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From AJR,   June/July 2009  issue

A License to Experiment   

A popular Washington Post columnist moves from writing to heading an innovative multimedia reporting team. Online Exclusive posted 6/4/09 12:32p.m.


By Priya Kumar
Priya Kumar (2priyak@gmail.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     

For nine years, the Washington Post's Marc Fisher has been on a "hugely fun ride," writing a popular column for the paper's Metro section, blogging and engaging in online chats with readers. He didn't plan to turn off that road. But then he came up with an idea for a new position that he ultimately found irresistible.

Starting this month, Fisher will carve a new path as he heads the Post's new Local Enterprise Team, a group of eight to 10 Post journalists with a license to "experiment like crazy" to blend storytelling mediums, explore story techniques and build reader involvement.

The team will be part of the Post's Local desk, which is overseen by Local Editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz.

The team's first project, a photo blog called "Half a Tank: Along Recession Road," debuted this week. Photographer Michael Williamson and writer Theresa Vargas are driving around the D.C. region and across the country, putting human faces on the nation's dismal economic news. This reporting will lead to deeper newspaper features, Fisher says.

Readers are invited to share their own stories and encouraged to suggest where the pair should travel and what they should cover.

Increased collaboration with readers is a central focus of the venture. Using social media, the team will issue status reports to update readers and seek input as stories evolve. This isn't citizen journalism, nor is it a hyperlocal experiment, Fisher says. It's an attempt to open the journalistic process and allow the audience to help shape the news it consumes.

The content the team produces will include narratives and serials, using scene and dialogue to tell the stories of people directly affected by the news of the day, Fisher says. "The best stories are always those that go micro," he says. "They're macro in meaning and micro in example."

Fisher also wants to explore non-story forms of presenting information. The team will develop primers that aggregate background information on broad subject areas. Reporters or experts might annotate a judicial opinion or a politician's speech and post it online. Large graphics explaining complex issues, which would be too unwieldy for the Web, will run in the newspaper.

Fisher, 50, who joined the Post in 1986 after a stint at the Miami Herald, expects some of the team's undertakings to fail, but that doesn't bother him, "because that will mean that we're trying new things and we're breaking the mold."

The idea emerged from talks between Fisher and Post Managing Editor Liz Spayd about elevating local coverage and bridging what Spayd calls "a gap between what really animates people's lives and what they read about in our coverage."

Content with the "luxury" of a column that let him cover what he wanted and relate directly with readers, Fisher didn't propose the new gig for himself. But Spayd thought he would be the ideal person to do the job. Her suggestion got him thinking, and the prospect began to excite him.

So what finally pulled him away? A desire, he says, to "give some of my colleagues a chance to break out of the doom and gloom that is so much with us in the business these days and get back to what brought us here, which is the chance to do kick-ass journalism."

Priya Kumar (pkumar@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.