ALERT WARNING ALERT: Spoilers from the last episode of “Serial” below. STOP NOW if you don’t want to know how it ends.
Here’s my Journalism 101 question about “Serial“: If Sarah Koenig had done the exact same reporting without anyone seeing it, and she took what she found to NPR — or most any other publication — would they have published the story?
She didn’t find enough doubt to spring Adnan Syed. She didn’t find enough evidence against the mysterious Jay, or anyone else, to reopen the case of the murder of Hae Min Lee. She said what she believes — “most of the time, I think he didn’t do it” — but in the end, she had to shrug her shoulders.
At most publications, including the ones I’ve worked for, I think most people would’ve stuck her notes in a drawer and moved on.
“Serial” did it differently. I hope all of us in journalism are paying attention.
Historically, journalists have hidden our stories from the public before they’re ready. There are some good reasons for this:
1) You might decide not to do the story (see above).
2) You don’t want the subjects of the story to reshape it before it gets out.
3) You don’t want to get scooped by the competition.
The huge, brave risk “Serial” took is that it chose not to care about any of those things. Koenig and her colleagues started posting episodes without knowing where the story would lead, much less how it would end. The audience got to see all those frustrations and dead ends play out — and it turns out the very things we hide are what people are drawn to. Listeners built blogs and flooded Reddit with speculation as it went along. There was a podcast about the podcast. Some of those fans are probably disappointed today that there wasn’t a big reveal of the killer. A little part of me felt that way, too. But knowing they started the story on a tightrope made it a whole different experience. Even though the pieces were taped, it felt like a live show where anything could happen. In the finale, Koenig said she was getting new information right up until the moment she taped. I was half-expecting her to stop her own show halfway through with breaking news on the case.
These loose-ended stories happen all the time — it’s just that the outside world rarely sees them. Every reporter has stories where you can’t get the key people to talk, you can’t find some important document, you can’t figure out how to make it hang together. I once spent months researching a book idea that I loved, but there was one crucial fact that I came to decide I’d never be able to know. So I put the whole thing away.
But what makes a story a story is not just reaching the goal but overcoming the obstacles in the way. In one sense, every story is a detective story. The genius of “Serial” is how it let the audience in on the detective work of journalism. In that way it reminds me of my favorite story of all time, J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ.”
Of course, you have to understand that most detective stories are about the detective. The main character in “Serial” isn’t Adnan Syed. It’s Sarah Koenig. That’s a weird spot for most journalists. There’s no way to take yourself completely out of the story — every choice you make as a journalist is filtered through the way you see the world. Still, in general, we want the story to be about the people we’re writing about.
But I hope “Serial” widens the range of how traditional journalists think about how to do stories. Sometimes it’ll make sense to let readers in on the story early. Sometimes it’ll make sense to be more transparent about how you know what you know (and why you don’t know what you don’t know). Sometimes it’ll make sense to put the reporter at the center of the story, as a narrator trying to solve a mystery. Sometimes a few smart people in a newsroom will take that pile of notes that they can’t quite make whole, even though the story keeps them awake at night, and they’ll say: Let’s put it out there and see what happens.
“Serial” was solid journalism, it told a compelling story that got millions of us hooked, and it became the most popular podcast of all time. Seems like a good chance to take again.