Letting the reader in on the reporting process

Posted on November 29, 2010 by Janet Coats

As my family sat around me on Saturday night, watching a television, I was squinting at my iPhone, thoroughly engrossed in a New York Times story about an online purveyor of eyeglasses who was building business off of negative buzz.

The story was so fascinating I read all eight pages of it on my phone, and then handed it to my husband. “Here, you have to read this,’’ I nudged him.

The premise of the story – that a business drawing heavy negative comments from customers could parlay that volume into a leading position in Google results for relevance and popularity, thus drawing even more business – was absolutely fascinating. The phenomenon made perfect sense, when I considered it; it just wasn’t a concept I’d ever considered.

Clearly, I wasn’t alone in my fascination. On Monday afternoon, the story was still the third-most emailed on the Times website – and this on the day after the WikiLeaks story broke.

What was even more fascinating was the quality of the more than 300 comments the story drew. These were the best kind of comments – the kind that turn into a considered discussion. There were those who were appalled that this businessman could behave as he had with little consequence. And there were others who made a quite reasoned argument that those who are going to use search to find online vendors had best do some research into the business’ reputation before handing over a credit card.

Part of what drew readers to the story was the subject matter, and the timing. At this point, you pretty much have to live in a cave not to have committed some kind of act of commerce online. And the holidays draw even those of us who are infrequent online shoppers to the Internet for convenience or to search for an elusive gift. The story resonated; many readers had to be thinking, “ Could this happen to me? Am I careful enough about how I shop online?”

Beyond the relevance test, though, there was something else that spoke to me. The voice of the story gave it real authenticity.

Usually, The New York Times – and most traditional newspapers – speak in the Voice of God. That is, you don’t see the reporter or hear him talk about his methodology.  Traditional journalists have been trained to think that this approach gives them authority – the authority of objectivity.

What I loved about this story was that we did hear reporter in it, and the way he used his voice was just masterful.

Reporter David Segal drew you into the story with the rather traditional premise of a consumer watchdog piece: Meet a person, much like you, who has had this awful experience with a purchase and has fallen into a bureaucratic nightmare where no one is responding to her plight.

As the story progresses, Segal starts to let the reader in on some of the questions he’s asking but not getting answers to. He starts to draw back the curtain a little, laying out the inquiries he’s making and the frustration of getting either no responses or inadequate ones.

And then, halfway through the story, he introduces the reader to the online businessman in question. And he does it in first person, telling the reader “I am standing’’ on the man’s doormat as he attempts to talk to him face-to-face.

He succeeds, and what ensues is an account of their conversation – and it reads just like that. It doesn’t read like an interview. It doesn’t read like reported material. It reads like you are listening in on a conversation – a conversation that the reporter clearly finds as incredulous as you do as a reader. Mr. Segal has been a regular contributor to the radio program “This American Life,’’ and reading this story felt like radio, like hearing someone tell you a fantastic tale. Reading along, you could almost hear Segal’s aside: “And if you think that’s something, wait until I tell you this!”

Commenters on the story talked about what a great piece of investigative journalism this is, and I agree. But I think what resonated wasn’t just the facts Segal dug out; it was the way he included all of us as readers in that digging. It felt real, it felt authentic, and we felt invested in what he was learning.

As I’ve been contemplating voice in these last few posts, I’ve been asking myself whether voice really matters that much in a world where data increasingly is the coin of the realm. A piece like this one is a good reminder that it isn’t just the data; it’s involvement and investment in where the data leads – in how you tell the story --  that makes journalism a distinct and worthwhile craft.

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