News articles as assets and paths

This is the start of a new project I’m working on to brainstorm new forms, relationships, and (business) models for news. Responding to a current discussion on Twitter among @AntDeRosa, @felixsalmon, @jayrosn_nyu & @davewiner about the form of articles, I’m posting it here. The discussion started when Jay challenged Anthony, as a representative of Reuters, about the service’s article on the Facebook IPO: “Should be a sign on this story: ‘written so people who aren’t in the investor class cannot understand it.'” I said that the story needs a link to an explainer (which Jay has written about), because background paragraphs necessarily ill-serve everyone: too little for the novice, too much for the expert, they were an invention that fit the necessity of our means of production and distribution. I say we should link to more elements than just backgrounders. Let’s reinvent the article. To wit…

I come not to kill the article but to praise it. Machined to near-perfection over a century of production, the article is perfectly suited to its form: headline and lede imparting the latest — the news; nut graf delivering the essence of the story and telling us why we should bother reading the rest; background graf bringing us up to speed; timelines to set context; catalogues of issues and players; quotes from various perspectives; examples — all prioritized so readers can easily navigate the form and extract its value and so that printers with scarce time and limited space in the paper can lop off lines at the bottom without losing the heart of the matter. This is our inverted pyramid. It is the form we teach, including the skills of summary and abstraction (what is the story? — perhaps the most difficult skill a journalist learns), of evidence and example, of completeness and fairness, of narrative and engagement, of prioritization. This is the form that teaches the essential logic of journalism: that any event, issue, battle, or person can be packaged and delivered in so many lines of type. That is what we do.

Given the opportunities presented by new media technologies, we’ve added to the article, giving it not just photos but slideshows, and not just slideshows but video and audio. We’ve added graphics and graphics that move and interact to readers’ commands. We’ve curated related links to give readers more from our own archives or from anywhere on the web. For good and ill, we’ve added comments.

Now let’s subtract from the article, deconstructing it into its core assets. Draw that inverted pyramid and its constituent elements and then imagine each as a separate entity in its optimum form. Take the background paragraph. It ill serves everyone. If you know nothing about an ongoing story, it gives you too little history. If you know a story well, it merely wastes the paper’s space and your time. It is a compromise demanded by the one-size-fits-all constraints of news’ means of production and distribution.

Freed from those limitations, what should the background paragraph become? A link, of course: a link to an ongoing resource that is updated when necessary — not every time a related article is written. It is a resource a reader can explore at will, section by section to fill in knowledge, making it more personalized, efficient, and valuable for each reader. It can be created by the news organization that links to it or it can be created by anyone and still be only a link away. It can be a Wikipedia article. The background in an ongoing story becomes an asset of ongoing value.

A story can be made up of many assets. Once separated, the storyteller has the opportunity to present — and the reader to take — many paths through them. The expert in a story can go straight to what’s new and then leave, saving time having to look for the fresh nuggets among all all the space-filler that used to make up an article. The novice can start with the background, then read what’s new, then delve into the characters and timelines, then explore examples and arguments. The article becomes sets of assets and paths.

Think of how Prezi works: This PowerPoint replacement isn’t built just to make its viewers dizzy as one navigates through floating, weightless text. It forces the creator to organize ideas and then create appropriate paths through them. So imagine that what used to be an article becomes a set of assets — all those I listed above: what’s new, background, timeline, players, etc. — and that the journalist can create distinct paths among them: one for the novice, one for the expert, another for the professsional, another for the policymaker.

Of course, those assets themselves can be constantly updated as needed. And, again, they need not all be created and maintained by a single source. So if Wikipedia has a great backgrounder, why recreate it? Link to it. (Remember: Do what you do best and link to the rest.)

Perhaps we end up with news organizations that specialize not just in beats and topics but in kinds of assets: the latest (a wire service) or explainers (weekly publications like the Economist) or relationships (algorithms like Daylife’s) or data (e.g., Texas Tribune). Of course, the people formerly known as the audience (quoth Rosen) can also create assets. May the best assets win: Link to that which best explains a story. And may the best paths win: Curate the assets that best get the story across. Maybe the best editor becomes the best creator of paths. Maybe algorithms help create paths by finding the most recommended assets from the most trusted sources (data that readers create through their use).

Then articles become new molecules that bind atoms from an ecosystem of information.

What would it take to do this? As De Rosa said in the Twitter discussion, it would require new culture and procedures in a newsroom. Instead of thinking that we have to turn out a self-contained article for every event, we instead find assets and create paths. For that matter, instead of leaving the reader to dig through a live blog to discern the elements of an event, we also find assets and create paths (which may include posts in that live blog).

I can already hear people in newsrooms fret that we need a new CMS (content management system) to do this. Not really. It’s called the link. We can kludge that and then make it more elegant and efficient and automatic once we’ve figured it out. So I don’t think we need to start with a hackathon and new code, though coders can definitely help. I think we need to start with a new notion of the value of an article and how to create that value.

The end result is still an inverted pyramid — a prioritized set of assets that one can stop going through when one feels sated with information. But everyone’s pyramid can be different. And what fills those pyramids can come from various sources. The article is dead. Long live the article.

It was suggested in the Twitter conversation that we have a conference (let’s just say lunch) on this topic. Done. I’ll schedule it at CUNY.

LATER: Storify of the Twitter discussion referenced at the start of this post here.

  • Excellent observations and the concept of the background assets (explainers) is something I do feel the publisher niche (publisher CMS) should house in addition to the news articles -link to wikipedia ok too. I look forward to further sharing on the topic with my ideas about taxonomy and context and I appreciate the post.

  • Agreed that the first crack at this can be done with existing tools and simple links, but imagine how powerful an object-based publishing platform could be with these component parts and a reliable tagging system. Throw in some responsive design and media queries to serve up the right chunks of the story for different viewing platforms, and this really starts to sound like something that moves the chains in modern news reporting.

    • Love it. Article as digital application. Go beyond delivering articles *via* applications (the “web site,” the “CMS” etc.) to re-invent them *as* applications.

      • See also @bradfordcross on Twitter saying that this is computer science thinking. When I asked him to explain, he tweeted: “CS is all about decomposing complicated problems into reasonable abstractions and solving via composition of simple components.”

        • Picking up on the CS idea, maybe “documents as software” is a better way to think of it? I’ve tried to describe this shift as a distinction between “digital distribution” — which has been the near universal approach to digital media thus far (everywhere, not just news) — and “digital information” which begins to toss out that old method and build for the medium.

    • Tim: I agree. To create news in this way means making and storing it (and tagging/identifying it) in new ways. But I don’t want journalists to think this is a technical problem and that they have to wait for a new CMS (oh, how long have we waited for the Messiah CMS in our business). so I”m merely suggesting that this can be tried now. But you’re right that good tools will most certainly help do it better. In fact, maybe I’ll try to build a prototype of that at CUNY.

  • bonniebucqueroux

    I am making the assumption that this issue of serving readers with varying levels of awareness and understanding applies mostly if not only to articles about complex, longstanding issues. You use the example of economic stories that contain jargon outsiders won’t know. I think of how even my most news hungry students find it impossible to jump into discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflicts because they don’t know enough of the history. In keeping with the “do what you do best and link to the rest,” structurally, the issue becomes where and how to link.

    I vaguely remember an experiment years ago where a group had some grant funding to provide sidebars of information on issues such as these to news organizations so that they could run them next to appropriate stories for free. The problem with print, of course, was that few newspapers would spare the space. The digital revolution has now changed the economics, so the question then becomes who invests the time and resources in producing these assets and what would they look like.

    Should it be part of the function of the news organization? I could see a chain of papers setting up a corporate level research office to produce a sidebar of links to various explainers most of which they would write themselves. It would be a value-added enhancement whose cost could be spread over the chain.

    An alternative model would be to provide this as an outsourced function. I don’t see much of a for-profit model for this, but perhaps this could also become an academic function. I would love to see our Michigan State J-School collaborate with experts in other departments to produce comprehensive and coherent packages of links on a roster of recurring topics that news organizations could either past into a sidebar or link to. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful place for students to gain experience in translating arcane jargon into easily digested supplementary materials? If we think of those packages as offering varying levels of depth for different readers, it is also easy to see how multimedia including podcasts and videos would make sense, as would opportunities for moderated comments that would serve as crowdsourced contrasting views.

    The Khan Academy broke the mold by offering free YouTube video tutorials on math. These would, in essence, be free tutorials on public affairs. It would seem ideal as a new academic enterprise.

    • Great thoughts, Bonnie. I do think this form of assets and paths could also work with less complicated but ongoing stories such as trials: Been following it regularly? Then all you may want, ma’am, is this what’s new module. Missed it for a week? Then here’s a timeline. Never read about it before? Link to the background….

      • bonniebucqueroux

        As a thought experiment, would covering the trial of the police officers in the Rodney King beating with today’s tools have helped people understand what a tinderbox Los Angeles was? Could comprehensive coverage have the potential to de-fuse the resulting violence or could it have improved the police response? A friend was at a meeting in DC where Daryl Gates was when the verdict came down. I sure would have loved to read his tweets.

  • skift

    You’re spot on, Jeff. Blowing up the story happened to some extent with blogging coming along, as professional news companies built around it (my previous one including) came into existence and thrived. Picking up from what you outline above, and going one level above it, how do you build a “content” company these days? Start by not calling it “content”, and build it as an information/intelligence brand. I am now attempting to do that, with news as the smallest part of it, in the travel sector. A sector like travel has been defined by randomness all through its history, random destination story, random hotel reviews etc etc, all of which are slave to the story format for most part. You can’t build an information brand these days on randomness, that’s why none of the travel content/social startups have succeeded. More on this will come out a we launch and build it out.

  • I have the same reaction as when you started this debate a year or so ago… excellent. I’d go further, as CDI hopes to, to rethink all pre-digital forms (“articles” being just one; a biggie no doubt) as newly minted digital resources. I tend to call them “applications” (digital native re-creations that use the unique capabilities of the medium, not just online facsimiles of pre-digital forms).

    US CIO Steve VanRoekel had a good quote this week in a recent interview with @digiphile re: the government information space:

    “we very tightly couple the presentation of stuff with the stuff itself. Finding that stuff is nearly impossible, if you have to navigate a quagmire. The nature of this is embracing the new application delivery model, looking at how we deliver content and data more effectively to Americans.”

    source —

    “new application delivery model” — This is a universal issue everywhere information is created. “Articles” in newsrooms are definitely a worthy starting point, but I wouldn’t stop there.

    Put me on your invite list for CUNY? [email protected]

    • Terry Heaton has been ahead of the curve on a lot of this stuff, including the idea of “news as a process.”

  • From: Farhad Manjoo

    …When there’s fast-breaking business news like the Facebook IPO, BI’s model is hard to beat. Old-school journalists are sometimes a territorial bunch, reluctant to credit one another’s scoops. For instance, if you only read Wednesday morning’s lead Wall Street Journal story on Facebook’s IPO struggles, you wouldn’t have seen any mention of all the stuff Reuters had uncovered on Tuesday.
    But Henry Blodget don’t care—he’s happy to consider scoops from all sides. In stories with lots of moving parts, BI’s quick aggregation is an asset—you can read everything from everywhere in one place, and Blodget and his deputies add much-needed context and perspective to the otherwise jargony onslaught of developments. And then, in addition to hard news, they’ll give you a sense of the emotions on the street—for instance, they’ll let you hear from theanonymous hedge fund manager who’s enraged about the IPO.
    If BI’s only virtue was aggregation, it wouldn’t be very different from Drudge or the Huffington Post’s business section. Where Blodget—and his indefatigable staff, especially Joe Weisenthal and Nicholas Carlson—really shine is in the way they add their own sourcing and quick, sharp analysis to developing stories.* I don’t always agree with their perspectives (especially as they’re distilled in over-the-top headlines), but I always admire the way BI tries to place all news it encounters into a larger storyline….

  • Juergen Schackmann

    Wow, this sounds so clear and obvious that one might wonder, why it took so long after the invention of the hyperlink to come up with a concept like this. And explains why today’s change resistant media industry is just going south. As mentioned correctly, this would require dramatic changes of the role, attitude and culture in the newsroom. And I doubt that this kind of change will evolve from within the industry. However, the most interesting question to me is, what are the possible business models around this concept and can they be sustainable? Any thoughts?

  • My obsession with the wiki platform (specifically, MediaWiki) is with its flexibility in creating and managing simultaneous taxonomies, on the fly. Frankly, pretty much everything you say that is needed can be done in MediaWiki. Journalists won’t figure this out. Librarians can.

    I wrote this post in 2009 about what to learn from Wikipedia regarding coverage of a major breaking story:

    Jay Rosen is my go-to guru on this topic: He’s certainly written more than anyone I follow on the concept of contextual content. (I use the terms “flow content” and “contextual content” to separate that which flows over us constantly vs. that which provides us background and facts and related, ever-green information. But I’m also like Rafat – I hate the word content.)

    Here’s a post I wrote about a panel Jay was on at SXSW 2010 in which the concept of contextual content was explore:

  • Would this not also make for an interesting online advertising model? I say: yes.

    • Please say more, Kenton.

      • Dora Chomiak

        Tynt (now part of 33across) comes to mind since the ‘ad’ is linked to the content (at the atomic level of words not at the level of the article).

  • Fantastic post Jeff of a longstanding idea – but never summarized this succinctly.

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  • justaguy

    Jeff: Fascinating discussion, which I’m joining late … and with a certain amount of chagrin over the fact that neither your post nor the many sharp comments contains a single mention of Times Topics, where we provide fully curated backgrounders on 2,500 top-of-the-news subjects, updated in real time for major events, plus lists of resources and highlights from the archives (on some). (On today’s home page news, see Syria or Ahmed Shafik, or the Volcker Rule, which deals with market making. We’re also experimenting with ways to improve our 25,000 topic long tail, with a module that pulls in summaries from the Times Index on major stories, like Ben Bernake — and of course, there are plenty of other ideas for that mythical CMS! If you do get a session together, I’d be happy swap notions.

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  • Holly Epstein Ojalvo

    in a bit late here… Reinventing the way news is presented this way will also
    draw in a new audience: young adults and teenagers. This group is increasingly
    alienated from mainstream media – the inverted-pyramid model just doesn’t
    appeal to them or meet their needs. Newspapers lament the fact that young
    people aren’t developing a news habit but aren’t doing much to cultivate that
    audience. This, I think, is the way to do it. (Full disclosure: I’m currently developing a news &
    information source along these lines.)

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  • I don’t know about this, Jeff. I don’t think assets and paths really get at the core of the issue.

    Before you even start reading something, the first question you subconsciously ask is: should I care about this, is this something for me? Most people never come into contact with stories they don’t understand, because it’s easier to just skip over headlines that look weird.

    The Facebook IPO bypassed a lot of people’s natural reflex to not read things we think we won’t understand, because (1) people are interested in Facebook in general and (2) the media has been hyping up this thing to no end without really considering whether it’s actually an important topic for a mainstream audience, leading people to consider reading a business story they otherwise simply wouldn’t touch.

    But, okay, let’s continue the journey: people click through to the story. They see stuff they don’t understand. Terminology. What went before. Context. Why it matters. Ouch. Definitely, let’s try to find ways to fix that that don’t annoy readers that are more experienced with the subject.

    At the same time, we’ll have to find a way to make people comfortable with the fact that we’re essentially presenting them with “hey, here’s the 10-step, 45-minute process you need to go through to understand this story.” I’m at work, on my lunch break, and I don’t even care about business journalism all that much, so bugger off.

    But once we’ve solved the background knowledge problem *and* found a way to get people onto the page and keep them on it without them getting overwhelmed and fleeing, once we do all that, we will find that there’s a second and equally large stumbling block: different audiences care about the same topics for different reasons, and need a story that aligns with their perspective for things to really click.

    Take the Nieman Lab for example, or your blog or mine. There’s no way to intelligently chunk up that content (whether or not it’s mixed up with external sources) to suit both people who have never heard about the challenges of digital media and those that have. These articles and posts are written from a certain perspective with a certain audience in mind, and that perspective is part of the writing, the individual asset, not something you can change by creating a different path through chunks of content. Unless you turn the path itself into a bonafide piece of content. In which case you’ve just created a well-researched story with links, not used the hyperlink to create a new story form.

    The idea of treating stories like assets and paths only really comes to life in a scenario where the same pool of assets could be used in many different paths. While I can see some of that happening (it does already), my gut feeling is that to really serve our users well, it takes more than a custom path, it takes tailored assets too. There’s overlap and there are opportunities to avoid duplicated efforts, I’m just not sure the potential wins are huge.

    Also, I wonder whether people really get as annoyed by background paragraphs as you fear they do. I just read a story somewhere that explained to me that CPM, in the context of advertising, stands for cost per mille. Does that bother me? No. I glance over it and go to the next paragraph. In fact, repeating obvious and well-known information is a literary device that’s often used in non-fiction, to establish a shared world before diving into the deep. It gets annoying if there’s a ton of that stuff, but in that case, I should have probably skipped the whole thing anyway.

    Lastly, consider that the idea of assets and paths is what defines Delicious stacks, Bitly bundles and MentorMob playlists. I’d be interested to hear how you would move beyond those forms towards something that can really be a reinvention of the article.

    It’s a really complex problem.

    What does excite me is the fact that we’re thinking about this at all – and Jay Rosen, Matt Thompson have written excellent posts about “the future of context” that date back as far as two years ago, to which we can now add your contribution.

    As you rightly point out, who cares if the post-article is something of a kludge and imperfect. The only thing that really matters is whether it’s better than what we have right now. It can’t be hard to beat the article.

    • Christoph Trappe

      Jeff and Stijn,

      Interesting points. How about this, though.

      Instead of thinking about the presentation to get us started, think about the story.

      What’s the story? As Stijn said, people ask themselves: Why should they care? I’d like to add: Do I have time for this? Is it interesting?

      Shouldn’t that be at the core?

      Anyways, I think focusing on the story and then on the delivery might be worth considering.

      Some stories are just not worth any kind of article style presentation. Whether there are links or not. Sometimes a database, a graphic, a picture with a cutline or a video might be much better.

      Intestingly, it’s easy to fall back into old ways. When I recently posted a United Way report on allocations ( I was tempted to use full sentences instead of a list when mentioning where the money went.

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  • ppalme

    Thanks for all these visionary insights. I am just exploring the idea of so called smart or blog post with intelligene inside like what is called a smart phone.
    For this experiment I am using blogger as it allows to include wigets (javascript).
    I am using the Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland as an example. The blog post gives a constant update on the traffic flow via live webcams , twitter updates and the traffic update via google

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  • I tend to skim the title of the paragraphs and if It sounds interesting I skim the article for info to see whether it is worth my time to really pay attention to what it says. I think that no matter what, we need to read what we want and write what we want as individuals. I even created a book that I am self-publishing and even looking to get help through kickstarter to do so. You can check more on it

  • I was a journalism major in college. I can tell you while the inverted pyramid is the classic way to start a story, but these days, the flashier the better.

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