Journalism: Opening up the ‘insider’s game’

I met Jonathan Stray this past summer when I was speaking at Oxford, and I’ve really enjoyed keeping up with him on Twitter and on his blog. He’s smart, and if you’re thinking about journalism in new ways and thinking of how we can, as Josh Benton puts it, change the grammar of journalism, then you definitely want to add his blog to your RSS feeds.

I noticed Jonathan was having an interesting exchange with Amanda Bee, the programme director of document hosting project DocumentCloud, about the need for a service to help her get up to speed on an unfamiliar news story. I captured their conversation using a a social media storytelling service called Storify.*

In writing about information overload, one of the solutions that Matt has advocated and explored is the wiki-fication of news. Reading Matt and also based on my own experience as a journalist, I think there is another solution that involves journalists bringing their audiences along with them as they explore topics in-depth. In 2004, when I started blogging as a journalist, I turned Fox News’ tagline “We report, you decide” on its head. I said: You decide. I report. In describing this to Glyn Mottershead, who teaches journalism at Cardiff University, he called it concierge journalism. Put another way by Matt, having a good journalist around is like having a secret decoder ring to explain the news.

Editorially and socially we need deep engagement strategies like this. It’s not just about promoting our content to the audiences using Facebook an Twitter. It’s actually about engaging with them so that they will spend some of their precious time and attention following news rather than the myriad of other entertainment and information choices they have.

There are some important issues and challenges with this approach. One is an issue of scaling. When I started blogging in 2004, I had support at the BBC News website to manage the interaction and help with the production. You need that level of support to scale to that level of audience and also that level of engagement. I also think there has to be a better way to capture all of the insights and intelligence that this approach captures. A traditional style blog probably is a little too simplistic, although smart use of tags, meta-data and categories can overcome some of it.

Matt put the challenge to status quo this way:

I started to realize that “getting” the news didn’t require a decoder ring or years of work. All it took was access to the key pieces of information that newsrooms possessed in abundance. Yet news organizations never really shared that information in an accessible or engaging form. Instead, they cut it up into snippets that they buried within oodles of inscrutable news reports. Once in a while, they’d publish an explainer story, aiming to lay out the bigger picture of a topic. But such stories always got sidelined, quickly hidden in the archives of our news sites and forgotten.

As Jonathan says, this is serious problem worthy of serious discussion. It’s one that I think a lot of about, and there aren’t any easy answers. It’s complex and it really does require a lot of rethinking of not only how we present journalism but also how we practice journalism. As I’ve found, it’s much easier to change technologies and change the design of websites than it is to convince journalists that they need to change how they do journalism. Technology is easy to change. Culture is devilishly difficult to change because so many people, very powerful within organisations, have an investment in the status quo.

The difference now as opposed to any other time in my career is that there are new news organisations that don’t have a status quo. They have no legacy operation tied to another platform. They are digital.


* A few words about Storify: This is the first time I’ve used it. It’s the embedded element highlighting the conversation on Twitter. It’s a system that makes it easy to build a story out of content from the social web, whether that is tweets, Facebook updates, Flickr pictures or YouTube videos. The drag-and-drop interface is nice, and the built-in search makes it easy to find the content and conversations you want.

In terms of adding text in between the updates I wanted, I found a few tools missing that I’ve grown used to in my normal blogging. One was paste and match (or strip) formatting so that when I copy a quote from another site I’m not cluttering up the page with lots of different fonts and type styles. I’d also like blockquote. It might be available by simply adding the HTML, but with a tool like Storify, this would definitely be a good shortcut.

In terms of Storify, I’ve watched with interest as social media journalists have embraced it quickly. My quibble with it hasn’t been in the tool itself but with how it’s been used. I’ve seen some instances where it seems little more than a collection of tweets and actually seems to be doing exactly what Amanda and Jonathan are worried about, playing an insiders game. They assume knowledge of who the people tweeting are. Collection without context is poor journalism.

4 thoughts on “Journalism: Opening up the ‘insider’s game’

  1. Isn’t Newser filling (at least part of) this niche? I’d say that’s a website where their goal is to create a summery of the news for people who don’t pour over the news at the same frequency and detail level as journalists. With all the user created content, they tend to do a pretty good job, though their focus can sometimes be so narrow as to miss some of the stories I’m interested in. Do you think Newser is a step in the right direction though?

  2. Hi Kevin

    Good point, and an interesting conversation. I think this is a massively important area and, funnily enough, have been working on a Knight News Challenge entry that’s meant to address this problem — the fact that it’s hard to find context for the stories we read in the news.

    I figure that with a smart enough algorithm and some clever interpretation, you should be able to break out a story and find the best explainers, context and background to help everyone understand what’s really happening in the world around them (and why). Whereas something like Newser (as Aram points out) summarises the news for people, I think it’s better to point people to the high quality journalism that actually cuts to the deepest parts of a given story.

    My project is called Contextify — you can find out more at Contextify.org or News Challenge entry page. I’m still polishing it and adding material before the final deadline next week, so all comments and criticisms gratefully received!

  3. Aram,

    There are quite a few people looking to address this issue, and I’m definitely thinking about it quite a bit myself. Right now, we’re very much in the 1.0 stage with many of these projects. In terms of Newser itself, it’s a good enough first stab, which often wins the day if one is able to iterate, improve and scale.

    My main issue with Newser is actually a design issue. When you look at a well designed page, there are visual cues that help you understand what is important, or at least what the editors believe is important. Right now, visually, I’m overwhelmed with a grid of same-sized visual images. There is no ranking for the information. I don’t know what to read or look at. I have no way to rank or order the page to understand where I’m supposed to enter. I have no idea how this grid of information is related to each other apart from by topic.

    Bobbie, yeah, I spotted Contextify on Twitter and Facebook. Good luck. Great minds think alike. 😉

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