Posted on September 18, 2012
I hate to say this, but when I worked full-time for a newspaper, I used to sit there late at night (all alone, except for my teddy bear) and quietly think about how beats were sort of a drag. I’m the sort of person who gets interested in something and wants to follow my interest, or who wants to get a sense of other people’s interests and write about why they’re so interesting.
It’s probably the reason why I wound up freelancing for so long.
It also may be why I’ve spent the past two years in graduate school. Media just aren’t interested in stories about nineteenth century Europe anymore, it being the twenty first century and all. It’s really a shame.
First of all, let’s talk about phenomenology for a second here because it’s in my nineteenth century geek wheelhouse. What is phenomenology? In really simple terms, it’s a study of how and why the human consciousness becomes aware of certain things. Here’s a more detailed (and sometimes confusing) description of it, which will introduce you to Edmund Husserl and show you how Husserl’s thoughts gave way to existentialism and visions of deep people in French cafes.
What does phenomenology have to do with news? Actual newspapers made of paper that you can hold in your hands (not the nouveau tablet stuff) are divided into sections that need to be filled with stories. That section mindset made its way to web publications, but Lichfield points out that may not be a good thing and so Quartz will have a more fluid model of ever-changing obsessions to reflect a world that is, well, ever-changing.
That makes sense to me. And it actually sounds like a hell of a fun place to be a reporter.
We want to reach a global, cosmopolitan crowd, people who see themselves as living “in the world”. They are keenly aware of how distant events influence one another; their lives and careers are subject to constant disruption from changes in technology and the global economy.
So instead of fixed beats, we structure our newsroom around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena—the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in. “Financial markets” is a beat, but “the financial crisis” is a phenomenon. “The environment” is a beat, but “climate change” is a phenomenon. “Energy” is a beat, but “the global surge of energy abundance” is a phenomenon. “China” is a beat, but “Chinese investment in Africa” is a phenomenon. We call these phenomena our “obsessions”. These are the kinds of topics Quartz will put in its navigation bar, and as the world changes, so will they.
This is both a practical and a philosophical shift. Practical, because reporting these themes within a traditional beat structure is difficult: they often cut across beat boundaries, taking in politics, economics, technology, and other issues. Our journalists have to be, to some extent, all-rounders, who aren’t afraid to get outside their usual expertise and track the topic they’re following wherever it leads.
And philosophical, because it means changing what might (a little pretentiously) be called the phenomenology of journalism. Phenomenology is about how we structure our experience of the world. Beats provide an institutional structure. Obsessions are a more human one.
What I mean by this is that when people notice a change in the world around them—a phenomenon—they don’t care what beat it belongs to; they just want to know what caused it. The institutional framework answers the question like the blind men in the Indian parable who are brought an elephant and asked to say what it is. The one who touches the elephant’s leg says it is a pillar or tree trunk, the one who feels the tail declares it to be a rope, and so on. But to unpack something like the financial crisis you can’t simply talk about securities, interest rates and banking regulation; to understand China’s activities in other parts of the world you need to be more than just a China specialist; to comprehend climate change you need science, economics, domestic and international politics, and more besides. To explain the world’s big phenomena you need to see (or feel) the whole elephant.
It’s a “wicked problem,” he admits, because the whole elephant can be a pretty big, tangled mess of ideas. But I think this is the way journalism should be and if he can tackle the whole elephant at his publication, perhaps others will start tackling the whole elephant too.