Posts about article

Geeks Bearing Gifts, Part II: Forms – The Article is Dead. Long Live the Article.

Screenshot 2014-12-18 at 9.47.58 AMNow I start sharing chapters from the second part of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. In the first, I reimagined the relationship journalism has with the public it serves. In the second part, I examine new forms journalism can take. (In the third, I’ll get to the sexy part: business.) The entire book is being posted to Medium, chapter by chapter, here. In this chapter, I deconstruct the article and let links put it back together again. You can read the entire chapter here. The opening:

Screenshot 2014-12-18 at 9.33.43 AM

I come not to bury the article but to praise it. Machined to near-perfection over a century of production, the article is ideally suited to its form. It has developed a well-defined role for each of its elements: lede imparting the latest — the news; nut graph delivering the essence of the story and telling us why we should bother to read the rest; background graph bringing us up to speed; timelines and catalogues of issues and players to set the stage; explanations to give context; quotes from various perspectives; and as many anecdotes and examples as fit in print. All this is prioritized so readers can easily navigate through and extract information and so typesetters in newspaper composing rooms with scarce time and limited space could lop off lines of type at the bottom of a story — bars of molded lead — without losing the essence of it. This is our inverted pyramid. It is the form we teach in journalism school, and with it 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 and news judgment. This is the form that envelops 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 gifts of geeks with many new media technologies, we’ve enhanced the digital article, adding not just photos but slideshows, and not just slideshows but video and audio. We’ve added explanatory visualizations and graphics that move and interact with 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. The article is enhanced, improved, updated. 

But now let’s deconstruct the article into its core assets. Let’s unbundle its elements just as news publications themselves have been unbundled. Draw that inverted pyramid and its constituent elements and then imagine each as a separate entity in its optimal form. . . .

Read the rest of each chapter here. If you can’t wait for the rest, then you can buy the book here. The perfect gift for the journowonk on your list.

Image from Daily Writing Tips.

Atomizing the article

The Washington Post did good reporting under the headline above on the state of negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff. But the report is long because it carries all the equipment an article carries — the background paragraph (the sixth paragraph), atmospherics (seventh paragraph), quotes (eighth, ninth paragraphs), play-by-play (paragraphs 10-22), getting to some key details on the third screen.

Compare and contrast that with Henry Blodget’s summary under this headline. Now some will say that Henry — like a anthropologist with a camera in a remote village that has never seen one — stole the soul of the Post’s article. But I say he performed a service: He pulled out just the key facts of what’s new in five cogent bullets plus two additional paragraphs, giving us facts the Post didn’t get to until paragraphs 25-28. He read all that so we don’t have to.

Now I’m not criticizing the Post here. It did the reporting. I’m criticizing the form. I’m also not criticizing the Post for following that form; that’s what print dictates: a one-size-fits-all, one-stop-shop for this story.

This is a wonderful example of how online provides journalists the opportunity to atomize the article into its component assets. Blodget gave us the what’s-new part. Someone else could create the background, play-by-play (from the middle of the Post article), players, timeline, quotes, and so on.

Now I know the argument we’ll hear: Blodget took value from the Post. But I say he added value for readers, for I’m sure many of us are sick of reading the same old stuff, we just want to know *what’s new* — that is, the *news*. That’s what the Post and newspapers should be paying attention to here: where is the value for the market?

We can quickly tie ourselves in knots discussing business models. Maybe the Post should run Blodget’s summary as value-added for its readers, giving him a share of the ad revenue. Does Henry pay the Post for the value of its reporting? Or is his link payment? That depends on how the links perform (I’ve been wanting to perform tests of that for research).

My point here is simply that, of course, reporting has value but that the full-blown, kitchen-sink article is not always the best way to convey that value. Here’s just one example.

An article on the article

In the Guardian, I pull together thoughts on reconsidering the article, the reaction to those thoughts, and the impact on a digital-first strategy. Excerpt:

The article is no longer the atomic unit of news. It’s not dead. I didn’t kill it. But in the age of online – of “digital first,” as the Guardian defined its strategy this month – we should reconsider the article and its place. No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print’s strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information. . . .

In print-as-luxury, the article should be elevated to Economist standards, combining reporting with cogent analysis, unique perspective and brilliant commentary. Should such a newspaper be published daily? Can it meet that standard that often? Perhaps not.

Imagine if a British newspaper with tens of millions of online readers became a digital-only brand freed of the leash of the distance its trucks can drive, able to become a truly international voice. Imagine then if the once-separate Sunday sister title – printed on a more lucrative day of the week than Sunday – became a luxurious journal of reporting and commentary like Die Zeit in Germany (whose print circulation is still growing).

That’s not a recommendation, only an example of where reconsideration of the article could lead. I want to challenge assumptions about the article’s role, not whether it lives or dies. After all, I just wrote one.

The article and the future of print

This week, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger declared that the paper would go “digital first,” following John Paton‘s lead and stopping a step short of his strategy at Journal Register: “digital first … print last.”

My Guardian friends are getting a bit tetchy about folks trying to tell them how to fix the institution, but given that it lost £34.4m last year, I’d say the intervention is warranted and should be seen only as loving care: chicken soup for the strategy. So I will join in.

My thoughts about the Guardian have something to do with my thoughts on the article. That’s a logical connection because the means of production and distribution of print are what mandated the invention of the article. So it is fitting that we consider its fate in that context.

But first let’s examine what it means to be digital first. It does not mean just putting one’s stories online before the presses roll. In that case, print still dictates the form and rhythm of news: everything in the process of a newsroom is still aimed at fitting round stories into squared holes on pages. That, as Jay Rosen says, is the key skill newsroom residents think they have (and the skill journalism schools prepare them for): the production cycle of print.

Digital first, aggressively implemented, means that digital drives all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that as soon as a journalist knows something, she is prepared to share it with her public. It means that she may share what she knows before she knows everything (there’s a vestige of the old culture, which held that we could know everything … and by deadline to boot) so she can get help from her public to fill in what she doesn’t know. That resets the journalistic relationship to the community, making the news organization a platform first, enabling a community to share its information and inviting the journalist to add value to that process. It means using the most appropriate media to impart information because we are no longer held captive to only one: text. We now use data, audio, video, graphics, search, applications, and wonders not yet imagined. Digital first is the realization that news happens with or without us — it mimics the architecture of the internet, end-to-end — and we must use all the tools available to add value where we can.

Digital first, from a business perspective, means driving the strategy to a digital future, no longer depending on the print crutch. That means creating a likely smaller and more efficient enterprise that can survive, then prosper post-monopoly, post-scarcity in an abundance-based media economy. It means serving the commercial needs of businesses in our communities in new ways: not just by selling space but by providing services (helping them with their own online strategies — including Google, Facebook, Groupon, craigslist, et al; training them; perhaps holding events with them). It means finding new efficiencies in the collaborative link economy. It means outrunning the grim reaper and getting past risky dependency on free-standing inserts (the coupons and circulars that will one day, sooner than we know — zap! — disappear) and retail advertising (which continues to implode) and the last vestiges of classified (how quaint) and circulation revenue (sorry!). It means getting rid of the cost of the analog business (“iron and real estate,” as Paton says).

Print last. Note that none of us — no, not even I — is saying print dead. Print, at least for a time, still has a place in serving content and advertising. But let’s re-examine that place even as we re-examine the role of the article, the journalist, and the advertisement in digital.

Since I spoke about this with Rusbridger last time he was in New York to herald the coming of Guardian for Yanks, I’ve refined my thinking. As I understand the well-known business of the Guardian — unlike many US papers and unlike at least one of its UK competitors, the Times — its Sunday paper, the Observer, is an economic burden. My thought earlier had been to give it up, just as many American papers are contemplating giving up other days of the week but keeping Sunday (and Thursdays and perhaps another … because they are still useful to wrap around those free-standing inserts). No, they won’t keep publishing on those days for journalistic purposes but because they have distribution value. Cynical, perhaps, but true.

But all this talk about the article has made me contemplate a new future: What if the Guardian became an online-only and international brand of news, multimedia, and comment and the Observer became a once-a-week (who cares what day of the week?) print brand of analysis, context, comment, and narrative? The Guardian has 37 million users, two-thirds of them outside the UK. Going online-only would enable it to become a truly international brand. The Observer could compete with the master of the article, the one publication that adds great value through the form: the Economist. As a newspaper of depth, this Observer could mimic Die Zeit in Germany, an amazing journal of reporting and commentary that is still growing in circulation. The print Observer could be printed in America, competing with weak-tea Sunday newspapers in markets across the country. Prior efforts to consider a print Guardian in the U.S. have stopped short. Could this succeed? Dunno.

The point is that the article as a high form of journalistic practice could succeed in a high-value print form while the Guardian could become a journal of news and comment in text, photo, video, audio, graphics, data….

What also makes me wonder about this is The New York Times’ proud announcement that it will remake its Week in Review into the Sunday Review next week. Truth be told, I haven’t read the Sunday Times in ages. I used to hang on its arrival at newsstands on Saturday nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but now I find it to be day-old bread, yeasty but stiff. Could The Times turn its plans for Sunday Review into an American Economist? I’m less sanguine about its chances than the Guardian’s. In either case, the winner would be the one that finds the greatest value in the old form of the article.

See, it’s not dead. It just needs a savior.

: MORE: I meant to add a few thoughts on the form the article takes in these media. In digital, articles are still valuable to synthesize a story, to summarize a complex day’s news, to add context, and so on. Again, not all stories need such articles, but many will. In this vision of print, the article takes on a different raison d’etre and a higher calling: It needs to add perspective. Bill Keller says it this way in his preview of the new Review:

Jonathan Landman, who took over the section from Dan Lewis, put it this way: The news sections’ job is to inform. (The desired reader reaction: “I didn’t know that!”) The opinion section’s job is to persuade. (“Yes, I see the light!”) The job of the Review is to help people see things in unexpected ways. (“I never thought of it that way!”)

I’d say The Economist presents the model for that kind of article. It is a high, a very high bar to reach. Can the Guardian attain that? Yes. The New York Times? Yes. The workaday local paper?

: Related: Charlie Beckett on Wikileaks and the threat of new news. Terry Heaton on news and the story.

The storyteller strikes back

When I dared question the article’s monopoly as the atomic and only acceptable form of news, I honestly did not imagine the reaction I would get. I thought I was observing a trend and an opportunity. I have tried to provoke plenty of times. But here I truly did not think I was saying anything provocative. But clearly, I plucked a nerve. I’ve been asking myself why I evoked such a strong emotional response, online and off. At Jeff Pulver’s 140 Conference in New York this week, I endeavored to answer that.

In a performance that well demonstrates that I should not quit my day job and hope for a career on Broadway, I tried to take on the voice — in a purposefully simplistic, over-the-top way — of the storytellers who objected to what I was observing. Here’s what I think they were saying: “You can’t have a narrative without the narrator, a story without the storyteller. I am the storyteller. I decide what the story is. I decide what goes in it and doesn’t. I decide where it begins and where it ends.” That’s part of the issue: control. But it’s more than that: “If you don’t need as many articles — if there are other ways to impart information — do you still need me, the storyteller?” That, I think, could be at the heart of their fear and reaction.

Once again, I’m not getting rid of the story, not replacing it or the storyteller. I’m arguing that articles are precious, more precious than ever, and need to add value or we can’t afford to waste our time on them. I’m saying that the journalist takes on new roles and more tasks. But, yes, if as a journalist you see yourself only as a storyteller, a maker of articles, your horizon just got closer.

At 140, I told the room and the cameras that I see something else happening. I referred once again to the Gutenberg Parenthesis, coined by the University of Southern Denmark to describe how the change in our media affects our cognition of our world.

When people say they like newspapers and books they aren’t just talking about the physical form of them: the feel and smell, the portability and tangibility. They are talking about the finiteness of them. Articles and books have beginnings and ends; they have boundaries and limits; they are packaged neatly in boxes with bows on top; they are a product of scarcity. Abundance is unsettling. That is precisely why the internet is disruptive not only to business and government but to culture and cognition. Threatening the dominion of the article is to threaten our very worldview.

You see, I am trying to understand the visceral reaction to what I said. It took me by surprise.

I asked the folks at 140 not to kill the article but to question assumptions about it.

I may live to regret embedding my talk (I haven’t had the courage to watch it yet), but here it is:

Then I got to introduce my friend John Paton, who is challenging assumptions about the form and business of journalism: