Can 'Metajournalism' Save Old Media—and Unmask Trump? | Opinion

In the 1960s and 1970s, journalists gradually began writing more like novelists, framing their investigations using literary techniques more commonly found in fiction. The premise behind this development was a simple one: if journalists could get their readers to consume more journalism by giving them a more transportive experience—something closer to a "beach read" than homework—it would rescue journalism from the indifference of an audience increasingly drawn to banal televised entertainment. If hard facts and hard data had become too much like hard tack for world-weary readers to consume, they would become ensnared by journalists and journalistic-nonfiction authors luring them, instead, with a swirl of idiosyncratic personal observations, detailed accounts of scenery and furniture, and meandering dialogue. And so it was that America's newsreaders and political nonfiction readers increasingly found their journalistic materials filled with doodads from the fiction-writer's well-worn bag of tricks: character, action, plot, dialogue, exposition, summary, and description.

Traditionalists had good reason to be concerned. While the problem for the biggest cranks among them was perhaps just an aesthetic one—shouldn't fiction and journalism be two discrete writing genres, with different techniques and elements of craft?—the more discerning critics of what came to be called the "New Journalism" had a different objection. What would happen, they asked, to the educative purpose of journalistic writing, if readers found themselves drowning beneath a sea of pretty metaphors, scenery-chewing characters, and banal conversation? In short, doesn't turning nonfiction into fiction do a disservice to both?

This argument remains an active one in the Trump era. Donald Trump is the solo author of so many daily atrocities that even a week of the Trump presidency would take an epic the length of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace to detail. Given that most newsroom editors and trade-press publishers put their reporters and journalistic nonfiction authors (respectively) on fairly strict word-counts, isn't it the case that every time a journalist or political nonfiction writer describes how many chairs were in a room, and what color they were, and what inconsequential conversation two characters had as part of the buildup to an important bit of business, readers are literally "losing" valuable page-space? Put differently, does the Trump era afford journalists any time to waste on literary techniques when there's so much news to report?

I can offer, here, my own experience with all of this. Having been a journalist in one form or another at various media outlets since the mid-1990s, I became a "metajournalist" at the beginning of the Trump era not because I believed there was too little excellent conventional news reporting and long-form investigative journalism out there, but too much. That is, I believed that even an avid news-reader couldn't consume more than 10 percent of the superlative published journalistic writing on any subject. More than that, I believed my fellow journalists to be so overworked, underpaid, and under-supported within their media institutions that they no longer had the time, energy, or resources—despite the evident benefit to their work that it might bring—to fully immerse themselves in the archive of all prior investigative reports on the subjects they were investigating. How can a reporter on a tight deadline be expected to read hundreds of articles from around the world and going back decades on the subject of their present assignment? It was unreasonable and unfair to expect that sort of expertise from hard-working professionals who often must move on quickly (and in the Trump era, with near superhuman speed) to an entirely new event or even area of focus once they've filed their current report.

The metajournalist seeks to read every major-media article on a given topic—from news outlets around the world and going back decades—drawing from each one only that piece of information that makes it unique and unreplicable in the archive of information on a given subject. Using an associated journalistic writing and research method called "curatorial journalism," the metajournalist then arranges (curates) these sentences into the most coherent narrative possible. The result is paragraphs that are in a literal sense mechanical arrangements of report-like sentences, rather than organic, long-form writing focused on scene, character, and dialogue. When working in this mode, the metajournalist is tasked not only with doing as much curating as writing, but making curatorial decisions on the basis of connections between far-flung articles that would not have been evident to the authors of each article when they wrote them.

With metajournalism and curatorial journalism still in their early years, the temptation is to see such work as piggy-backing on "original reporting"—when in fact the goal of these new modes of journalistic production is to celebrate and augment the irreplaceable work of short-form hard-news reporters and long-form investigative reporters. Specifically, metajournalism has five chief ambitions: (1) to signal-boost reliable major-media reports, by the hundreds or even thousands, that otherwise would have been lost in the tsunami of daily news; (2) to amplify the significance of individual works of conventional journalism by showing how their reporting dovetails with work done by other journalists around the world and going back years; (3) to honor in each curated article that which is most newsworthy (that is, the piece's pure journalistic work product) while eschewing any material the journalist may have felt compelled to include just to make the journalism palatable to a bored or harried reading audience; (4) to provide, through ample end-noting, a guidebook for readers to locate the most reliable and fecund journalists and media institutions; and (5) to reveal in stark fashion the urgent metanarratives that the very best national and international journalism, taken in its totality, is trying to convey to its domestic and global readership—but too often is unable to impart for reasons outside the control of individual journalists.

Metajournalism produces works of political nonfiction without "cruft"—that is, unnecessary, immaterial, distracting content. A metajournalistic work reads like a report, not a novel, which may sound unappetizing until you realize that (a) metajournalism is almost exclusively used on topics that are already scintillatingly action-packed and of significant "general interest," and (b) the alternative is to lose groundbreaking international news for the sake of literary setpieces with only scattered newsworthy content. Would readers rather know how many chairs were in a room—or that one of the two men in the room had, six months earlier, tried to have the other one killed? We kid ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that journalistic page-space is precious gold: in the midst of a national emergency like the Trump presidency, words must not be squandered on non-newsworthy content. And if we're honest, quite often the "literary content" injected into works of political nonfiction isn't particularly entertaining, either—as career novelists tend to be better able to entertain readers in this particular way than nonfiction authors moonlighting as world-building storytellers.

In any case, it is incumbent upon today's book-purchasers to not only read samples of any books they're considering purchasing in advance, but in doing so to ask themselves the following question: forewords and introductions aside, when a book properly begins with the first page of Chapter 1, is it luxuriously spinning a yarn in the midst of a national crisis, or is it delivering tightly packed news? It's a difference discerning readers can train themselves to quickly spot.

Cynics will say that a harried American news-reading population is unlikely to read report-like epics on Trump's boundless corruption. I think the jury is still out on that, but as an optimist, I choose to believe that readers will ultimately prefer an astonishing and true and highly concentrated nonfictional narrative over one that is more diffuse and stylized and only intermittently urgent. While I'm trying to put my time and energy where my mind is on this—writing, in the last 18 months, 2,500 pages of political nonfiction on Trump's foreign policy (the "Proof" trilogy, comprising 2018's Proof of Collusion, 2019's Proof of Conspiracy, and the just-released Proof of Corruption)—I don't have to focus on my own research and writing to make the point about the promise of metajournalism and curatorial journalism.

Every night, for instance, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow incisively curates current and long-ago-published stories from dozens of media outlets to unfold for her viewers complex yet entirely accurate metanarratives that would otherwise be invisible. John Oliver does the same on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. For years, Jon Stewart did something similar—albeit through the lens of political satire—on The Daily Show. Indeed, some of the most masterfully entertaining and surprisingly viral and shareable journalistic content of the last fifteen years has come in the form of carefully curated metajournalism. The closer we look at this emerging subgenre of journalism, the more we find it everywhere; and where we find it, we find it thriving, with as large an audience as the New Journalism ever could have hoped for in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now more than ever, America should be celebrating its homegrown reportage and investigative journalism, and beyond that the many fine journalists who bring us both of these journalistic subgenres of research and communication. While certain of the infelicities of corporate media have not been conducive to the nation receiving the most effective or responsible coverage of the Trump administration—Trump plays upon every peccadillo of wall-to-wall, present-oriented, analyst- and entertainment-driven cable news coverage—the fact remains that no presidential administration in U.S. history has been as hard to cover as this one, and what our major-media organs have uncovered about Donald Trump and his political operatives on a daily basis is nothing short of astonishing. That Americans don't read most of it is partially due to our short attention spans, certainly, but much more so to the fact that a "vehicle" has not yet been found through which American news-readers can quickly and intelligently consume vast quantities of high-nutrient newsworthy content. In short, American journalism has great cooks and great ingredients and willing gourmands—but the table American journalism's patrons sit at is wobbly and the utensils are bent. Metajournalism can help reporters and investigative journalists to get their hard work where it needs to go, and in the format it will most readily be internalized and appreciated.

What works for Trump's limitless venality and perfidy will work too, we'll soon find, for other complex topics on which much conventional reporting is produced and very little of it curated, networked, and synthesized in compelling, flourish-free prose. Climate change, America's healthcare crisis, the history of police brutality in the United States, and our nation's endless wars abroad are ripe for epic works of metajournalism that condense into 600 pages the work product of thousands of major-media journalists from around the world. The only question is whether such work will be seen for what it is: an increasingly urgent partner to—and signal-boost for—superlative conventional reporting, not a replacement for it.

Seth Abramson is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at the University of New Hampshire and author of Proof Of Corruption (Macmillan, 2020). On Twitter @SethAbramson​.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.