Posts about newarchitecture

An ecology of accuracy

John Naughton’s Observer column this morning recounts the shitstorm the Wall Street Journal brought on itself with its innacurate and ignorant story on Google and content cashing (v. net neutrality) and concludes:

You might think this is all a storm in an online teacup, but in fact it’s a revealing case study of how our media ecosystem has changed. What happened is that reporters on a major newspaper got something wrong. Nothing unusual about that – and the concept of “network neutrality” is a slippery one if you’re not a geek or a communications regulator. But within minutes of the article’s publication, it was being picked up and critically dissected by bloggers all over the world. And much of the dissection was done soberly and intelligently, with commentators painstakingly explaining why Google’s move into content-caching did not automatically signal a shift in the company’s attitude to network neutrality. Lessig was able instantly to rebut the views attributed to him in the article.

Watching the discussion unfold online was like eavesdropping on a civilised and enlightening conversation. Browsing through it I thought: this is what the internet is like at its best – a powerful extension of what Jürgen Habermas once called “the public sphere”.

He continues on his blog:

This was about as far as you can get from the LiveJournal-OMG-my-cat-has-just-been-sick media stereotyping of blogging. It was an illustration of something that has always been true — that the world is full of clever, thoughtful, well-informed people. What has changed is that we now have a medium in which they can talk to one another — and to newspaper reporters, of only the latter are prepared to participate in the conversation….

My complaint about the WSJ’s reaction to the blogosphere’s reaction is that it evinced a refusal to participate. The errors made by its reporters were serious but for the most part understandable; journalism is the rushed first draft of history and we all make mistakes. The tragedy was that the Journal saw the blogosphere’s criticism as a problem, when it fact it was an opportunity.

The journalism of filling space and time

Election days are — next to the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas — the worst days of journalism on the calendar. They are “yeah, we know” days. People shop. People vote. Tell me something I don’t know. Please. This is the journalism of filling space and time. We have to print an edition or fill airtime and this is what’s happening today and you’re going to come to us anyway so we’re going to tell you about it even if we have nothing — nothing — new and informative to say.

The journalism of links, on the other hand, would dictate that it’s not worth using resources to tell people what they already know because no one will pass that on and passing on is the new distribution chain for news. (People won’t just come to you anyway anymore.)

I’m not suggesting that news judgment should be determined just by what is passed around. We know how silly the most-emailed lists are; they’re the wacky stories, water-cooler journalism. Instead, I’m suggesting that if you can’t imagine anyone linking to your coverage — if you can’t imagine anyone saying “this was new,” “this is good,” “this was valuable,” “go here for more,” “I didn’t know this,” or “you should know this” — then chances are, it’s not worth saying and in the link economy it won’t get audience, and so it’s not worth making.

In that link economy — in the Googleverse — you stand out above the level playing field by creating something uniquely useful, informative, compelling, or valuable. As other news organizations cut back, they will more and more point to good work done elsewhere. So another way to ask this question is, “have I contributed something to the press-sphere (and will I get attention as a result)?” For elsewhere in the sphere, others are doing what they do best and linking to the rest.

At the Telegraph, online editor Marcus Warren just told PaidContent: “We are doing what we do best, main content, but also linking to the rest, as Jeff Jarvis would put it.” Or as Marcus Huendgen just said in Der Westen, “Do the fucking links.” Yes, I’m gratified at the spread of that meme. It’s not just advice. It’s a recognition of the new architecture of news and media.

A few years ago, the Associated Press did a lot of research among young people as it prepared to create a news product for them. One meme they heard again and again: “Don’t tell us what we already know.” Don’t waste their time — and your dwindling resources.

So I come to you today over-informed about how many people are standing in a random line or about a random machine that broke down and got fixed — because that’s where the reporter was standing and she had nothing else to tell me. Don’t bother.

Citizen journalism ruins the world (again)

On Friday, like clockwork, I got calls from three reporters asking me to defend citizen journalism (again) after its latest mortal sin against the gods of journalism: the report/rumor/lie on CNN’s iReport that Apple’s Steve Jobs had been rushed to the hospital with a heart attack, which spread and sent the company’s share’s diving.

Every time so-called citizen journalism muffs one, I get such calls, as if to say, look what your bratty kid is up to now. Funny, I don’t get them – as a journalist – every time a reporter messes up.

I told these reporters that they were on the tail of the wrong story. This may not be about citizen journalism at all. It may be about someone trying to game Apple stock and using, nefariously, whatever tools were available. I also told them that anyone who sold their stock on the basis of a pseudonymous post on the web was a fool who deserved what they got (are these the same people who invested in subprime mortgages?).

The proper response to this is to ask what our response should be, not to decry all “citizen journalism” because of this.

First, we need to recognize that life is messy. The idea that we could package the world neatly in a box with a bow on top is a vestige of the old means of production and distribution of news: tightly controlled with the limitation-turned-luxury of time.

Ever since the creation of 24-hour cable news, we have lost that luxury of time. Mistakes – let alone rumors and lies – go out live and the public has to learn to judge the news more skeptically. The truth is, they always have. But now rather than ignoring their skepticism, we need to encourage it and educate people to think this way. Call it media literacy. That is one proper response.

Another response from media is that we have to get better at giving caveats. As news rushes by, it is important that we make it clear what is and isn’t confirmed. We thought we were in the business of saying what we know in the news. But we’re more in the business of saying what we don’t know. I’ve often quoted Nick Denton’s definition of what we bloggers call “half-baked posts.” They say to our readers: “Here’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know. What do you know?”

Note well that CNN iReport issues a blanket caveat on everything it “reports” — hell, this is its tagline and slogan: “Unfiltered. Unedited. News.” Maybe that last word is a problem, but then iReport has had lots of news, including video from the scene of the Virginia Tech massacre. CNN president Jonathan Klein said at a McGraw-Hill conference some months ago that the point of iReport was to have a place to accept stuff from citizens and witnesses that wasn’t CNN. Only that which is vetted, he said, goes up under the CNN brand. But, of course, iReport is near the CNN brand.

It may be a mistake for news organizations to keep begging people to send them stuff. That’s the way they think — centralized, controlling, exclusive. But the better structure may be for journalists to curate the best of what is out on the web. Rather than playing wack-a-mole on the occasional mistake/rumor/lie sent it, editors would better serve if they found the best content anywhere, not just among that which was sent to them.

When the web, like TV, goes live (I can broadcast live today from my Nokia phone over Qik.com), news organizations will have no choice but to find and point to others’ content elsewhere because there won’t be time to send it in.

But the sanest response to reading a report from an unidentifiable source on Steve Jobs’ health is to get on the phone to Apple and find the truth. Note well that that happened quickly online. When I first heard this “news,” it was not that Jobs was sick but that Apple said he wasn’t sick. The reporters I talked to said that was what they first heard as well. Hmm, the system seems to have worked pretty well — except for fools who sell stock based on baseless rumors. But then, that has happened on Wall Street long before there was an internet.

The web, as it turns out, is almost as fast at spreading truth as it as at spreading rumors.

Is this a story of citizen journalism and its failings or of professional journalism and its jealousies?

(Crossposted at Comment is Free)

Replacing the article

Matt Thompson creates one part of what I suggested the other day should be the new fundamental unit of news coverage, replacing the article.

MoneyMeltDown is a well-curated aggregation of links to the best coverage.

To recap, I think the new unit of coverage needs to include:

1. Curated aggreagtion. Do what you do best, link to the rest. Here’s the best of the rest. See: MoneyMeltDown.

2. A blog that treats the story as a process, not a product, with continuing coverage and conversation, asking and answering questions, giving updates, filling in gaps: a reporter showing her work. Have you seen a good example? CalculatedRisk is more of an annotated aggregation and that’s valuable but I think it fits better in No. 1 above. The Christian Science Monitor credit crisis blog looks more like a collection of articles. From an industry perspective, the Inman blog is another annotated aggregation. Can anyone point me to a reporter or expert who is using a blog to both report and discover?

3. A wiki that give us a snapshot of current knowledge. Where else would we find that but Wikipedia?

4. Discussion. Where do you think the best – most intelligent and illuminating – discussion is going on?

The building block of journalism is no longer the article

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.