Monday, November 10, 2008

The CIA spies the future of journalism

Who would have thought that the Central Intelligence Agency has something to teach the news business?

A bit of serendipitous surfing landed me at Library Clips, the Australian knowledge-management blog of John Tropea, and in particular at his recent post "How do wikis and blogs fit together"—a topic which is not much different from the question of how wikis can be integrated into a news operation, a subject I've touched upon before, and which Matt Thompson is exploring at Mizzou.

John quotes a 2005 paper by D. Calvin Andrus of the CIA, "The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community" (free downloadable PDF via link). The paper proposed replacing the agency's cumbersome, hierarchical, inflexible and ineffective processing of raw data into accepted conclusions of fact with a self-organizing "complex adaptive system" consisting of:
  • A repository of raw data ("like unrefined ore") gathered from the agency's network of sources.
  • Blogs in which individuals can express and share opinions within the agency (which would be a big "paradigm shift," according to Andrus.
  • A wikipedia in which material archived in the repository and discussed and interpreted in the blogs is organized into an authoritative agency knowledge base of agreed-upon facts, tools, techniques and policies.
  • Search tools: "Part of the agility required in today's high speed security environment is to be able to quickly find information."
  • Feedback tools, with which agency users can discover quick answers to questions such as what parts of the wiki are changing rapidly (an indication of new information being developed), where there are knowledge gaps, what areas of the system are getting the most attention, and so on. "As important as information sharing is to the success of the solution, it is even more important to know who is sharing what information."
It turns out the agency took Andrus's advice and has implemented much of this system in the form of its Intellipedia. (See also the Wikipedia entry on this.)

Does this suggest a way for news enterprises to organize and publish their information? Indeed. Here's the model (assuming a local or regional news organization):
  • A repository of raw data stored electronically—census data, election results, municipal reports, agendas, minutes, financial data, press releases, court records, real estate sales information, traffic studies, environmental impact statements, and data from reporters, stringers, and other contributors: notes, audio, video, stills. In other words, all the detritus that usually stagnates in, under and atop desks and file cabinets in newsrooms.
  • "News" (the equivalent of the CIA's internal blogs): published "stories" as well as blog posts, columns, editorials, letters to the editor, reader comments, etc., which are generated based on information in the repository, or on stories and blog posts by others.
  • A local wikipedia constantly being built and refined from the blog-equivalents, in which local issues as well as people-in-the-news, businesses, government entities, non-profits, geographic features, buildings, streets, etc. all have pages that are collectively built and curated using the knowledge gathered into the repository and refined in the blog-equivalents.
  • Search: a self-explanatory feature facilitating access to all of this material
  • Feedback tools: these will help editors and journalists see how material is accessed, shared and disseminated by its users.
But importantly, I would add one more key feature that's perhaps not as important in a closed system such as the CIA, but will be critical for news enterprises interested in garnering a loyal readership without gray hair:
  • Social networking: As famously uttered by a college student in a focus group and repeated throughout the journalism blogosphere, "if the news is that important, it will find me." From the linked N. Y. Times story: "In the days after Mr. Obama’s speech on race last week, for example, links to the transcript and the video were the most popular items posted on Facebook. On The New York Times’s Web site, the transcript of the speech ranked consistently higher on the most e-mailed list than the articles written about the speech." As Steve Outing has suggested in a column worth a detailed read, this suggests not only that we must redefine the news organization and the news itself, but that news organizations must connect with readers and sources through networks like Facebook and Twitter, incorporating unaffiliated news feeds like Google News and Topix, pushing content out via Flickr, YouTube and Twitter, and facilitating user-generated news feeds that may incorporate everything from wire-service feeds to micro-personal news from the reader's social network connections.
Social networking also suggests avenues for those (like me) who are still interested in how all this gets paid for. Publishing stuff online in order to generate "eyeballs" and then selling ads to folks interested in reaching those eyeballs is pretty much yesterday's model. (Actually, it's a previous-centuries model that may have lost its final bit of momentum on 9/11—an event "important enough to find" just about everyone long before showing up anywhere in print, and one that created new imperatives for people to reach out and connect with each other.) A community-centered news enterprise that exploits the power of social networking will tend to generate "friends" rather than "eyeballs," and friends—customers with loyalty—are what advertisers are looking for.

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