Breaking Down the Fourth Wall Of News

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I want to let you know about a renewed emphasis I want to bring to how TPM covers the news: not a new topic area, but better, more consistent and deeper ways to do what we already do best: dogged coverage of core TPM stories over days, weeks and months.

Let me explain what I mean.

If you’re a regular TPM Reader there are certain things you know intuitively about what we do even if you may not have thought of them explicitly. For all of its history TPM’s been at its best when we are on a small number of stories (maybe 3 to 6 at a time) that we grab on to and pursue doggedly with iterative reporting. Those aren’t the only stories we cover. We’re hitting lots of things here and there every day. But those are the ones that capture our attention, the ones we think are important, the ones with mysteries that need to be solved. Those are the stories where we put most of our resources. The precise list of stories is ever-changing. But they’re the heart of what TPM is and does. This is what makes TPM distinct, the dogged focus on a relatively small number of evolving stories over time.

If you’re a regular reader, this probably rings true or is obvious when you think about it. What we’ve never had though is a way of capturing these stories in the structure of the site. You have to know it by seeing it by coming to the site each day. I try to weave the stories together in my editors’ blog posts. But those tend to be episodic in nature. As we’ve added new reporters over the summer (and plan to add more), I’ve felt we need to do more in capturing how these stories fit together. More guidance and clarity, if you will, outside the four walls of the stories themselves.

One of the other things TPM has always done is taking reporting from a variety of news outlets and piecing together the story they are telling us as a whole, weaving nuggets from this place and that other place into a whole so you can see the big picture. To me that’s another part of the equation, weaving our own stories together, providing that guidance and clarity so you can see the big picture. It’s not just our reporting but other people’s too. Again, guidance and clarity so the big picture doesn’t get lost.

One final part of this equation is what I think of as the fourth wall of journalism. Breaking it down has always been a key part of what makes TPM what it is. Some of that is getting out of the voice of conventional journalism – ledes, story arcs, the impersonal voice – and explaining the story to you in the way our reporters explain the stories to editors and vice versa. One’s not better than the other. They’re just different modes of communicating. Sometimes you can capture things in one better than the other. Basically we are trying to break down some of the wall of the journalistic voice and – within the constraints of source confidences and confirmed information – diminish as much as possible the gap between what you as readers know and we as editors and reporters know.

With all these concepts, here’s one new feature I’ve had in mind that addresses some of this. I’m constantly trying to pull information out of the TPM staff for my own use. How could I make that information available to our whole readership? Let me explain. I wear many hats here at TPM. I’m heavily involved on the business and editorial sides. I have my own writing. I do lots of different things. Often I’ll check in on our office chat system with an editor who’s on an evolving story and ask, “give me an update on X.” If I had time I would read all we’d published over the last day or hour. But usually I don’t have time, not at that moment. And in any case, I’m not just interested in what we’ve reported. Even more I want to know what’s happening in the story beyond what we’ve been able to publish and what we think is coming next. What’s the next event we expect that will change the direction of the story? What’s the key thing we’re waiting for? What’s the gist?

What I get back is usually a few unadorned sentences answering those key questions. It helps me situate myself to make decisions I need to make as an editor and also gives me access to the wealth of information locked up in reporters’ and editors’ heads. I find the ability to get those updates critical. And because I do, I think readers might too.

Here’s another example. As I mentioned at the top, at any given time we’re really focused on a handful of key stories. But just what they are or how they’ve changed on a given day isn’t necessarily clear from looking at the site’s front page. I tend to be pretty up to date on each of those storylines. But a lot of times I don’t have a perfect idea of where each one is. I’d like a morning briefing giving me a quick synopsis on each. This is still on the drawing board. But rather than the standard morning links email that every site sends out and we do too, I’m interested in launching a morning newsletter that does just this: a smart, concise overview of where the critical stories are for the day and how we plan to attack them.

I’m sharing this with you because it grows out of what we’ve always done but I think takes it to a new level. It is also a reaction to the ways the news business is changing, how we process the surfeit of information being thrown at us hour by hour, how we piece together the various strands of news across multiple publications. I want to give you as readers, avid news consumers, access to the information swirling around the collective TPM brain trust that doesn’t necessarily make it into the four corners of the published articles.

I welcome your input.

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