Monday, October 20, 2008

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it

Like “truth,” “news” is a plural noun.

I remember reading about an old press baron who insisted on asking editors, “Are there any news?” until finally one replied, “No, sir, not a single damned new.”

The grammar doesn’t matter much, but it’s important to remember that news indeed is many things, not one.

News is a river, flowing past us in the direction of time, constantly changing. As Native American lore reminds us, “No man can step into the same river twice.”

News is likewise a process, a complex set of relationships between events and personalities that makes better sense when understood in context. What happened before? What is happening elsewhere at the same time? What are the related effects? What will happen over there if this happens here? Why?

Furthermore, what once was the pronouncement of news has become a conversation about it. Discussions of what events mean or what issues are legitimate are no long subsidiary to the process of determining news; they are an integral part of it.

In my salad days journalists relied on one tool to handle it all – the constantly changing river of news as well as the intricate web of process and relationships. Our tool was the story, a finite prose narrative anchored to one spot in time – all the news we could gather and report by midnight, more or less. Compared to the alternatives of the day, it was a rich and powerful source of information.

Compared to the alternatives today, it’s not.

While narrative prose will always play a central role in human communication, the future of public service journalism does not reside with “the story.” Serving news audiences today demands the ability to deliver information that is, as Matt Thompson says, “both timelier and more timeless.”

Jeff Jarvis is postulating that the new “building block of journalism” is the topic, meaning a blog or site “that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering.” That seems sufficiently broad to embrace much of what we need to be doing. Matt is taking a deeper and more nuanced view of the same questions and comes to some well-supported, sweeping conclusions. Like this:

“I think we’re on the verge of an epochal advancement in journalism. We’ve spoken for years about the radical evolution that must take place, but I think our ideas are only now matching our ambitions. In recent years, our craft has gotten quicker and glitzier and slightly more in touch, but all our progress has been incremental. Now, the paradigm shift is finally at hand ...”

In a popular book in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell introduced us to the notion of the “tipping point” – which he described as “the level at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable” – and that’s where I see the metamorphosis of news and journalism today.

To be honest, the basic direction of news in a digital, networked world has been apparent for more than a decade, but until recently its unstoppable momentum wasn’t obvious enough to command attention.

After the graphical browser appeared and opened the world wide web to a global audience in the mid-1990s, many predicated its inevitable ascendancy. But in March 2000 the “dot com bubble” burst in a spectacular display of business failure, allowing many old-school journalism decision makers to breath a sign of relief and exhale a string of I-told-you-sos. As a result, the steady Darwinian progress of online companies continued somewhat under the radar while traditional media companies not only survived, but prospered. Newspapers, for example, showed year-over-year revenue growth well into 2006 and operated at elevated profit margins well beyond that.

Unsurprisingly, that all conspired to lull traditional news organizations into more complacency than now seems healthy. (To be fair, there was less the big organizations could have done than today’s critics acknowledge, but little good will come from rehashing those tired arguments). Today this sea change in audience and delivery tools is coupled with an epochal economic meltdown, and the result is an environment traditional news organizations will find painful in the best case.

So be it. The need for honest public service journalism – the kind that speaks the truth to power, puts tools in the hands of citizens, builds community – is more urgent than ever. As the events accelerate, our need for reliable, independent information grows. When your competitor has access to deep information resources, you need even more. Databases, open archival records, real-time reporting, deeply grounded analysis, and unfettered debate will combine to deliver a richer experience than any single story or disembodied report. Platforms (mobile, web-based, e-ink) and media (text, video, voice) will matter only as options for the audience to sort out.

Kevin Kelly’s brilliant New Rules for the New Economy outlined in 1998 how an economy based on bits rather than atoms – on abundance, not scarcity – would change the rules. Now he’s boiled it down either further: Where Attention Flows, Money Follows.

Luckily for us, many of the ways in which you can keep attention flowing are right up our alley. We can explore more about that soon.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Way to go, Anchorage

Editor & Publisher online reports:

EXCLUSIVE: Top 30 Newspaper Sites for September
Thanks to Palin,
Anchorage Daily News Crashes the List

By Jennifer Saba
NEW YORK – The Web site of the Anchorage Daily News zoomed up to make it in the list of top 30 online newspapers. The Web site enjoyed a 928% spike to 2.1 million monthly uniques in September, no doubt due to the paper's excellent coverage of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

The E&P story is here. And the outstanding Palin report can be found linked off today's ADN Palin story here.

And eat your heart out, Atlanta, Boston and Baltimore.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

25 best news photos?

You can argue with the selections and the rankings in Vanity Fair's list of "the best 25 news photos." But there's no argument about how powerful these photographs remain.

You can see the whole gallery here, and vote on rankings. Which do you like best? What do you think is missing?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Major overhaul at

The Sacramento Bee launch a completely retooled website this morning, combining clean and efficient design with a robust set of new features. Commenting and forums are greatly enhanced, including opportunity for readers to create profile pages and start their own blogs. Photo and video galleries have new prominence, and navigation is enchanced several ways, including lists of "most viewed" and "most commented."

Pages are also wider, which makes me happy because it ensures better display of one of my favirote secitons, The Frame, displaying outstanding photography from the Bee and elswewhere. Here was a favorite from today's line-up:

Mel Melcon / LA Times

Monday, October 13, 2008

Where radio gets its news

click image for link; thanks to Chris Krewson

Signal to noise: filtering and finding what you want

Once upon a time I listened to music on KFQD radio (750 AM) in Anchorage, where a guy named Scotty played records on his show every night that helped shape my taste in pop for decades to come. Later came college and album-oriented FM stations, late nights in Baltimore filled with smoke and rock music far removed from the mainstream confines of Anchorage AM stations.

Until recently, my music discovery followed roughly that same trajectory: from mainstream to personalized, evolving through eight-track tapes that let me hear what I wanted in our blue F-150 pickup, on to custom-made casettes from hipper friends introducing me to new sounds and finally to the apparent nirvana of the iPod. Apple's brillant marketing pitch said it all: 1,000 songs in your pocket.

But it turns out 1,000 songs won't do it – and neither will the nearly 6,000 I've collected since then. The fact is, I don't always know what I like, or what I want to listen to next. "Shuffle" doesn't work too well for me since my iTunes collection spans a wider range of styles than I ever want to hear in hodgepodge.

Welcome Pandora Radio and, more recently, the iTunes Genius playlist. Here are two new tools that combine the best of personalization with some much appreciated guidance and introduction to new music. Both use sophisticated algorithims to match my tastes in music with other songs I might like. Each can learn from my listening habits to fine-tune the selection.

Pandora is in some ways more ambitious. It streams music constantly from its own collection based on matches with artists or songs I have previously selected. I can also vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down to teach it. I can't select specific congs (a licensing limitation) but in general the service does a good job in picking the tunes. Of course there's a quick way for me to click and buy those I like.

The Genius feature on iTunes uses the music already in my collection to build new playlists based on any song I select. It has less to work with and isn't spot-on making matches, but it often reminds me of songs I own but rarely listen to, and the groupings are coherent and useful.

What does this have to do with the news business? Not a lot, I suppose, but it does make me think about the role we play in helping readers refine a bewildering selection of news and information down into a manageable "playlist" for any specific time. Human editors add value, as do the selection algorithims in Pandora or iTunes.

Readers once were stuck with whatever their newspaper picked for them – a lot like me listening to Scotty on KFQD all those years ago. When it became possible to aggregate our own selections, we entered an iPod age of news, where I built a list of RSS feeds and read just what I wanted.

But it feels to me like Pandora and Genius can trump the experience of listening only to my own collection. And I think smart, useful selection of news and information can do a better job for most of us than autodidactism.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Learning to host the party

Here's a metaphor that ought to resonate with nearly everybody who reads this blog: Why albums used to matter. The 3:21 video comes by way of Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket, who found the key lesson to be the admonition that media should be "... figuring out where the party is at nowadays, and setting yourself to be the one who's over there hosting the party."

I immediately took issue with that (before watching the video) because it seemed to presume that success is defined as hosting the party – no matter where it is, or who's there. While that may be true for a movie company with no artistic pretensions, or a television producer looking only for the largest possible audience, it isn't a worthy destination for those trying to perform public service journalism.

Then I watched the video, which I'd suggest will be worth your time, too. We can profitably adopt the "get there and host the party" metaphor, too, with this caveat: we already know who we're trying to host (people who care about public and civic affairs) and how we plan to decorate the room (with the journalism of verification, with opportunities for co-creation and conversation, with social networking tools that can help build community cohesion).

Taken in that light, the admonition becomes an imperative. In much the same way we've talked here about abandoning the outmoded "gatekeeper model" of editing, this reminds us that these people are going to be out looking for a place to party independently of what we do. Our obligation is to ensure them a somewhat more enriching experience for those times they're not headed to the VIP room at the disco.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Which America do you see?

If you read this blog you know I like infographics and design. I find both aesthetically and personally satisfying, but there's also real power in deciding how to display information.

For example, which of these maps more accurately represents electoral America in 2004?

The first is a familiar red/blue (GOP/Dem) map by electoral winner where each state is represented by its geography.

But elections aren't about geography; they're about voters. And the second map, where states take shape based on population, is a far more accurate representation of the 2004 results.

You can see more fascinating maps like this here.

Thanks to Matt at Snarkmarket for the pointer.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Knight multimedia fellowships

Multimedia Reporting and Convergence Workshop
January 11-16, 2009 and March 22-27, 2009

The Knight Digital Media Center at the University of California, Berkeley is now accepting applications for week-long training sessions for mid-career journalists wishing to advance their multimedia skills. The workshops combine instruction in multimedia storytelling and hands-on multimedia news production.

Fellowships include all expenses except travel. More information is available here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Money talks

Matt Thompson wants to discover, uncover and recover different ways of telling stories. He's all about a continum of information -- context, backstory, history, explanations,and the like; the blog annotating his research at Univ Missouri details the quest with some subtlety.

He's been talking a lot about the money crisis as a case study. His quick take on how to share what he's been learning takes this form -- well worth a look. I'd like to have a reference like this tuned to my area and including local specifics on my news site.

This is my favorite of the links I've been to thus far.

UPDATE (Thursday AM): Jeff Jarvis examines Matt's effort in the context of his recent posts about "replacing the article." Find illumination here.