Posts about News

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.

This is bullshit: My TEDxNYED talk

Here is video of my TEDxNYED lecture about lectures as an outmoded form of education and news, in which I tweak TED.

Here are my notes (which won’t match my talk exactly). All the videos are now up at the TEDxNYED site.

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:

@stephenfry.

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.

The new news

Josh Young writes a fascinating and nicely written essay about the shape of news and competition around it in the Google (read: internet) age, but I think it badly needs a clear lede summarizing his point to prove his point.

So I’ll summarize: He’s saying that Google is causing news to be reshaped so it can be found, now that it has been unbundled from the products we used to have no choice but to buy: our newspapers. He says that news is an “experience good” we can’t really know until we taste it. He says we need a new experience of news and it ain’t Google. I will argue, though, that this very post, the one you are reading now, is the antidote to what he sees, for I experienced his essay and I recommend it to you without Google while also giving you the search-engine-and-browsing-friendly summary – a reason to read – that we now expect before investing in content online. And there’s my point.

Young argues that Google causes the structure of news to change. We agree about the change but we disagree about the cause. Even I don’t think that the all-powerful Oz Google is behind everything that happens on and because of the internet.

In fact, news is one of the areas where Google has little influence – despite the wails and whining of newspaper people – for Google is bad at current content, at the live web, at news. It needs content to ferment with links and clicks and context before it can figure out what it is. There’s no time for that in news. And GoogleNews itself isn’t an answer for it only makes the vastness of news vaster. We don’t find the latest news through search. We find it through recommendations, still, either from editors (going to a packaged site, a [cough] newspaper.com) or from peers (in blogs and RSS for years now and more lately in Twitter; this is why Twitter matters and why Google recognizes that it complementary).

So I’ll argue that we already have the beginnings of the news experience Young wants. Through this quote (which comes at the end of Young’s essay but would have been better as his lede, I think… I often find that to be the case when I write a post), please replace the word “search” with news, for “search” has become synonymous with Google and that’s not what we’re talking about. Young writes:

“We need a What we need is a search [news] experience that let’s us discover the news in ways that fit why we actually care about it. We need a search [news] experience built around concretely identifiable sources and writers. We need a search [news] experience built around our friends and, lest we dwell too snugly in our own comfort zones, other expert readers we trust…. We need a search [news] experience built around beats and topics that are concrete—not hierarchical, but miscellaneous and semantically well defined. We need a search [news] experience built around dates, events, and locations. We need a search [news] experience that’s multi-faceted and persistent. Ultimately, we need a powerful, flexible search [news] experience that merges [automation] and human judgment—that is sensitive to the very particular and personal reasons we care about news in the first place.

I think we’re seeing the beginning of what Young wants in blogs, Twitter, aggregation, better automated targeting, geotagging, and the move to human curation and I hope we’ll see people build other pieces of it in the ecosystems of news that will replace the papers that die (or don’t). I’m working with folks who are trying to build that now – with beats and organization and social recommendation – associated with the New Business Models for News Project. It’s just starting to come together, I think, and Young will be glad to know it’s not from Google; Google’s only a part.

Something like that, Young and I agree, will be the structure of the experience of finding – searching, broadly defined – and using and spreading news. As I said, we also agree that the structure of news will also change – but not just because of Google.

I argue in this post and in slides 6-11 here that the basic building block of news will no longer be the article – a creation and necessity of the means of production of newspapers – but instead the topic or the flow with many elements: process (think: blog), updates (feed), snapshot of current knowledge (wiki), perspective (comments, links), curation (links), and narration (the article still has its place). Yes, it is SEO-friendly. And, yes, Marissa Mayer gave a similar vision to John Kerry’s Senate hearings – of a “living story” that is updated at a permalink – but that doesn’t mean she decreed it. The greater functionality of the internet is shifting news to this structure because it is also link-friendly, blog-friendly, Twitter-friendly, feed-friendly, conversation-friendly, distribution-friendly….

If we invented news today – and we are – this is how it will look, not because Google replaces paper as the medium but because we are not limited to either.

(By the way, I’m probably wrong about Young’s lede. Even without it, because his essay was so deftly written, I read through to the end and took the trouble of reacting to it and recommending it to you here. I’ll also confess that I found it through Google search but only because Young kindly linked to me and mentioned my book. So the link was human, conversational, contextual, targeted, everything Young wants. Google just helped.)

: LATER: Another neat essay today, this one by Kim Pearson, on bringing computational thinking to journalism. I think it stretches the point just a bit (I don’t see how slideshows are particularly compuational) but the larger point is intriguing.