Since the new-media conventional wisdom machine is having another loose conversation about the “atomic unit” of journalism (thank you, Jeff Jarvis, for kicking this one off), let's use this fleeting moment of attention to advance the subject toward its ultimate destination.
Future journalists are going to be in the information business, not specifically the storytelling business, or the analysis business, or the Tweeting business, or the liveblogging business. What separates the information contained in all these existing journalistic forms from the journalism that will be valuable in the future, is that the future will require us to store the new information we report in ways that are efficiently usable by computers.
So thank you, Mr. Jarvis, for pointing out that quality reporting need not result in an article. Thank you, Jonathan Glick, for noting that mobile interfaces are changing the way we consume news. Thank you, Amy Gahran, for saying that we need better word-processing and browser tools. These aren't exactly new ideas (Jarvis, Gahran and many others have been making similar points off and on for years now), but the recent cascade of discussion makes this a noteworthy moment.
The flaw in this line of conversation is that it ends at the water's edge, by the banks of a river of change that separates the confused state of modern journalism from a future that may offer astounding rewards.
What Gahran is pitching (a Lego approach to storytelling) is innovative and interesting, but in the end, it's still just storytelling. No matter how artfully assembled and thoughtfully edited, a package of Tweets and posts and photos and videos and stories and analysis is merely an adaptive 21st century extension of our old 20th century theory of journalism. Should we do what she recommends? Absolutely. But the results will not fundamentally change a status quo that is in dire need of a revoution.
For all you commenters out there readying your flamethrowers, here come the necessary disclaimers. I'm a fan of storytelling with 20 years in the news business. I've been blogging for eight years (12 if you count the blog-style news update I created with five or six other journalists and techies as the outer bands of Hurricane Floyd whipped Charleston one night in 1999). I not only “get” the pro-am approach to curating news and information, I've done it. Repeatedly. So has my award-winning wife, who put pro-am teams to work covering everything from elections to opera. So please, please don't tell me that I don't understand the power of story, or blogging, or social media, or this or that new software platform. I get their value, but I also know their limitations. First hand.
Got it? I love bicycles, too, but I wouldn't recommend them as a spacefaring technology. And the task before us is not just some search for a cool new way to get around the neighborhood.
Today's journalists report information and file it as natural language text in all the formats mentioned above. They do this because all the tools we have for journalism are based on workflows that were created to get news out to groups of human beings that advertisers want to convert into consumers. In that business, the attention of the consumer group has value, not the information that attracts the group. The vast majority of our journalistic traditions are based on this model. It forms our media culture. It filters the pool of talent that enters our profession.
This status quo is, as Dave Slusher has pointed out, the media equivalent of kerosene. Kerosene production was a huge industry in the 19th century – so successful, in fact, that it wiped out the whaling business in North America. One of its waste byproducts was a volatile liquid called gasoline. It took about two decades of development in the automotive industry (weeding out steam and electricity as competing power sources) before people in the kerosene business began taking gasoline seriously in the early 20th century.
Today we live in a global economy with an appetite for information that can be used and reused. But so long as we limit our thinking about the information we report to the production of kerosene journalism in varying grades of quality, we will never tap into this new source of abundance and possibility.
The fact is, we do need new word processing tools – specifically, a writing tool that marks up the information communicated in standard kerosene journalism so that computers can process and store it. Not metadata that helps searchers find stories, mind you. Metadata that lets programmers tap into the complete set of discrete bits of knowledge that a news organization has produced over time.
The technologies and standards required to begin this act of creation are available today as the byproducts of systems that were designed for other purposes. Unlike kerosene journalism, which is economically valuable only during the brief moment when consumers are interested in it, the approach I describe produces value that that increases with the size of its resulting data set.
Because ultimately, the atomic unit of journalism is the meaningful, useful, reliable answer. For that unit to have value in a global information economy, we must store the answers we derive in ways that will satisfy questions we haven't even considered yet. For this to work, we must connect the question “what's new?” to the question “what do we know?” so that the first feeds the second and the second informs the first.
Once we do that, then Chuck Peters' wild-eyed dream of a media company that connects to anyone it touches via every aspect of community life won't look so daunting. Steve Buttry's models for community engagement will become increasingly profitable. And Jay Rosen's continuing quest for a new theory of the press will get even more interesting.
Until then, we'll keep running on kerosene.