Harvard Political Review: What do you think has been the most significant or under-recognized shift in journalism that you’ve seen over the course of your career?
Robert Costa: The biggest shift is that instead of writing daily stories, the goal now is to write literary, narrative non-fiction on politics 24/7, sharing the story with readers as much as possible all the time, and not leaving things in the notebook. If you know it’s accurate and you know it’s interesting, you have to share it with your readers.
That’s the big transition; a lot of journalists used to hold back information, hold back background information. You would maybe save it for a Sunday piece in the New York Times, you’d save it for a longer piece in National Review. The way journalism is moving now, and I think it’s really driven by Twitter, though Twitter is not the only place it’s happening. The story isn’t just your byline anymore—it’s about how you talk about what you know.
HPR: Do you think that digital media is going to render print media extinct?Do you think it’s economically feasible to continue those long stories in a print format where you’re limited for space?
RC: I think it has so little to do now with the actual medium. It’s about the content, and I think regardless of how print may be fading, quality of content is still so key. There’s still a huge appetite still for long reads.
You see it on Twitter all the time. People want to read long, in-depth stories—reported stories. I think there’s a hunger for good, original reporting, and it’s just how people get that reporting.
HPR: Dan Froomkin recently published an op-ed for Al Jazeera criticizing the American media of seeming to seek too much neutrality, or failing to assign Republicans blame for the shutdown crisis. How did you think the coverage was? Was it fair to both parties?
RC: I think reporters shouldn’t always have to aim to be fair to both parties, in terms of structuring a piece, since wrap stories or broad takes are on the wane. Instead, what matters is getting the news right and being fresh with information. I think Froomkin’s point has some valid aspects, but too often if you read a story it’s boring. It’s a balance of a right perspective, a left perspective, and this kind of gray, middle analysis that’s the spine of the story. That’s old journalism. That’s dead, that model of story writing.
What matters now is: can you capture how power is used? Can you capture the power brokers—how decisions are made and why? Everyone now gets the big picture, the broad story. They already know the story, so you have to engage readers now at a micro-level, and bring them in and add color, add detail.
What’s increasingly important is how you’re writing for a core audience that knows politics, and you assume they know a lot of things. So you don’t need to spend all this time explaining context.
HPR: But where do you think the average consumer of media turns to get that fundamental explanation?
RC: I think the big shift right now is they’re turning away from brands in the media to individual personalities. People now are following individual writers and reporters and editors on Twitter rather than following the Washington Post or the New York Times or the National Review. So the integrity and the reputation and trust of a writer is becoming more and more important as they become the way people share and get information—through a writer rather than some kind of bigger organization. That’s a noticeable trend, and why it’s so important for you to keep up that integrity as a reporter.
HPR: What does that integrity entail? Are you obliged to present both sides?
RC: I’m not obliged to present anything. There’s no rules right now. The only thing that matters is trust, and you have to have judgment. There’s a 24/7 media environment. There are no guidelines. There are no rules. So your information has to be good.
You’re almost contributing every single tweet and story toward a longer story about your beat that is always evolving.
HPR: Who do you turn to for news?
RC: I try to balance. I’m on Twitter constantly, and that’s my newsfeed. But I still go to some key analysts and writers I really enjoy. I try on the weekends to read the New York Times weekend edition at least in print, read the Wall Street Journal Saturday edition, read the Washington Post weekend edition, but that’s really the only time I read print. And I still like to read the New Republic, the Nation, the National Review of course, and read magazines.
But it’s every day that I’m going to individual authors. I want to hear what Dan Balz of the Washington Post has to say, or Dave Weigel at Slate or Ezra Klein at the Washington Post. The people I’m really interested in now are more reporter analysts. Some of the older reporters who just cover specific beats can be very dry, and they’re often not sharing things in a way that’s compelling.
I like people who share information in a compelling way.
This interview has been edited and condensed. The HPR thanks the John F. Kennedy JR Forum for its assistance in arranging this interview.
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