From the general to the specific: do we need Curling Correspondents?

By: Rob Corbidge, 15 February 2024

A man curling on ice at the Olympics, photorealistic

No major newsroom roster used to be complete without at least one generalist reporter. As the demand for niche expertise rises, is generalism now under threat?

Having the ability to grasp a subject quickly, locate the right people to talk to about it, get the story out promptly - while all the time being aware of the limits of your knowledge, and your readers' knowledge - and so making sure your audience are briefed and not misinformed, is the essence of the skill of the generalist reporter.

And it's quite a skill, not least because you're often starting with a cold contact book.

This generalist expertise is traditionally contrasted to the specialist reporter, ranging from someone being tasked with a topic as broad as education, as complex as the reinsurance market, or as exotic as Curling (essentially ice bowling, for the unfamiliar). 

Equally, a specialist generalist can exist. 

As a junior reporter, I was put in to fly alongside the newsroom's best "nuts and bolts" writer for a time. This "nuts and bolts" phrase came from an experienced news editor, who recognised this particular journalist's ability to understand technical technical and scientific processes (a breakthrough in fusion reactors, for example) and to then translate, simplify, and make it interesting for a non-specialist audience without losing the vital details.

Specialist reporters bring another interesting hazard. Prolonged exposure to a particular area of interest can see them begin to identify with the people they talk to in that area, and less with their own newsroom. It's not common, but it can happen. One might call it over-absorption.

In smaller operations of course, nearly everyone is a generalist. Regional or local news is still the training ground for many reporters, and once your day has involved covering everything from a dog race, to an arson attack, to a lost cuddly toy, then you start to round out as a journalist. Or quit.

So what are we to make of an interview with Medium's CEO Tony Stubblebine in which he refers to the staff costs of skilled journalists: "It’s expensive to write about things that you don’t already know. That’s why journalists have to be paid a lot to get a high quality piece up. The reporting is really time intensive."

Medium of course thrives on its contributing writers - as Stubblebine himself points out, its most popular single such piece of content in the last quarter was by former US president Barack Obama. 

It's also not an either/or situation. 

Stubblebine was referring to the expense of having a fully staffed editorial floor, something Medium in fact tried in an earlier iteration. Instead, it now plays to the strength of having (hopefully) expert and incentivised writers and a platform that means if a piece is popular, then the writer is paid to reflect that, but ideally without the writing fee being their primary income source. 

Experts writing about their expertise for the good of all, again, in an ideal Medium world. Stubblebine points out that "stuff that makes me feel like Medium is singing for big audiences is tech and self-improvement".

What is the value of direct-from-expert content? I'd offer two truths: everything you read is correct until it's about something that you actually know about. And, many experts offer a surprisingly one-dimensional view.

A skilled and experienced journalist will understand one primary thing - what is important in a story to their readership. Good news journalists use words sparingly in writing, don't lead their audience up blind or incomplete informational paths and most importantly, aren't the primary voice in the content, or any kind of voice.

The reality of the situation is that such good journalists cost money and require some years of actually doing the job to become fully competent. 

Time is money and money is not on the side of the news industry right now, yet the value of such skills will rise once again. 

Skills are not platform dependent.