In the news, is context possible?

As I’ve claimed before, a sure-fire way to think about the future of news is to think about the fundamentals. I discussed at some length how a more trusting relationship between creators and users can unlock serious value. (Thanks for the promotion, @jayrosen_nyu!)

Matt Thompson writes brilliantly about news and understanding. (See here too.) When we read the news, are we looking for understanding broader than the set of facts and overlaid analysis contained in a traditional article?

My sense is that the answer is something like, “Of course we are!”

“A focus on delivering context means that the news is never the endpoint,” he writes. “The trail of a story doesn’t end with the passage of a bill or the resignation of an official. It doesn’t end at all. It merely connects with more and more dots that form an ever-clearer picture of a better society.”

To some extent, this kind of context can be naively delivered through topic pages, which seem to me to be little more than a cluster of dots only faintly connected when what we’re looking for is a colorful picture.

One alternative is a kind of broad summary of the issue, place, person, company, etc. I’m still not certain whether newspapers are the best economic, social, and cultural structures in which to locate that job. Of course, the obvious point of comparison or target is the Great, Awesome, and Meritorious wikipedia. No sitting duck, that.

For one, there may be severe duplication of effort for any topic that’s not local. There’s only one wikipedia.

For two, it’s not clear that paying writers (per unit of time or per unit of understanding, as knol would do) will generate better results than not paying—for worries around gaming, spam, and other potentially perverse incentives we can’t even predict. That’s one catch about “understanding” as an end: it’s potentially so high-minded (in a good way) that the market, even buttressed by genuinely high-minded journalistic ideas, may not provide a great solution. That’s not to say that we humans are only competitive, adversarial, and conniving when the coin of the realm is in fact money. We also strive for status and influence, but they don’t seem to conflict with veritas as blatantly.

A virtue of one-off articles is that they’re relatively easy to verify. You can check the facts, for instance. And, as an editor or reader, your worry that the author is being appropriately focused or wide-rangingly ambitious is easier to allay because it’s easier to compare versus a necessarily narrower slice of reality. Likewise for your worry that the author is bring appropriately stingy with or indulgent of sources in pursuit of balance.

I’m not pretending to offer any solutions here. I just want to point out that there’s a reason journalism’s basic unit of information started as the article. Time-discrete units of information usually created by single authors are radically simpler things than infinitely relevant units of understanding created by teams.

4 Responses to “In the news, is context possible?”

  1. 1 mthomps 2009 February 23 at 8:26 pm

    I would guess that the reason journalism’s basic unit of information has been the article was that our publishing media gravitated toward that format. I would also argue that discrete, time-contained articles present all sorts of limitations that we find it hard to see because we were all born after the format had established its supremacy.

    That said, it’s perfectly possible to make context-rich articles that deliver understanding in a more engaging manner than any topic page could. I could give you example after example of article-like things that couldn’t be touched by a topic page. I could give you infinitely more examples of one-off articles containing claims that are deeply problematic despite their constrained scope. It’s a matter of execution. And I would say the same is true for topic pages. It’s possible to make them brilliant. And it’s even easier to make them completely unhelpful.

    The model I’m employing for my fellowship project fuses two forms: evolving, hierarchical, human-edited topic pages aimed at newcomers and searchers and blogs aimed at those passionate about the topics. The argument I’m making isn’t primarily about methods, though; it’s about ends. If our aim is delivering understanding rather than scoops or scalps, we’ll approach the journalism fundamentally differently. The tools will be a quibble.

  2. 2 mthomps 2009 February 23 at 8:27 pm

    Also, thanks for the comment. :)

  3. 3 Josh Young 2009 February 23 at 10:05 pm

    Matt, I’m a long-time fan of newsless, so I appreciate the comment here! I share the sense that there’s really something critically true and vitally important about the beguilingly simple claim that the article is not identical to the story.

    So, yes, understanding is the goal. And the one “form” is “evolving, hierarchical, human-edited topic pages aimed at newcomers and searchers,” while the other is “blogs aimed at those passionate about the subject.” The one is evergreen, while the other is discrete.

    I think that’s exactly correct! Those two forms approach the problem from both ends just so:

    –the deeper, more comprehensive and creative form for the shallower content
    –and the shallower form for the deeper, more philosophically or politically fraught content.

    The first form gets more attention these days–sometimes too much, I worry–but the second is really important.

    I’m quite happy that you appreciate how a set of one-off posts by a dogged blogger like Josh Marshall are a fantastic way to aim at understanding. I admire your posts on how the ethic of transparency in blogging can accomplish that (witness The intuition here is that a wildly simple narrative structure like a laser-focused blog post works really well iterated a bunch of times on different facets and developments of one big, hairy issue or story. The trick then is linking them up and getting your readers to follow along.

  4. 4 Wredsilddeart 2009 November 24 at 10:58 am

    Various of guys talk about this matter but you said really true words.

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