a different form of news. Its manifestos come in the form of Jonah Peretti’s “emails to staff” which he sometimes posts on platforms like LinkedIn, or allows others to leak, such as the email he let Chris Dixon publish in 2012 where he talked about creating news that people would want to share. This becomes the driving formal change that BuzzFeed wants to offer to journalism.

Perhaps the most obvious place to look for this critique/contribution is FiveThirtyEight, where Nate Silver’s “What the Fox Knows” post created quite a stir when the site launched this year. In it, he clearly states that there is something missing from journalism:

Still, I would never have launched FiveThirtyEight in 2008, and I would not have chosen to broaden its coverage so extensively now, unless I thought there were some need for it in the marketplace. Conventional news organizations on the whole are lacking in data journalism skills, in my view.

And Silver’s organization, housed within ESPN, aims to fill the hole he describes.

Even PandoDaily, for all of the concerns some have with its connections between venture capitalists and potential conflicts of interests, offers an alternative format, in this case for breaking news. Its mission statement promises “ideas you won’t find anywhere else: Exclusives, edgy opinion posts, stellar product analysis, insightful people and culture stories and *real* breaking news, which we define as something someone doesn’t want you to write, not re-writing a press release faster than anyone else.”

These formal elements suggest that there are actual structural issues that can be changed by reformatting the way that stories are actually told. More data journalism; quicker posts; news we can share; re-formed vegetable journalism.

This brings to mind two questions for me. The first is whether these sites are actually going to offer anything different. My hope is that there is some truth to the hyperbole that there might be something different—that we might see what these manifestos promise.

Still, there has been some industry pushback against these startups’ grand aspirations. Nate Silver has been accused of being “Slate with charts,” and in the same compilation of critiques against news startups, GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram offered this tweet by David Teicher:

The second concern I have is whether these changes will actually matter to readers.

Will readers even be paying attention to Vox, for example? I know my students this semester had no idea it existed until I told them about it. They’re a target demographic—millennials who could learn much about the world from explanatory journalism. Ultimately this is what counts; all of these new offerings are aimed at the ever-busy reader filled with a panoply of content—will this new work make a difference?

For now, though it’s refreshing to see ambitious news startups actually offering these manifestos, we must wait to see whether this indeed will happen.

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Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs and a Tow Fellow at Columbia. She is the author of Making News at The New York Times.