1. The Storyteller
Primary motivation: Connecting people to each other and to issues that matter in their lives.
Patron saints: Michael Lewis, Lane DeGregory
Best compliment: “What a powerful lede.”
Strengths: Storytellers render dull material vivid, making broccoli taste like s’mores. In the hands of this journalist, even a mundane City Council meeting becomes a font of whimsy and intrigue. I’d argue this type of journalism has the most general appeal; almost anyone can relate to a good story. Plus, great stories and their characters and themes are likely to stick with you long after the facts themselves have faded from memory — handy fodder for your next cocktail party. I suspect most journalists fall into this type.
Potential pitfalls: Reality has a way of defying classical narrative conventions. As Tyler Cowen has argued eloquently, our zeal for stories can blind us to underlying empirical trends that are ultimately more important. We tend to turn political races, for example, into grand dramatic clashes between near-mythic characters with tragic, indelible flaws. But very often, the dynamics of a political race are mundane, driven by a complex mix of circumstances that a good story might obscure or oversimplify. If you need any more convincing about the dangers of stories, read Aaron Bady’s masterful essay connecting Jimmy McNulty, #Kony2012 and Mike Daisey.
2. The NewshoundPrimary motivation: Exposing facts that are hidden or unknown.
Patron saints: David Rogers, Renee Ferguson
Best compliment: “You landed a huge scoop.”
Strengths: Newshounds possess a relentless curiosity and drive that helps them constantly uncover new facts. Most investigative journalists probably lean in this direction. Although news is often a commodity in the age of Twitter, anyone who is regularly the first source of new information on a topic is likely to garner a large, loyal and influential audience.
Potential pitfalls: News has a tendency of crowding out context. We give outsized focus to novel information at the expense of known facts that might help us legitimately understand an issue better. At its worst, this tendency pushes us to gobble an everlasting stream of trivia without ever attending to the truly significant dynamics of a story.
3. The Systems AnalystPrimary motivation: Understanding the world and explaining it clearly.
Patron saints: David Leonhardt, Gina Kolata
Best compliment: “You helped me get the issue for the first time.”
Strengths: Systems Analysts have a gift for sniffing out root causes, key trends and important patterns that underpin a story. They prize themselves on cultivating genuine expertise, knowledge of a subject that lasts far beyond a news cycle. That degree of authority can inspire a loyal audience, as folks find themselves coming back again and again to get the journalist’s take on news developments.
Potential pitfalls: It can be difficult to write about systemic patterns in ways that are accessible to general audiences. Systems Analysts constantly have to be vigilant about not convening a conversation solely for wonks and insiders. They often have to fight against a tendency to focus on broad, empirical understanding without capturing the individual experiences that bring out the nuances in the data. It also takes time to foster deep, genuine understanding of a subject; the metabolism of that process cuts against the demands of the continuous news cycle.
4. The ProvocateurPrimary motivation: Revealing the many complex facets of the world.
Patron saints: Malcolm Gladwell, Bethany McLean
Best compliment: “That’s a fascinating insight I’d never thought of before.”
Strengths: Provocateurs surface distinctive ideas and angles, disrupting the natural tendency of media types to exhibit herd behavior. They spur us to think in new ways about a topic or to identify emerging trends or patterns that are worth keeping an eye on. They savor the feeling of covering an issue no one else has drawn attention to, or reporting on an angle nobody’s pursued yet. Provocateurs are particularly good at posing questions, poking at conventional wisdom in a way that encourages us to think critically about it.
Potential pitfalls: Originality ≠ insight. The desire for a fresh take can push a journalist into being pointlessly contrarian or spotting trends that don’t exist. Provocateurs have to be careful not to make too much out of outliers and exceptions. They also face the danger of latching onto an undercovered story in a way that alienates the public rather than drawing people in.
Excerpts from 4 types of journalists: How they tick and what we can learn from them
I consider myself to be a provocateur, you disagree? Tell me why.