MANY years ago, I had occasion to ask myself what it was about the New York Times that really differentiated it from other newspapers. Of course, the NYT had a wonderful and plentiful staff and a dedication to very high quality journalism. But, I began to realize that it was their attitude toward stories that made the most difference. While other journalism was focused on covering the news, the Times seemed to feel it should interpret and create a context for the news.
It was during an early terrorism attack in New York, when all of journalism seemed focused on sirens, ambulances, police and injured people — that the New York Times asked the question “What is safety?” and “Are any of us safe anymore,anywhere?” And, I remember saying to my young staff at NPR’s All Things Considered, “If we adopt this ‘larger context’ attitude, can we get to the big picture sooner than the weekend oped pages do?”
So, on that day, when the other media carried the gruesome details of the bombing in New York, instead of talking to police and security officials, we at NPR talked with psychiatrists and others of that ilk … about personal safety and how people perceive and respond to it being jeopardized. It turned out that is where the rest of the media got … on Sunday. We got there first not because we had a larger or better staff, but because it became our first destination on the search for the story. It became “special” and gave us real differentiation from other media.
A former President of NPR once described it as a “high quality all-news stream.” I didn’t agree then nor do I now. Streams don’t have any particular destination; they just meander. I think a first-rate news organization can and does have a destination. It is to provide a context and meaning to the individual stories that otherwise … simply meander through our normal media.