Archive for December, 2009
Google Labs, The New York Times and the Washington Post are experimenting (together, itself a noteworty point) on creating “Living Story” pages that aggregate information about a topic with a timeline, pictures, summary and links to major stories. Readers can read stories without navigating away from the main page, getting deep information on a single issue without the cumbersome, incomplete and slow process of searching on multiple news pages. Once the prototype is complete, Google says it will make the technology available to any publisher who wants to use it (Google Unveils News-by-Topic Service, NYT)
The project builds what Jane Stevens, on Web shells, and Matt Thompson, on Columbia Tomorrow have been imagining and experimenting with for some time (in Jane’s case, since 2002). Both of these journalists, and many others, recognize that context is a key factor missing in most journalism today that the Web, happily, is ideally suited to provide. Matt Thompson wrote about context on his blog “Newsless”:
To me, journalism is the constant effort to deliver a truer picture of the world as it is. The “latest developments” provide one lens through which to capture that picture. And as long as journalism was primarily delivered by static media, that lens made perfect sense.
The Web, however, makes possible other ways of delivering that picture of our evolving world. It allows us to shirk the tyranny of recency and place more emphasis on context – the information that often gets buried beneath the news.
I want to hear much, much less about the future of news, and much more about the future of context. I want to shift the focus of our books and conferences from how we’ll deliver the latest developments to how we’ll help our audiences better understand the state of our world.
The Google prototype doesn’t look particularly impressive and it’s not a new idea. But I think it’s a good marker for thinking about how journalism is changing. How? Eventually, when systems like this are more commonplace, it will mean:
- Redundancy is squeezed from the system:We don’t need a lot of similar stories all quoting the same people. The value comes from people who can build knowledge, not replicate it.
- We don’t need constant rehashes of the same stories. The past will be perfectly accessible.
- We don’t need stories that provide artificial balance by people who don’t really understand the trade-offs. We need people who are equipped to make defensible judgments about balance and credibility and make the entire process transparent.
- We need to understand much better how how people process information and what they need in order to follow an issue quickly or deeply, daily or monthly or annually.
- We need people in graphics, video, audio and text to work together more seamlessly to build an ongoing contextual, dynamic node in the network that is easily updatable, searchable, taggable, findable, linkable, widgitized.
What’s missing from the Google system, that I can tell, is the opportunity for conversation and engagement about the subject. For these living story pages to be truly living, they would need to also be a central node in the community conversation taking place about the issue. Information and context — by themselves — don’t move us forward in terms of addressing and acting on whatever the important issue requires. Once that capacity is enabled, the journalist would have both information and conversation to connect, arbitrate, build and update.
What might this mean for journalism education?
- Students would need to have subject areas of expertise to be able to organize and curate context about major issues. The ‘generalist’ as many have pointed out, has much less value in this environment.
- More emphasis would have to be placed on creating stories that differentiated themselves from each other. This requires elimination of ‘group think,’ use of the usual sources, copying, imitating, formulaic journalism.
- Students would need to educate themselves about the journalism being done on the subject, identifying holes and building on what came before, rather than replicating what is already known. A “living story” system eliminates redundancy and rewards knowledge that builds on what came before.
- Students would have to be skilled at finding and evaluating the credibility and accuracy of a wider variety of sources, in more transparent and efficient ways, than ever before.
- Students would need to be able to collaborate, generate, create and imagine as core competencies.
- Students would have to understand policy and action cycles so as to anticipate what kind of information would be needed next to move the subject forward
- Students would need to know how to connect, facilitate and moderate conversations about a controversial public issue that included the most important points of view and perspective about the topic
These are not the same skills we teach today. Yes, there’s overlap and yes some of this sound like the ‘old’ journalism. But in fundamental ways, it’s very different from the sometimes formula driven, idealized craft work of a lot of journalism education. As educators, we have to analyze, anticipate and build on what is happening as it happens. There are no ‘best practices’ during a time of disruption. We have to build them.
Yet another experiment in opening up on the news judgment process, this time from AP. The news wire has been asking newspaper editors and broadcast producers for their selection of the “top 10 stories” of the year since 1936. This year they are keeping the poll for traditional gatekeepers, but adding a parallel poll for Facebook users. They plan to publish both versions. It will be interesting to see how the lists compare and what effect comparisons like this might have on future news judgment. (Source: European Journalism Centre)
You can cast a Facebook vote here: http://www.facebook.com/APTopStories2009