Would you pay money to read a story about a tweet?

Why we need reader-funded journalism

Ben Wolford

Earlier this week*, a train crashed in Philadelphia. One of the 238 passengers was a violinist in the Washington National Opera. After evacuating the train, she took a picture of the car and wrote “@AmtrakNEC @Amtrak thanks a lot for derailing my train. Can I please get my violin back from the 2nd car of the train?” Just another annoyed commuter venting her frustration on Twitter. When I saw her tweet, I thought, “Yeah, I wonder how everyone will get their stuff back.”

Not everybody saw it that way. One woman told the violinist: “I hope you get your violin back from under the bleeding people. Good luck!” We don’t know if the violinist knew there were bleeding people, or that several of her fellow passengers were already dead. After a few hours in the stocks, she deleted her Twitter account.

I mention this story because I see an urgent need for patience and imagination. Patience, because it takes deliberate time to understand something, consider it and respond. Imagination, because nothing is exactly as it immediately appears. Those who presumed the woman heartless — rather than, say, shaken or uninformed about the severity of the crash — have branded her so. Just Google “train violin.”

Meanwhile, the news organizations whose articles populate that Google search have shown they care more about clicks than the harm they’re doing. The reporters and editors who allowed those stories to be posted should have understood this tweet was not a story. If they’d used their imaginations, they might have considered how horrified and ashamed the violinist must feel — and that their story would do more harm than good.

What does any of this have to do with the current issue of Latterly?

For one, the click-funded journalism model is failing readers because clicks are cheap. Luckily, subscription-funded journalism, like the work in this magazine, seems to be taking its place. This is good for everyone because it raises the standard of quality: Would you pay money to read a story about a tweet?

And two, even in stories that have been deeply reported and explained over thousands of words, there is ambiguity. You’ll find it in our two features, and you may find it in our Reading List. When our reporter in Vietnam asked a young woman how she felt, she couldn’t answer. Though our obligation is to try to understand, we never will. Not entirely, anyway. Uncertainty is human.

Do you always know what you think? Do you always say, or tweet, what you mean?

*This essay originally appeared in the May issue of Latterly, a reader-funded digital magazine of international storytelling. Subscriptions cost $3 per month.

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