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Lessons on Blogging from Jon Stewart

The New York Times today has a fascinating profile of Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, entitled Is This The Most Trusted Man in America? The article is a wonderful celebration of the person and the spirit of the show he’s created.

But perhaps more interestingly in the internet context, this article is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of journalism. It shows how the informality and attitude that we take as characteristic of blogging can be combined with the tough-mindedness, research, and craft that is displayed by the best investigative reporters.

Let’s start with passion about stuff that matters, something top bloggers and top journalists ought to have in their genes:

MR. STEWART describes his job as “throwing spitballs” from the back of the room and points out that “The Daily Show” mandate is to entertain, not inform. Still, he and his writers have energetically tackled the big issues of the day — “the stuff we find most interesting,” as he said in an interview at the show’s Midtown Manhattan offices, the stuff that gives them the most “agita,” the sometimes somber stories he refers to as his “morning cup of sadness.” And they’ve done so in ways that straight news programs cannot: speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language, while using satire and playful looniness to ensure that their political analysis never becomes solemn or pretentious.

“Hopefully the process is to spot things that would be grist for the funny mill,” Mr. Stewart, 45, said. “In some respects, the heavier subjects are the ones that are most loaded with opportunity because they have the most — you know, the difference between potential and kinetic energy? — they have the most potential energy, so to delve into that gives you the largest combustion, the most interest. I don’t mean for the audience. I mean for us. Everyone here is working too hard to do stuff we don’t care about.”

Much like blogging, a key to the show’s success is its authentic, personal voice, and its ability to synthesize news with viewpoint:

Ms. Corn [the show's executive co-producer] noted that while things “may be exaggerated on the show, it’s grounded in the way Jon really feels.”

“He really does care,” she added. “He’s a guy who says what he means.”

Unlike many comics today, Mr. Stewart does not trade in trendy hipsterism or high-decibel narcissism. While he possesses Johnny Carson’s talent for listening and George Carlin’s gift for observation, his comedy remains rooted in his informed reactions to what Tom Wolfe once called “the irresistibly lurid carnival of American life,” the weird happenings in “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping Baroque” country.

“Jon’s ability to consume and process information is invaluable,” said Mr. Colbert. He added that Mr. Stewart is “such a clear thinker” that he’s able to take “all these data points of spin and transparent falsehoods dished out in the form of political discourse” and “fish from that what is the true meaning, what are red herrings, false leads,” even as he performs the ambidextrous feat of “making jokes about it” at the same time.

But there’s also a lesson for bloggers that the show, however personal, is finely honed, with lots of research:

“We often discuss satire — the sort of thing he does and to a certain extent I do — as distillery,” Mr. Colbert continued. “You have an enormous amount of material, and you have to distill it to a syrup by the end of the day. So much of it is a hewing process, chipping away at things that aren’t the point or aren’t the story or aren’t the intention. Really it’s that last couple of drops you’re distilling that makes all the difference. It isn’t that hard to get a ton of corn into a gallon of sour mash, but to get that gallon of sour mash down to that one shot of pure whiskey takes patience” as well as “discipline and focus.”

And:

The day begins with a morning meeting where material harvested from 15 TiVos and even more newspapers, magazines and Web sites is reviewed. That meeting, Mr. Stewart said, “would be very unpleasant for most people to watch: it’s really a gathering of curmudgeons expressing frustration and upset, and the rest of the day is spent trying to mask or repress that through whatever creative devices we can find.”

The writers work throughout the morning on deadline pieces spawned by breaking news, as well as longer-term projects, trying to find, as Josh Lieb, a co-executive producer of the show, put it, stories that “make us angry in a whole new way.” By lunchtime, Mr. Stewart (who functions as the show’s managing editor and says he thinks of hosting as almost an afterthought) has begun reviewing headline jokes. By 3 p.m. a script is in; at 4:15, Mr. Stewart and the crew rehearse that script, along with assembled graphics, sound bites and montages. There is an hour or so for rewrites — which can be intense, newspaper-deadlinelike affairs — before a 6 o’clock taping with a live studio audience.

What the staff is always looking for, Mr. Stewart said, are “those types of stories that can, almost like the guy in ‘The Green Mile’ ” — the Stephen King story and film in which a character has the apparent ability to heal others by drawing out their ailments and pain — “suck in all the toxins and allow you to do something with it that is palatable.”

What a call to action! What a way forward for all of those trying to understand the future of news! Point of view fused with fact checking, bluntness and informality fused with ruthless editing, a humanistic vision that acts as a filter to make sure that the stories covered actually matter!

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  • Reedo

    The future of news is piggy-backing on the work of actual reporters, then conveying a cynical slice of it with a dose of opinion (no matter what the opinion is)?

    There’s certainly a place for that, and it’s fun (and, yes, informative) to watch, but “news” it isn’t.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Reedo – Isn’t that what most current media does? How much of the news in your local paper comes from AP or Reuters or is reprinted from the few papers that do original journalism? How much TV news is sourced from original reporting?

    There is a lot of original reporting in blogging, too. If I want to follow Web 2.0 startups, I go to techcrunch or readwriteweb because they do a good job of covering that space. If I want to follow mobile, I follow jan chipchase, because he’s on the front lines of the revolution around the world.

    It’s easy to dismiss blogging by pointing to its weakest examples. You can do the same with mainstream journalism.

    But both have good points and bad. The future is to synthesize what is best about each.

  • Reedo

    Quite right, Tim. It’s true that most big news stories come off the “wire”. That’s one of the big reasons why I don’t feel that I miss much by getting news through the Web. (Though the local paper is still pretty much my only source for local news–aside from gossip.)

    It’s also true that blogging’s great for quick, first-hand accounts by experts. I almost feel that I can vicariously attend some tech conferences through bloggers. I realize it’s not the same as being there, but it’s much cheaper in time and money.

    I very much agree that mainstream journalism’s record isn’t uniformly good.

    My concern is that people retain the critical ability to assimilate unbiased facts for themselves, without relying on opinionated intermediaries. Obviously, it’s idealistic to think that news sources can be completely objective in reporting, but it’s what democracies should strive toward. Commentary is commentary, news is news.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Consider the fact that the first act of commentary is the choice of what stories you consider important, and you realize that the ideal of unbiased reporting is a myth. What journalists do, which many bloggers have yet to learn, is to consult multiple sources and do fact checking before blurting out a story. But what bloggers do, which journalists have yet to learn, is to wear their biases on their sleeve, rather than pretending they don’t exist.

  • http://madbaker.com/ Mark Dyck

    My feed reader must be on delay mode as I’m reading it well after you posted it, but the timing is perfect for me. Just watched a couple editions of the Daily Show (not a show I often watch) and finished up some writing of my own for a local website I’m involved with.

    I love it when a post explains my own experience so directly! The distillery metaphor is exactly what I’ve been going through with my writing this long weekend. It will be a good motivator for my on-again-off-again blogging.