Friday, October 10, 2008

The Basic Unit of News is:

Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine argues that "the new building block" of news is the topic:
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.
Note that this supports Matt Thompson's notion of wikifying the news, which I've quoted, described and commented on in several posts, see archive.

But I must call attention, again, also, to the (ancient, 2006) view of Adrian Holovaty:
But the goal for me, a data person focused more on the long term, is to store information in the most valuable format possible. The problem is particularly frustrating to explain because it's not necessarily obvious; if you store everything on your Web site as a news article, the Web site is not necessarily hard to use. Rather, it's a problem of lost opportunity. If all of your information is stored in the same "news article" bucket, you can't easily pull out just the crimes and plot them on a map of the city. You can't easily grab the events to create an event calendar. You end up settling on the least common denominator: a Web site that knows how to display one type of content, a big blob of text. That Web site cannot do the cool things that readers are beginning to expect.
Holovaty doesn't come right out and say it, but he's arguing in the direction of smaller units of news than the story; in other words, that individual facts are the basic units. We may be arguing semantics here, but when Jarvis and Thompson suggest that the topic, rather than the story, is now the basic unit of news, they're saying that news would be best presented and comprehended online if built into topic threads, rather than story "blobs". That's true enough, but that doesn't make the topic the "building block," because that suggests there's nothing smaller than the topic.

In my view the fact needs to be the building block or basic unit. Content management and publishing systems need to find ways of storing, handling, manipulating, sorting, searching for, analyzing collections of, presenting mashups of, and making comprehensible facts and collections of facts. Many typical news stories contain only one or two or three new facts, laced into 25 paragraphs of background rehash and quoted commentary. And news organizations will no doubt continue to publish those stories. But at the same time, there needs to be a way to file those few new facts in such a way that they're added to all the topic threads they're relevant to, they're made available to anyone with keyword update subscriptions, they're added to any relevant maps, tables, dynamic analyses, calendars of events, and the like. And let facts have individual URL addresses just as stories do now.

Let's get away from"building blocks" (which conjures up a city of immutable structures), and conceive of news as composed of more granular units: facts that are databased in such a way that they are easily, often automatically, repurposed into many possible presentation formats.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Believe me, I agree entirely. In fact, in this post on 9/26, I said (in response to a Google executive, not Jeff Jarvis):"I’d argue that the article (and the mp3) is a molecular unit. Right now, I’d say the fact (and, extending the analogy, the sample) is the atomic unit of news."

When Robin Sloan and I made EPIC 2014 lo these many years ago, the central brilliance of the EPIC machine was an algorithm that stripped facts out of articles and recombined them into a custom-tailored news story for every reader, based on her interests, consumption habits, demographics, etc.

While in the intervening years, I've grown more jaded about the capacity of algorithms to reconstruct isolated facts into compelling narratives, I'm still a firm believer in the notion that great promise lies in developing the tools to shape data into a variety of forms. That was one of the (too-subtle) undercurrents of this post.

As I've been exploring software frameworks, I'm incredibly fascinated by projects such as this, which reminds me of another of Adrian's "ancient" posts.