Real time and the evolution of the news story

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While some in the media sphere are consumed by the desire to redesign the way news websites like the New York Times look, others are thinking about redesigning how we write about the news online — including Vadim Lavrusik, who handles journalism outreach for Facebook, and wrote a recent post for the Nieman Journalism Lab on the topic of redesigning the news story. But the reality is that these two things are closely connected: most news websites look the way they do because most news organizations still approach journalism in a fairly traditional way, and until that changes and media outlets embrace the idea of “news as a process,” the way that their websites look is unlikely to change.

That’s not to say that news sites like the New York Times haven’t made concessions to the real-time nature of news, or the fact that many stories no longer have a defined beginning or end — something Paul Ford wrote about for New York magazine recently, describing traditional media as the “epiphanator” because of its love of tidy endings. The NYT often posts stories that are time-stamped, so that readers can see when they were created, and on some of its blogs it occasionally posts updates that have time stamps on them as well, so that it’s obvious when new information was added.

The news, frozen in time

Those kinds of concessions are few and far between, however. In many cases, both on the web and in the NYT’s iPad app, the impression given is that the news displayed is frozen in time, a snapshot of reality taken at a particular moment — in some cases the previous day, and in other cases a time that is difficult to pin down. It’s not just the NYT, obviously: Other news outlets suffer from the same problem, in many cases because their publishing systems are set up to pump out newspapers, not websites. But it’s also a symptom of the way that many media outlets think about what they do.

Media analyst and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has written about the idea that the story format is an antiquated model that no longer serves the purposes that real-time and digital media require, and there is a lot of truth to that. My response to Jeff’s original piece — where I tried to defend the need for curation and analysis as well as real-time streaming of news — seemed to rub Jeff the wrong way, although I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. But how do we blend them together? How does the real-time nature of journalism and the explosion of sources change the way that news organizations publish?

In his Nieman Lab piece, Lavrusik talks about some of the elements that media companies need to consider when designing the future of the news story, including the need for context, which is what I was trying to get at in my response to Jarvis’ piece: it’s great that Andy Carvin of National Public Radio is curating thousands of tweets from the Middle East about the Arab Spring, and that one-man newswire is hugely informative — but how do we make sense of that for people who aren’t connected to Twitter all the time?

Curating the curator

Ideally, someone would have an army of reporter/editors “curating the curator,” by pulling together stories (or whatever we want to call them) from Carvin’s stream, or anyone else who is doing something similar. Storify and Storyful provide tools for doing this — something I’ve argued is becoming a crucial part of what journalists do in this real-time, digital age — but so far not many traditional news organizations have made use of these or any other similar tools. The New York Times and other newspapers have done their own live-blogging of news events, but it is still relatively rare.

Brian Stelter of the NYT provided a great example of how real-time journalism occurs when he used Twitter and Tumblr to report on the tornado in Missouri earlier this year. Not only did his use of those tools allow people to see what he was experiencing behind the scenes as he reported, but readers could effectively see the story taking shape in front of them as it occurred, instead of reading about it in pre-packaged story format later. But while the tweets and Tumblr posts and photos contributed to his eventual story, none of that content appeared on the NYT site while it was happening.

Why can’t we see the evolution of the story?

It’s great that the New York Times allowed Stelter to experiment with Tumblr in this way, but why couldn’t the paper make more use of that content somehow on its actual website? I don’t know exactly how it would do that — maybe a Twitter module that updates in real time, or an embedded Tumblr stream of some kind, or a Storify widget that some editor puts together based on Stelter’s output. On a related note, why has no one experimented with Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg’s idea of story versions, so readers can see which parts of a story have changed over time?

As Lavrusik notes in his piece, user contributions are another huge element of the news that few organizations are really taking advantage of. Many newspapers have the occasional feature where readers can contribute photos, and most have comments — but those comments are often hidden or dumped in a heap at the bottom of a post, where they seem like an afterthought. When everyone can be a publisher and anyone with a smartphone can function as a journalist, how do we incorporate that into the way a modern digital-news organization functions?

Maybe somewhere there is a newspaper or web designer who is thinking about a new kind of site that can incorporate these kind of real-time elements. I hope so, because the way that most news sites function has to change if it’s going to adapt to the way that the news works now — instead of trying to patch and tweak a decades-old publishing model. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for more links about the evolution of the news story, Associated Press editor Jonathan Stray had a great roundup in a recent post.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Kevin Lim and jphilipg

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