Posts about process

The article as luxury or byproduct

A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.

* See the amazing Brian Stelter covering the Joplin tornado and begging his desk at The Times to turn his tweets into a story because he had neither the connectivity nor the time to do it in the field and, besides, he was too busy doing something more precious: reporting. (It’s a great post, a look at a journalist remaking his craft. Highly recommended for journalists and journalism students particularly.) (And aren’t you proud of me for not drawing the obvious and embarrassing comparison to Times editor Bill Keller’s Luddite trolling about Twitter even as his man in Twitter, Stelter, proves what a valuable tool it is?)

* In Canada’s recent election, Postmedia (where—disclosure—I am an advisor) had its reporters on the bus do nothing but reporting, putting up posts and photos and videos and snippets as they went, keeping coverage going all day, maximizing their value in the field. Back at HQ, a “twin” would turn that into a narrative — as blog posts — when appropriate. At the end of the day, the twin would also turn out a story for print, though everything had pretty much been done earlier; this was more an editing than a writing task. I asked my Postmedia friends what had to be done to turn the posts into an article. Mostly, they said, it meant adding background paragraphs (those great space-wasters that can now be rethought of as links to regularly updated background wikis, don’t you think?).

* At South by Southwest, the Guardian’s folks talked about their steller live-blogging. Ian Katz, the deputy editor, said that live-blogging — devoting someone to a story all day — was expensive. I said that writing articles is also expensive. He agreed. There’s the choice: Some news events (should we still be calling them stories?) are better told in process. Some need summing up as articles. That is an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps.

* Of course, I need to point to Andy Carvin’s tweeting and retweeting of the Arab Spring. He adds tremendous journalistic value: finding the nodes and networks of reliable witnesses; questioning and vetting what they say; debunking rumors; adding perspective and context; assigning his audience tasks (translating, verifying a photos’ location); even training witnesses and audiences (telling them what it really means to confirm a fact). What he does never results in an article.

* I’ve been talking with some people about concepts for reorganizing news organizations around digital and I keep calling on John Paton’s goal to keep in the field and maximize the two things that add value — reporting and sales — and to make everything else more efficient through consolidation or outsourcing. As I was talking to someone else about this, it occurred to me that in some — not all — cases, not only editing and packaging but even writing could be done elsewhere, as Postmedia did in its election experiment. I’m not talking about complex stories from beat people who understand topics and need to write what they report from their earned understanding. I’m talking about covering an event or a meeting, for example. The coverage can come from a reporter and in some cases from witnesses’ cameras and quotes. The story can be written elsewhere by someone who can add value by compiling perspectives and facts from many witnesses and sources. It harkens back to the days of newspaper rewritemen (I was one).

Carry this to the extreme — that’s my specialty — and we see witnesses everywhere, some of them reporters, some people who happen to be at a news event before reporters arrive (and now we can reach them via Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare….), some who may be participants but are sharing photos and facts via Twitter. Already on the web, we see others — bloggers — turn these distributed snippets into narratives: posts, stories, articles.

The bigger question all this raises is when and whether we need articles. Oh, we still do. Articles can make it easy to catch up on a complex story; they make for easier reading than a string of disjointed facts; they pull together strands of a story and add perspective. Articles are wonderful. But they are no longer necessary for every event. They were a necessary form for newspapers and news shows but not the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital. Sometimes, a quick update is sufficient; other times a collection of videos can do the trick. Other times, articles are good.

I’ve been yammering on for a few years about how news is a process more than a product. These episodes help focus what that kind of journalism will look like — and what the skills of the journalist should be.

The accepted wisdom of journalism and its schools was that storytelling was our real job, our high calling, our real art. Ain’t necessarily so. The accepted wisdom of blogging has been that now any of us can do everything: report and write, producing text and audio and video and graphics and packaging and distributing it all. But I also see specialization returning with some people reporting, others packaging. Can we agree to a new accepted wisdom: that the most precious resource in news is reporting and so maximizing the acquisition of facts and answers is what we need?

So what is an article? An article can be a byproduct of the process. When digital comes first and print last, then the article is something you need to put together to fill the paper; it’s not the goal of the entire process. The process is the goal of the process: keeping the public constantly informed.

An article can be a luxury. When a story is complex and has been growing and changing, it is a great service to tie that into a cogent and concise narrative. But is that always necessary? Is it always the best way to inform? Can we always afford the time it takes to produce articles? Is writing articles the best use of scarce reporting resources?

In a do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem, if someone else has written a good article (or background wiki) isn’t it often more efficient to link than to write? Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?

We write articles for many reasons: because the form demands it, because we want the bylines and ego gratification, because we are competitive, because we had to. Now we should write articles when necessary.

This new structure changes not only the skills but likely the character of the journalist. These days when I see young journalists talk only about their passion to write and tell stories, I worry for them that they will find fewer jobs and less of a calling. But when I hear journalists say that their passion is to report, to dig up facts, to serve and inform the community by all means possible, I feel better. When I hear a journalist talk about collaboration with that community as the highest art, then I get happy.

Let the record show that I am not declaring the article useless or dead. Just optional.

: Seconds after I posted this to Twitter, Chad Catacchio said that by the time the article is written, its’ not news, it’s history (albeit the fabled first draft).

: If you came to this post via Mathew Ingram’s response, please note that I adamantly disagree with his characterization of what I say. See my comment under Facebook comments at the end of his post.

: LATER: Jonathan Glick has a smart take on this notion, arguing that nuggets of news will be delivered as nuggets, freeing journalists to write analyses, adding their value, without the burden of conveying the latest.

There is nothing sacred about the article for the transmission of news. It is a logical way of packaging information for a daily print run of a newspaper and a useful format around which to sell display advertising. It has survived into the Internet age for reasons of tradition and the absence of better formats. We have come to accept it as a fundamental atom of news communication, but it’s not. Given faster, easier alternatives, the article no longer makes sense to mobile users for consuming news.

News will go one way, into the stream as scannable updates, and analysis will go the other, toward a new long-form business model for writers. I believe it will be a happy divorce.

I like his take except for this notion that journalism will be defined by length. I find “long-form” to be often used in a rather self-indulgent way: I want to write a lot, it says, and I want you to read it all. Now I know that’s now what Glick is saying; he’s saying that one must have a lot to say, a lot to add. But I think we need another way to describe that than by the inch, for I’m sure we’ve all known too many writers who like to write more than inform.

: Amy Gahran has a very nice piece — not just because she agrees with me — whose subhed begins:

he cutting room floor of journalism is a sad place: all those facts, interviews, asides, anecdotes, context, insights, and media gathered during reporting which, while relevant and interesting, just doesn’t fit comfortably into the narrative flow or length/time limits of the finished story.

This doesn’t merely represent wasted time and reporting effort. Many of those scraps are missed opportunities to engage readers and gain search visibility or links…

Well-said. She argues that we need to look at assembling news the way we play with Legos and we need CMSes that will do that (Storify is a start).

Media after the site

Tweet: What does the post-page, post-site, post-media media world look like? @stephenfry, that’s what.

The next phase of media, I’ve been thinking, will be after the page and after the site. Media can’t expect us to go to it all the time. Media has to come to us. Media must insinuate itself into our streams.

I’ve been trying to imagine what that would be and then I was Skype-chatting with Nick Denton (an inspirational pastime I’ve had too little of lately) and he knew exactly what it looks like:


Spot on. Fry insinuated himself into my stream. He comes to us. We distribute him. He has been introduced to and acquired new fans. He now has a million followers, surely more than for any old web site of his. He did it by his wit(s) alone. His product is his ad, his readers his agency. How will he benefit? I have full faith that he of all people will find the way to turn this into a show and a book. He is media with no need for media. I was trying to avoid using Aston Kutcher as my example, but he’s on the cover of Fast Company making the same point: “He intends to become the first next-generation media mogul, using his own brand as a springboard…. ‘The algorithm is awesome,’ Kutcher says…”

That’s media post-media.

This view of the future makes it all the more silly and retrograde for publishers like Murdoch to complain about the value of the readers Google sends to them. Who says readers will or should come to us at all? We were warned of this future by that now-legendary college student who said in Brian Stelter’s New York Times story (which foretold the end of the medium in which it appeared): “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

If a page (and a site) become anything, it will be a repository, an archive, a collecting pool in which to gather permalinks and Googlejuice: an article plus links plus streams of comments and updates and tweets and collaboration via tools like Wave. Content will insinuate itself into streams and streams will insinuate themselves back into content. The great Mandala.

The notion of the stream takes on more importance when you think about your always-connected and always-on device, whatever the hell you call it (phone, tablet, netbook, eyeglasses, connector….). I recently saw a telecommunications technology exec show off a prototype of a screen he says will be here in a year or so that not only has color and full-motion video and can be seen in ambient light but that takes so little power that it can and will be on all the time. So rather than hitting that button on the iPhone to see what’s new, your post-phone post-PC device is always on and always connected. You don’t sneak it under the table to turn it on now and again. You leave it on the table and it constantly streams.

Is that stream news? Only a small portion of your stream – whatever you want, whatever you allow in – will be. Just as publishers’ news is only a small portion of the value of what Google returns in search, we mustn’t be so hubristic to think that the streams flowing by readers’ eyes will be owned, controlled, and filled by media with what they declare to be news. They will be filled with life.

The real value waiting to be created in the stream-based web is prioritization. That’s part of what Clay Shirky is driving at when he talks about algorithmic authority and what Marissa Mayer talks about when she says news streams will be hyperpersonal. The opportunity in news is not to try to mass-prioritize it for everyone at once – impossible! – but to help each of us do it. To make that work, it will have to be personal and personal will scale only if it’s algorithmic and the algorithm will work only if we trust and value what it delivers. So how do you learn enough about me, who I am, what I do, and what I need so you can solve my personal filter failure and show me the emails and tweet and updates and, yes, news I’ll most want to read? What tricks can you bring to bear, as Google did and Facebook did: the wisdom of a crowd – perhaps my crowd? the value of editors still?

So imagine this future without pages and sites, this future that’s all built on process over product. If you’re what used to be a content-creation – if you’re Stephen Fry, post-media – you’re all about insinuating yourself into that stream. If you’re about content curation – formerly known as editing – then you’re all about prioritizing streams for people; that’s how you add value now.

Getting people to come to you so you can tell them what you say they should know while showing them ads they didn’t want from advertisers who bear the cost and risk of the entire experience? That’s just so 2008. Now it’s time to go with the stream.

WWGD – The videos (3)

Another two videos from the aborted v-book edition of What Would Google Do?:

In this, I recreate at my whiteboard slides some of you have seen about a process v product view of our emerging world:

And introducing Schwagman: