A couple of tweets from this afternoon:

…and…

(Both came from a Toronto event, a Canadian Journalism Federation J-talk on media innovation. The Canadian Journalism Project has a recap.)

The way I read those – and a couple of tweets that followed – is that what’s important for media orgs is journalism that adds value, either through storytelling, deep immersion and investigation – long-form – or through bits and bites and engagement – the quick-hit-on-to-social-media stuff. I may have that a little wrong; if so, that’s what the comments are for.

The ideas there tie in with something Alan Mutter wrote earlier in the week – Most newspaper stories are still too long – and some of the reaction that produced, including Steve Buttry’s detailed take, Newspaper stories are too long, except when they’re too short.

The very-short version of Alan’s post is somewhat wrapped up in this:

With all due respect to my colleagues and friends in the business, newspapers are written by journalists for journalists, who not only love their words but also tend to equate the length of a story with the importance of the subject, if not the writers themselves.

Steve, in a post worth reading, added this:

I support Mutter, Gannon, McGuff and lots of editors past and present in their quest to introduce more discipline in journalists’ writing. I freely acknowledge that many of my blog posts run too long, without the limited space of print and without editors to help me trim an extraneous word here and a redundant paragraph there. But frankly, the problem and the challenge (whether in my blog or in a newspaper or on a news website) is not how long the story is, but whether it’s worth the length.

(Editing note: I combined two grafs into one in that quote.)

All of these tweets and quotes from blog posts are of a piece, and they’re pointing us past newspaper journalism as it is, for the most part, presently committed.

It makes sense. We have an arsenal of storytelling weapons and war-room filled with storytelling strategies that allow us to break out of the old ways, reshape what journalism means and connect more deeply with an audience crying out for understanding (and entertainment).

(An aside: Does anyone remember the pre-crisis days, before the economy went south, the newspaper companies went bankrupt and all those talented, talented journalists lost their jobs? The largest concern then was the trend lines that showed newspaper readership and connection to community and ability to attract advertisers were all, long-term and steepening, heading downward. Did, sometime during the awfulness of the past four or five years, all that disappear? Did the fact that amid all that tumult newspapers got themselves online, dove deep into social media and got interactive – while more or less doing what they had always done in terms of journalism – suddenly make them more relevant and deeply connected to community? I don’t think so.)

Back on topic: the message I got from the tweets and blog posts makes sense. When I pile it on the other, less-recent messages about what media needs to be – hyperlocal, reader-driven, mobile-first and on and on, they they all make sense, too. Which leads to two conclusions: I am (1) glad I am no longer a newspaper editor who is charged with figuring this all out and (2) convinced that this whole enterprise of figuring out where media is going/needs to go is still incredibly messy.

We see some interesting stuff happening. For instance, I’ve just noticed that The Toronto Star has, since November of last year, published at least a dozen e-books as part of “a weekly series of quality journalism in ebook form” available at the Apple iBooks store either free or for $2.99. (An example is here.) And, for instance, Chad Skelton, here in Vancouver, is doing some increasingly interesting storytelling with data. His blog hasn’t been updated for a bit, but there are some links to some of his work there.

There’s a lot, like the ideas that kicked off this post, to be excited about.

But what I’m not aware of is any deep or widespread discussion of what, in the second decade of the 21st Century, a newspaper is. For all the tweets, Facebook posts, online conversations, videos, data-driven stories and the rest, the newspapers I see most often are still trying to be all things to all people. They are still filled largely with 20-inch pieces of commodity news that are need far less space. They hit the doorstep every morning as if the news they carry has not already been covered – sometimes to death – and they add little that is truly new and important.

I get that part of the challenge – a big, big part of it – is maintaining an older, generally supportive readership (which maintains the advertising base they are still able to cling to), while moving into the areas that they know they need to, but which have so far proven very much less conducive to making money.

Still. We have lot of hows out there, long-form and short- and the disappearing middle being the latest to catch me eye. What I would like to see is much more discussion about what, as in “What could a newspaper be?” I suspect there are some interesting answers in there.

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