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Summary:

Many media outlets still think of the story or the article as the atomic unit of journalism — but with so many competing sources of information and the real-time nature of the social web, is that still the case? And if not, what replaces it?

Many media outlets — and not just traditional players like newspapers or magazines, but even some newer and more digital-savvy ones — still think of the article or the story as the bedrock foundation of news and journalism. But with so many different sources of content, and so many different ways of distributing it and displaying it, is that really still the case? Author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has been writing about this question for some time, and makes the argument that the article should sometimes be separated into its component parts in order to be more useful, advice that new-media startups like Circa seem to be taking to heart.

In a recent post, Jarvis writes about how it makes more sense to think of the various elements of a typical news article as “assets” of various kinds — so the nugget of news that triggered the story might be a single asset, and then the background about that event would be another, related photos or video would be a third, and so on. Do all of these things have to appear in every article? Not really. That’s just the way that things were done when you only got one chance to print something every day. So why does that form still dominate? And should it?

The future of news: Small pieces, loosely joined

During a recent Twitter discussion about Facebook’s IPO, journalism professor Jay Rosen sparked a debate about those questions when he said a Reuters story was so dense with financial terminology that it was almost impossible for a non-financial reader to understand (Anthony De Rosa at Reuters collected some of the conversation in a Storify module, which is embedded below). What the story needed, Jarvis said, was some background — but when those kinds of elements are included in stories they rarely serve readers well:

If you know nothing about an ongoing story, it gives you too little history. If you know a story well, it merely wastes the paper’s space and your time. It is a compromise demanded by the one-size-fits-all constraints of news’ means of production and distribution.

What would be ideal, Jarvis said, is if there was a way to connect that piece to a source of background material that is constantly updated — and of course there is: it’s called linking to Wikipedia, an extension of Jarvis’s “do what you do best and link to the rest” mantra. But not everyone does that; some outlets such as the New York Times prefer to link to their own database of “topic pages” instead, perhaps in part because those backgrounders are engineered to do well in search, and in general seem to prefer to link internally if at all.

If the disaggregation of the traditional story format was taken to its logical conclusion, Jarvis argues that we could end up with “news organizations that specialize not just in beats and topics but in kinds of assets,” with one being just the news nugget (like a wire service), another the explainer (like The Economist), another the data related to the story, etc. Then links between those component parts would help the reader follow as much of the story as they wish, and in whatever order they want. Sean Blanda of the consulting firm Technically Media has also written about how the article needs to evolve, and how the “atomic unit of journalism is the fact.”

A news ecosystem is already evolving

You can see the kind of news ecosystem Jarvis envisions developing already in a way, with Twitter and blogs or aggregators becoming the place where the news breaks, followed by more information on blogs or newspaper sites — along with photos and mashups and related ephemera on sites like BuzzFeed or Reddit (which has also taken on much of the Q&A function, and some of the fact-checking one as well). This is an illustration of what Jarvis and others have called “news as a process,” and also an example of author and Harvard researcher David Weinberger’s description of the web as “small pieces, loosely joined.”

Some of these connections are already created with plain old hyperlinks, of course, although not everyone uses them (or even likes them, if you listen to critics like Nick Carr). Is there a way to make those kinds of connections easier? Blogging pioneer and programmer Dave Winer thinks there is — in a recent post, he described a way to connect different types of documents such as comments together, a kind of peer-to-peer protocol for a document-based web.

It’s an interesting idea: instead of just a story with some scattered links in it, you could have a bundle of assets that could be packaged or linked to in any number of different ways using APIs to sources of different types of content. Judging by a blog post it published on the topic, this is also the kind of area that Circa — the media startup from Cheezburger founder Ben Huh and David Cohn of Spot.us — is focused on. As the nature of information changes thanks to the web and social media, shouldn’t the way we are delivering it change as well?

Producing news articles and putting them behind a paywall is a great idea if what people want is content. But what if they just want information? If that’s the case it will be much harder to ask folks to pay and even doubly hard to meet their desires with an outdated form (the article).

As De Rosa commented during the debate about the Reuters story, accomplishing that kind of thing in practice would require altering the entire way that traditional media content is created — and also the way that reporters and journalists think about what they are supposed to be doing. But if they are competing with more and more sources of information, many of which don’t even look like traditional journalism, they should probably start thinking more creatively soon.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users The Official CTBTO Photostream and Yan Arief Purwanto

  1. Funny, but it seems that Ted Nelson (some would say the father of hyperlinks, www, and… micropayments!) was right:
    http://www.almaden.ibm.com/almaden/npuc97/1996/tnelson.htm
    All that matters is not an article, which is words, but the context in which those words, or some key words, to be precise, appear together with links to other relevant stories, pictures, etc.

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  2. If you want to turn journalists into programmers, this is the way to do it.

    It’s an interesting idea but it’s a way to transer information, not story or comment, which depend on narrative.

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    1. @Tony. If your comment was in response to my reference, then please note that Mathew and others are talking about how technology has changed/is changing journalism. Authors do not have to turn into programmers. They must, however, consider how their pieces are distributed and interacted with by online readers, given the technology they use. Nelson was smart enough to predict these changes, including the fact that users discover, read, and re-distribute news content in contexts relevant to them within their own networks.

      As Mathew has wrote lately, for him as an author important is to reach out to as many readers as possible. But is this the goal of a reader? No. The reader wants information or entertainment (or both) relevant to him/her, and supported by similar content by others, linked to other sources, preferably with more or deeper coverage. That is why the traditional article is not enough. Readers want headlines and key words they can use to connect the various sources and build a story for themselves, share them quickly with others, preferably with their own comments or emphases, using the same technology the authors use.

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      1. @Greg no, I was commenting on the main article.

        I agree with Jeff Jarvis that there are more efficient ways to disseminate some factual information through the web. (I listen to him on This Week in Google and his take is generally good value.)

        But I observed that the solution he proposes, for this problem, is very similar to (object-oriented) programming i.e. that articles should be constructed from what are essentially reusable blog fragments – or objects. That would change the nature of writing an article, making it more structured and similar to writing a program.

        I don’t think it would work well for opinion pieces or those that tell the story of a news event.

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  3. No article fits all, and attempts to go too far to achieve that impossible dream will dilute, not strengthen, journalism. 

    The Reuters article in question wasn’t for everyone (because no article is). Could it have used less jargon? Maybe. I’m guilty of using terms or art myself (and getting my hand slapped by an editor) because these precise shortcuts improve the narrative for the main constituency of a given piece. 

    We are fortunate to live in an age of hyperlinks and databases — and our own previous stories, and those of others — to provide context and background that would otherwise slow the latest story down. 

    But we are telling stories. We are storytellers. Compartmentalizing information is great for removing speed bumps, and for machines to process data, but breaking down stories into some manner of component parts for readers to re-compile ad hoc strikes me as a curious path to take. 

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    1. Thanks, John — I don’t think anyone is arguing that storytelling has to go away, or that stories aren’t good for many things. But there are other ways to convey information, possibly better ways in some cases, and that can leave the story form for things it is best suited to.

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  4. Hey Mathew,

    Definitely check out my manifesto-y thing about this from a few years back: http://www.holovaty.com/writing/fundamental-change/ — newspapers need to stop the story-centric worldview. A handful of mainstream news organizations have made modest strides in this area since then, but it’s still a story-centric world.

    Adrian

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    1. Thanks a lot for posting that, Adrian — I remember it well, because it started me thinking about the future of the article way back when. And you are right that we have made surprisingly little progress.

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  5. The concept of article as a flexible configuration of various assets is amazing. Especially if navigating and exploring them would be intuitive (what is a big challenge). I believe that http://tiddlywiki.com/ is so far the best attempt for publishing that way, as the reader actually can shape his own way to interact with the content, grabbing the as much context and details as he needs. Even more amazing would be to completely divide the text content from the HTML structure (as it is now with media files) – so it could be easily reused as an asset somewhere else.

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  6. Whether or not you get one chance to print something every day isn’t the relevant pivot. It’s the user who only takes one chance to read the content. The content is still the content; those pieces might exist in the mind of an editor who is putting the composite story together, but to the reader, it’s still a story, and it all has to be in one place at one time. Granted, some readers are evolving their readership, but we have a long way to go before that mode dominates all media. It’s more likely to work better in niches for now (Twitter comes to mind, but only for those paying attention to their feed). For most of us, ‘you’ the publisher get one shot, maybe two, per day. “Use it wisely” would be my advice. Feel free to supplement that for those who want information IV, but ‘on the record’ still exists in the reader’s mind and should be respected. There are opportunities available for latching on to a story (e.g., send me updates or at least notice of updates via email or Twitter), but they really need to be better than they are today. It should be possible to ‘latch on’ in a more focused and less obtrusive way, and no doubt there will be a patent for that yesterday.

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  7. Fascinating. And yet, there are different end-user modalities for different chunks: quick hits (Twitter while on the go), long-form (Slate or Atlantic when on a big screen at home), video (lunch-time when your hands are full), and so on and so on.

    And they’re different for different people.

    Aggregating them all is not the answer. Maybe, maybe, allowing (forcing) people to choose the modality they want is? Maybe intelligently presenting them based on user preferences, device, and location?

    The only thing I think I know is that news will look very different 10 years from today.

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  8. Makes sense. It’s similar to my proposal six years ago, to kill the press release and replace it with a collection of component parts, text, photos, videos, etc. “Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!” – http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/mt/archives/2006/02/die_press_relea.php

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  9. Really, do we readers want to jump from one link to another to get the whole story? Do we? Perhaps via these context-less inline links I long ago rejected to follow because you never know where you land? No. We don’t.

    I certainly disagree with Jarvis. A story is a self-contained unit of information I don’t want to re-aggregate as a reader or only want to get as crumbs of meaningless information. Of course, if it turns out that the story as such does not get recognized anymore through all the social media and SEO linking noise, it may happen that it disappears or moves to a (payed?) niche. But that’s not something I would actively enforce as a publisher who’s really good at telling stories, such as like GigaOM. I come to GigaOM directly via a bookmark on my PC because I know what sort and quality of stories I get here. So please leave the bombs in the shelf and do what you do so well: full-blown (in a sense of complete, not nuked) article and stories.

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    1. Jarvis makes his living being a media guru advising his media clients not to work with Apple and pushing his paid content theories. Any post with Jarvis mentioned usually is not worth a read.

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  10. I am no longer a journalist, but I still struggle with this everyday. I transferred my journalism experience to the world of cultural institutions, where trying to explain the full scope and concept of your exhibition is as equally challenging as getting people to care about CDSs. I think there needs to be a fundamental change in the way people write about things all around the internet, not just on news sites.

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  11. On some levels I agree withe this article but on others I thin it misses a key point. We need to free the article from the site.

    Youtube set video free by making it embeddable. However if you want to move an article you have to find a human and ask them (have you ever tried that? It’s almost impossible withe most sites).

    This is why I built Repost.Us – we make whole articles embeddable just like video. We don’t need to blow up the article to save it we just need to set it free.

    John

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  12. Why on Earth would anyone listen to Jeff Jarvis opinion about anything. He’s being paid to promote high tech venture capital projects that involve “journalism”. Jarvis experience in the media business is that he was a TV critic years ago. The guy claims that he was in the World Trade Center yet 9/11 was not an inside job. Not sure if he’s living on the same planet as the rest of us?

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