The old building block of journalism — the article — is proving to be inadequate in the current onslaught of news. I’ll argue here that the new building block is the topic.
The story was all we had before — it’s what would fit onto a newspaper page or into a broadcast show. But a discrete and serial series of articles over days cannot adequately cover the complex stories going on now nor can they properly inform the public. There’s too much repetition. Too little explanation. The knowledge is not cumulative. Each instance is necessarily shallow. And when more big stories come — as they have lately! — in scarce time and space and with scarce resources, each becomes even shallower. We never catch up, we never get smarter. Articles perpetuate a Ground Hog Day kind of journalism.
Talking this over with some smart folks over the last few days — in one set of conversations about newspapers and online technology and in another conversation with NPR’s David Folkenflik for a story he’ll air shortly — I came to see that we haven’t yet created the proper elemental unit of coverage of stories like these.
Six years ago, in an insightful essay, Blogger cocreator Meg Hourihan wrote that the elemental unit of online media was no longer the publication or section or page or story but the post. I think that’s right: countless grains of information, thought, or opinion, each with its own permanent link so it can become connected to something larger — carbon atoms adding up to earth.
But that alone won’t work as an organizing principle for informing a world. It is the underlying base from which we have to start. But we have to add more value atop that shifting beach.
We have many tools to work with now, first and foremost the link. The link can take us to more or less background, depending on how much each of us needs, and to original source material and to many perspectives.
The link becomes more important than the brand in news. I said to Folkenflik last night that I never would have thought to go to This American Life as a brand to find the best explanation of the credit crisis, but I did. (Its reporters are working furiously on a sequel for this week’s show.) Lots of people discovered that report and spread the word around — with the link. The link changes everything.
I think the new building block of journalism needs to be the topic. I don’t mean that in the context of news site topic pages, which are just catalogues of links built to kiss up to Google SEO. Those are merely collections of articles, and articles are inadequate.
Instead, I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. It’s an aggregator that provides annotated links to experts, coverage, opinion, perspective, source material. It’s a discussion that doesn’t just blather but that tries to accomplish something (an extension of an article like this one that asks what options there are to bailout a bailout). It’s collaborative and distributed and open but organized.
Think of it as being inside a beat reporter’s head, while also sitting at a table with all the experts who inform that reporter, as everyone there can hear and answer questions asked from the rest of the room — and in front of them all are links to more and ever-better information and understanding.
This is the way to cover stories and life.
It’ s not an article, a story, a section, a bureau, a paper, a show. We have to use the new tools we have at hand to create new structures for covering news and informing each other. As I said in the post below, old structures are crumbling and new structures will be built in their place. We need to create that something new now.
What do we call it? I don’t know. The topic table. The beat bliki (ouch). The news brain. We’ll know what to call it when we see it.
: LATER: See Steve Yelvington on community memory and what he’s building.
Here’s Folkenflik’s story.