Over the past few days I've been working with Jay Rosen to update his 2007 post on Coordinates for a Successful News Site. The idea now, as then, is neither predicting the future nor describing a new orthodoxy. Rather, these are meant to be wayfinding coordinates in the ongoing search for solutions, not mandatory destinations.
In other words, we're not saying all news sites will have to use Digg-like social filtering (Coordinate 02.04), crowdsourced reporting (Coordinate 03.3) or game-based learning conventions (Coordinate 11.01). But we are saying that people who are actively building (or thinking about building) the news sites and journalistic organizations of the future might want to think their way around these concepts.
You'll notice that not everything described here is purely journalistic. As reporters and editors across America are being reminded in 2008, journalism doesn't take place in a vacuum. Many of these coordinates are focused on the context in which journalism will occur, as well as how to sustain it.
So here's the drill: We're posting the draft here this evening for your feedback tonight and Tuesday, leading up to publication of a more formal draft at PressThink, where we'll be seeking more comment and continual improvement (Coordinate 07.01). And so on.
Draft document after the jump...
There are some things you'll want to get right from the start...
- Database first, database heart. From ubiquitous geo-tagging to clever mashups, it all begins with database structure.
- Though it may not be visible to users, a site's primary product will be inter-operable, cooperative flavors of XML.
- Your organization should match your business plan should match your mission should match your scale. It's possible to get all those things aligned, even in the most traditional of media.
- Suppose new relationships with people, institutions and partners.
Traditional news organizations kept "news judgment" behind a curtain, playing stories up or down based on an agenda that was seldom shared or explained. Modern technology offers alternatives.
- Smart aggregation with clear editorial focus. “Many perfect Pepsis” replace the quest for the ultimate average.
- Multiple contributions, not necessarily centrally assigned (could be blogs, could be videos, etc.), but with the best stuff filtered to “the front” (highest public attention).
- Editorial judgment plays a role.
- Crowd judgment plays a role.
- Algorithms, A.I., learning systems and informatics play roles, particularly in dealing with automated aggregation of information that doesn’t scale efficiently to human aggregation.
- User preferences, both stated and derived, play roles in sorting/filtering.
The "Eternal Verities" don't change, but the "how" of good reporting is in flux.
- “I was there, you weren’t, here’s what I saw,” will continue as a primary function of journalists. But it won’t be the only reporting function available.
- An absolute commitment to breaking news in the coverage area (geographic or topic-defined) never goes out of style. And successful news sites will meet that demand by any means necessary: pro, am, aggregation, wires, blogging, crowdsourcing, live streaming video (Get familiar with the “river of news” idea—via Dave Winer—and things like Twitter feeds).
- Crowdsourcing has been particularly successful at dividing up and digesting huge, complex documents in short periods of time (TPM Muckracker data-dump parties). Other reporting projects might be impossible without crowdsourcing.
- Community-funded reporting.
- Pro-Am projects (in a variety of flavors) will play a role.
- Stories will rise and fall in interest, sometimes making “news,” sometimes just updating the process. But whether the outcome is a story or just a few words added to an existing product, the reporting involved no longer begins and ends with a story. It becomes continuous.
- Reporters have always depended on networks of private sources and will likely continue to do so. But reporters will also depend on public online social networks and may choose to do more of their work in the open.
- Reported information may be presented as a text story. It may also be created as semi-structured or structured data, condensed into a graphic, mashed into a useful map, updated into an ongoing history, merged into an interactive graphic, told via a tightly edited video, and so on. The use of the term "multimedia" as a synonym for "video" is already obsolete. What counts is our understanding of how multiple publishing platforms (RSS feeds, SMS alerts, print, Web) and multiple forms of media (text, interactive data mashup, video, etc.) combine to create what Jay has called "hybrid strength."
- Reporting may be conducted by topic experts who are not trained as journalists per se, either independently or in pro-am combinations.
- Because of pre-Internet conventions, traditional media conduct research into significant rumors but seldom report their findings publicly unless the rumor can be confirmed as true. This policy was intended to prevent the further spread of malicious rumors, but of course modern rumors spread just fine without the help of mass media. New reporters will respond to rumors with definitive, transparent fact-checking that confirms or denies existing rumors instead of ignoring them.
- Reporting on some topics may take the form of an intelligence briefing, replacing the value of fairness with the goal of predictive accuracy.
- In some formats, the values and goals of “placeblogging” will replace the J-school definitions of “reporting.”
News executives used to think of "convergence" as a mass-media marriage of TV and newspapers. They didn't necessarily foresee the importance of data, the power of user tools, the demands of mobile devices or the natural relationship between web and print.
- News sites may be multi-platform and multi-medium, tapping the unique abilities of different forms to create another form of “hybrid strength.”
- News sites should adapt to (and adopt) whatever software and hardware people use.
- Because presenting news via devices that demand our attention is an active form of broadcasting, grading information by interest and urgency becomes an important issue.
- For sites and organizations that publish a printed product, the majority of that information will be reverse-published from the web.
- In some cases this will require creating database forms that can be reordered to produce automated English and design. In others, it will require human editing and filtering.
- Mass media has a production schedule. Networked media has a traffic cycle. Timing publication to when the people you're trying to reach are most likely to be paying attention to it makes sense.
The spirit of the hyperlink is depth, context and explanation.
- A fact without an intelligent context is just a data point. News sites will improve the value of their factual reporting by devoting more attention to content that explains those facts.
- What happened before?
- What does it mean?
- How can you do it?
- What is it?
- How does it work?
- Why should you care?
- What does it look like?
- Much of this may be communicated via real-time "Put-it-All-Together" pages that organize information on a current topic. Put-it-all-together topic pages that combine… aggregation, original reporting, blog posts, data, forums, video, audio and crowdsourced information… on something big, breaking and of intense interest (a storm, a terrorist attack, a bank closure, a bridge collapse, etc.).
- Older topics may be represented by curated Explainer pages, some of which may be in the form of wikis.
In a media-saturated culture, more is less. We add value by removing all but the most useful content... or by vetting the completeness of a collection of facts.
- Curating adds value by removing content. Not every story: The best story. Not every source: The best source. Not all the data: The useful data, presented in helpful ways.
- Successful news sites will understand that as information passes out of current consciousness, its value lies in our ability to find and make sense of it. Curation is the thoughtful act of selecting and organizing information in useful/interesting ways.
- Curated information may include commercial information.
- An alternate approach to curation: Creating comprehensive information about a limited subject, i.e. features that include “everyone about something” (Lisa Williams: “That is, a site with some Denver restaurants is OK; but a site with ALL Denver restaurants is better.”)
Newsrooms used to keep old stories in "The Morgue." But old information is no longer dead information.
- "Making the news” no longer occurs between the editorial meeting and the final deadline/broadcast of the cycle. It's a constant firehose-to-focus process that demands continuous product improvement. This mean editorial review is no longer just a pre-publication task.
- Every product needs editing improvement, including archived information. Conducting such improvements demands transparent editing standards.
- Archived stories are improved by strong summaries.
Traditional mass-media's message: "Trust us." The new message: "See for yourself."
- Newsgathering and decision-making must be made in as transparent an environment as possible.
- The editorial focus, identity and policies of news sites should be publicly stated (boing-boing's simple identity-focus statement might just be the best ever: "A Directory of Wonderful Things." Got it).
- To improve the signal-to-noise ratio of news information, information can be editorially rated for value, “interestingness,” urgency, significance, etc.
- Whenever possible, information and content will be link-cited to its originating source, with proper credit given to its author/creator. In situations where editing has significantly changed the original, that may also need to be noted (particularly in situations where comments enable two-way conversation between readers and the cited author).
Enabling others to make creative use of the communities and networks we help create adds value to our product. But you can’t own – or control – a community.
- News sites will also enable tools and services that encourage use by others.
- Tools and services provided by a news site may allow its users to connect and converse around a shared topic (like this forum for Buffalo Bills fans). But they may also be used by individuals.
- While it may benefit from what others create with its stuff, a news organization should not attempt to direct what is created. Neither should it attempt to take ownership of the results.
- Community publishing: users sharing their stuff, including their photos and reports on events they attended.
Search-engine optimization used to be the extent of findability. But making stuff easy to find starts with thoughtful information architecture and extends to ideas that still sound like science fiction.
- Successful finding requires categories and keywords. It requires folksonomies and taxonomies. It requires summaries and quantifiable attributes. It requires search, but also intelligent informatics that make search more useful.
- Finding requires links, objects and attributes. It may involve Topic Maps.
- Successful findability requires systems that are platform- and object-agnostic. If a search of your archives only turns up stories but not videos, or news graphics, then your archive = FAIL.
- Maximizing the wayfinding attributes that make information useful may require an entirely separate level of editing: Optimization.
- Archives must be free, open, and permalinked.
Children learn about the world by playing with it. Why shouldn't the rest of us?
- The conventions of electronic games, simulations and rules-based networks are second-nature to millions of adults and the vast majority of people born after the 1970s. News sites that make use of these conventions and encourage users to “play” with information will likely produce deeper levels of comprehension among users.
- Game concepts such as “leveling up” help peer-to-peer communities (forums, comment threads) become self-organizing and self-policing.
- Simulations help people learn and understand complex concepts.
- Game-based interfaces can be data collection tools that connect news (what should the city do with this public space?) to action (participants solutions in the public space game are relayed to the planning commission).
- Games, contests, humor and entertaining presentation of information not only draws attention (and revenue) to sites, they can also contribute to a site’s identity and “hybrid strength.”
Control doesn't scale. Cooperation creates new opportunities and lets groups and organizations do what they do best.
- Successful news sites may be simultaneously competitive and cooperative with the people, institutions (before editor/reporter Kirk Ross helped launch The Carrboro Citizen paper/site, he went to key local businesses to discuss fundamental commitments based on mutual interests) and other media in their spheres.
- Cooperation helps news sites scale their operations to the size of their markets.
- Cooperation -- as a swap or as a contractual relationship with another company-- may help competing media avoid wasteful redundancies. Small sites really can't afford to create or purchase their own payment processing, ad booking, etc.
- Cooperating includes offering free licenses when possible, and easy-to-understand commercial licensing when not. It also means sharing source code and APIs.
Old-School thinking: Let other companies take the risks. New thinking? The real risk is falling behind.
- Successful news sites will be engaged with technology. At a minimum, a successful site must be constantly involved in adapting new tools to meet its needs.
- In addition to building and adapting new tools, innovating can mean thinking to do something simple but overlooked. Whatever falls under the heading of innovating must be encoded into the DNA of the news org.
Ask any reporter or editor who's out of a job: The biggest issue in modern news media is "How do we pay for it?"
- Not one revenue source: Many revenue sources.
- Some of those revenues may collect payment directly from the informational transaction that adds value for the buyer, seller or both.
- Some news sites may earn money by assuming that commercial information is valuable, not junk, and treating it in ways that serve both buyer and seller.
- Just as a news site makes revenue from multiple streams, so too may it offer multiple products. Not all of them will be news products.
- Making money on new media sites requires profit expectations based on competitive markets instead of monopolies. It can also stem from understanding that not all new media sites are, in and of themselves, stand-alone businesses.
- If structured in intelligent ways, the data that news organizations generate will accumulate value over time, and may be repackaged into new products.
- Traditional media make their money by serving the seller. New news media will likely make their money off the buyer (user), or a combination of buyers/users and sellers/makers.
- News sites may create profitable products that scale to the economies of the Long Tail and adopt many of the business models introduced in Chris Anderson’s “Why Free is the Future of Business.”
Ever wonder why so many great ideas seem to disappear into a black hole known as "management?"
- 20th century news companies were organized to produce the same product on the same production schedule in the same physical location with more or less the same cast of characters day after day for years. In the 21st century, we may have to organize an ever-shifting cast to produce multiple products, in multiple media, for delivery across multiple platforms, more or less continuously, without an office or a clear top-down hierarchy. Clay Shirky offers ideas about traits such an organization might want to include in its makeup.
- News organizations will fail quickly if they attempt to accomplish such tasks with 20th century communication models. Cass Sunstein wrote the book on some of those new models.
- Sustaining a news site requires managing the organization's scalability in terms of growth, community, profit and reach.
Special thank-you to Brian Muller, who didn't leave a comment but talked me through several improvements to the tech components of this draft. --dc