Archive for the 'Matt Thomson' Category

What the Structure of Content Means for Context

My hero was perched high up in journalism. The writing he left behind is deep and broad. In so many ways, to read his writing is just to think and see more clearly.

Journalists, it seems to me, fancy themselves explainers. They are great synthesizers of the world—at length. It is a wonderful calling for those who choose it.

Print was a great boon to that self-image. Print may even have allowed it. It was a fine world, mostly.

But then came the interwebs and google and adversarial search, which foisted on journalists the great tyranny of pageviews. Click.

Suddenly, it seems, the world moves faster. Its pieces are smaller. Its harried citizens’ attentions are diced or crushed or pointed only inward. We are distracted.

Chasing after readers as only they know how, cheered along by SEOs, journalists and publishers of news are looking for content that fits the new us, distracted. It’s an arms race to the bottom.

But we are not at the bottom. Nor are we at the top. For the news doesn’t so simply fit us, as we don’t so simply fit the news or so thoroughly morph our minds to information or its forms or media. Were it only that simple!

*     *     *

The Least Publishable Unit is funny thing. The concept refers to a thing that’s in fact publishable—but only barely.

Here’s the contrasting picture, set up by Michael Scherer of TIME: “Once upon a time, the incentive of a print reporter at a major news organization was to create a comprehensive, incisive account of an event.” Again, that was their calling, enabled by print.

What matters now, however, is “the news nugget, the blurb, the linkable atom of information.” Why? Because “a click is a click, after all.” News “is increasingly no longer consumed in the context of a full article, or even a full accounting of an event, but rather as Twitter-sized feeds.”

Are the interwebs, ineluctably, making the news shallow and narrow? The answer is unequivocally yes and also no. We now have more choice, a vastly wider, and growing, array of options for publishing. Our once-private gossip, carried in spoken words from neighbor to neighbor, is now online, in text, inviting misinterpretation from strangers. This song is not about you.

As certain as humans are petty, narcissistic beings, so impressed with their own lives and confident in their supreme ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be shallow and narrow. Please don’t read it, unless its brevity is the soul of wit.

But so, too, as certain as humans are profound, altruistic beings, so inspired by the world around them and hopeful of their modest ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be deep and broad. Please do read it, unless its length is the apppetite of self-infatuation.

Here’s the nut: The news will also be deep and narrow. And it will be shallow and broad.

The interwebs give us those options too. Let’s not forget about them, or forget that they are different from their purer counterparts of longing and loathing.

*     *     *

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, inspired by @mthomps and this and other posts at and by this post of @jayrosen_nyu‘s. Of course, the critical piece of the backdrop is a spectacular story by This American Life, called The Giant Pool of Money.

I agree with Jay that “Explanation leads to information, not the other way around.” I certainly agree that news often misses the forest for the trees. If I were a student at j-school, I’d want my profs showing me how to create omnibus stories like this. All writers—no, many writers!—pine for that awesome control over structure and narrative.

Cutting somewhat against the grain, however, I don’t think “Giant Pool of Money” should be the aim of all our ambitions. Which is certainly not to belittle it. Quite to the contrary, its status as masterwork is what makes it really, really hard for us to emulate. That’s asking too much—being a “national explainer” is too tough. Even the brightest among us, in memoriam, perform such dazzling feats of synthesis only occasionally. That’s not good enough for those of us who like important, responsible, thoughtful news all the time. And even This American Life’s story came after the disaster. Warning of the dangers of wildly complex securities and derivatives before they come crashing down is an even taller order—on the level of the GAO, for instance.

Here’s my chart illustrating why “national explainer” is really hard.


“Deep” and “shallow”? “Broad” and “narrow”? Huh? We’re talking scope here, folks.

“The Giant Pool of Money,” in the lower-right quadrant, is “broad” in its subject and “deep” in its container.

When something is “broad” in subject, it engages a complex, multi-faceted, sweeping subject. It’s a work of synthesis, taking multiple angles on and bridging between and weaving different constituent subjects. It aims to be comprehensive—the stuff of the glory days, however real or imagined they may be, of print journalism.

When something is “deep” in its container, there’s something a bit more prosaic going on. Essentially, each discrete work is thorough unto itself. One document—whether it’s text, audio, or video—aims to say more or less all there is to be said about its subject—to connect all the dots in one place. If there’s very much to be said about a subject, as in “The Giant Pool of Money,” the document will be long.

Consider the alternative: shallow containers. They’re not an insult! When we say something is “shallow” in its container, we mean simply that one document doesn’t attempt to say all there is to be said about a subject. Josh Marshall’s reporting, especially on the US Attorney Scandal, is a high-profile example that bloggers invented.

“We have kind of broken free of the model of discrete articles that have a beginning and end,” Marshall said, talking to the New York Times about the Polk Award. “Instead, there are an ongoing series of dispatches.”

Each dispatch isn’t comprehensive. They catch the reader up on past reporting with a few links to previous posts. Or they start off with a link or two to others’ posts or articles, promising to pick up the issue where they left off. Then they take a deep look at a small set of questions, teasing out contradictions, and end up with a set of conclusions or a new, more pointed set of questions for the next post.

The point is that the containers are small—shallow in the sense that they’re often only exposing a few dots at a time and not necessarily always trying to connect them all up as they go along. These posts don’t feign omniscience the way some, though certainly not all, traditional journalistic pieces do; they admit doubt and highlight confusion. The goal is to isolate facts, issues, and relationships, not always synthesize them.

But a critical characteristic of the form is that Josh Marshall’s dispatches on fired USAs compose a series. Each post extends previous ones or adds more to the same canvas. They’re all part of some bigger picture; they’re cumulative. And that is why, taken together, they amount to journalism that’s broad in subject. The bits of content may be fractured over author, space, and perspective, but they’re one work—one “text” in the fancy sense. Josh Marshall’s infusion of himself and his joys and outrages into his blog do the human work of pulling together the moral logic that invites readers to be patient while he unfolds the political logic one small piece at a time.

The last of the three interesting quadrants contains Wikipedia. Here again, “narrow” is not an insult. More than anyone, Wikipedians know “What Wikipedia Is Not.” It’s not for original research or reporting. It’s not for opinion or analysis. It’s for documenting these things. It’s domain is facts—but not nearly all facts. It’s not a directory or a guidebook or a textbook. Wikipedia works because it factors out, as much as possible, the kind of human reason that we colloquially call “wisdom” or “insight.”

As Farhad Manjoo explains in his Slate piece, “perspective and style don’t scale.” So you may “learn much more from David Foster Wallace’s appreciation of the star athlete than from the Wikipedia entry” on Roger Federer, but “writing is hard even for the world’s greatest wordsmiths.” Metaphorical reasoning, subtle thought, subjective analysis, and artful synthesis—these are happily banned from Wikipedia.

For Wikipedia, NPOV is hard enough to enforce. Disputes over NPOV erupt every day, probably many times a day. Multiple people collaborating, mostly strangers, often anonymous, are woefully inefficient writers of an encyclopedia. Revert wars abound. So does self-promotion. Vandalism is rampant. All manner of muddy, crummy, and scattered contributions insist their way into Wikipedia, every day, thousands upon thousands of times a day. There is a popular myth, too, that Wikipedia is a flat organization that reaches consensus among co-equal members. In fact, Wikipedia has a wildly complex hierarchy of admins, mediators, and an arbitration committee. It’s not hard to get lost extraordinarily quickly poking around the various administrative, advisory, and community groups, like the now-inactive Esperanza.

And yet, as Manjoo writes, the Wikipedia whose fluid articles we know so well “works amazingly well.” I hope that’s not controversial. Wikipedia is a profoundly inspiring testament to human knowledge, warts and all. Hierarchies haven’t vanished, squabbles have multiplied, and all the messiness may be incredibly salient to the average person who pays a bit of attention to Wikipedia. Aside from the inventing a technology that makes cleaning up vandalism cheaper than to creating it, Wikipedia’s central success is discovering both that its subjects must be wickedly narrow and that wickedly narrow articles are wildly informative. As we’ve found with twitter, sometimes constraints set us free.

*     *     *

It’s extraordinarily important to remember the virtues of the deep and narrow and the shallow and broad. The Politico’s snack-sized news may be cheaper than the New Yorker’s longer fare. But the Politico can’t compete on price with Wikipedia or on community with Josh Marshall. It turns out, as well, that there’s more than one way to put an explanation on offer to the world. The fact that we associate the role of the “great expainer” with the long-form narrative, contra the Least Publishable Unit, grows out of the fact that we overlook hybrid forms.

Josh Marshall’s won’t be the last shallow and broad news. Storymaps and the Las Vegas Sun’s topic page on water are experiments. Wikipedia won’t be the last we hear of narrow and deep news and content.

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.

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