What makes a good piece of journalism?
What makes an article not only worth reading, but nearly timeless?
“Most good journalism has staying power. The best journalism has the staying power of decades,” says Robert Cottrell, editor and creator of The Browser.
Each day, Cottrell reads through dozens of articles, trying to find pieces of writing that he believes will still be relevant and worth reading in a day’s time, or a month’s, or a year’s.
He sends out a daily newsletter with five of the best pieces of writing, providing subscribers to his website and digital newsletter a sampling of journalism they might not otherwise see through all the clutter.
The Browser originated as a curation site. “We gave quite a lot of thought as to whether we should be producing original writing,” Cottrell says.
The site has been available for about a decade, and he and his small team decided that they would “add the most value by helping people to discover and identify stuff that’s going to be really rewarding for them to read.”
Cottrell sees The Browser not as an aggregator but more like a curated newsletter, though he’s hesitant to use that word. “I think of a curator as someone who works in an art gallery. I would like to think that we’re doing the same sort of service that, let’s say, a music critic or theater critic does. We see what’s being done, we see what’s going on and we try to explain to people why the best of it is as good as it is and why it’s worth their time and money.”
So what’s his barometer for the pieces he includes?
“I stop and think: is this going to be as good to read in a year’s time as it is today? I think we tend to under-value the staying power of good journalism,” Cottrell says. “We’ve lived for decades with newspapers whose business model has required them to persuade that today’s paper is fantastic and yesterday’s is for wrapping your fish and chips. … It’s a good sort of mental test to say what’s this going to look like in a year.”
Most of the pieces he highlights, as a result, tend to be thought pieces, ones not immediately tied up in the news of the day.
“Originality is the thing,” he says. “It can come with a light touch. A writer I admire greatly is Tyler Cowen, of The Marginal Revolution. He can turn a brilliant, original insight, which probably came to him like that. He can distill that into 3,000 words, yet there may be more – there’s very likely to be more wisdom in those 300 words than in almost anything else that’s 3,000 words. Length is not a factor. Humor is always a plus. A light touch is to be welcomed.”
Robert Cottrell, editor and founder of The Browser, joins producer Michael O’Connell to explain the difference between being a content aggregator and a curator and why the best and most lasting journalism isn’t likely to be focused on the day’s events.