The future of context and the future of journalism

Matt Thompson has been doing deep thinking about the future of journalism, since he and Robin Sloan created the EPIC flash animations while at Poynter at the urging of Howard Finberg. Matt has been thinking about context and ways that journalism can transcend shortcomings that were a product of linear platforms. He explored it during a Reynolds Fellowship at the University of Missouri and at the blog Newsless. Yesterday, he explored the topic at a panel with Jay Rosen and Tristan Harris of Apture. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting all three panelists in the past. This discussion did something I don’t see often in terms of future of journalism conversations, it actually moved things forward and has jump-started a very good discussion on specific action to take next.

I see a divide. Covering traditional media’s shift to digital media, I hear strategies for more content, strategies to optimise content and the production of content and ways to monetise content. Content. Content. Content. The content industries think that the recipe for digital success is to digitise and monetise content. It ignores the fact that more content is competing for a finite audience and a reduced advertising spend in the midst of a frail recovery. On the other side of the divide, you have digital companies that know the competition is not over content but attention. Who’s winning in the battle for attention? The average time spent reading news on local newspaper websites is 8-12 minutes a month. The average time spent on Facebook is seven hours a month.

Matt thinks the volume of “episodic” news, hundreds of headlines washing over us each day might be the problem. The media is drowning audiences in a flood of content of its own creating. Matt said:

But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding – crime, traffic, weather – or we turn off the news altogether.

Matt was quoted on Twitter as saying: “People don’t want more info; they want the minimum info they need to understand a topic.”

Being inundated with information isn’t making us more informed. In fact, as Matt points out, it’s leading to a numbness, a negative feedback loop that sees news as a problem that needs solving. What are we as journalists doing to solve the problem? Creating more duplicative content is only reinforcing the problem, causing audiences to shut off. I transit through Kings Cross every day, people handing out freesheets of all descriptions are ignored only slight less than chuggers (charity muggers). Good luck with a paid content strategy based on content that people wish there was less of anyway.

Matt suggests that instead of “episodic news” and topic pages of links to these snippets of news that we need to produce “systemic understanding”.

Journalists spend a ton of time trying to acquire the systemic knowledge we need to report an issue, yet we dribble it out in stingy bits between lots and lots of worthless, episodic updates.

Matt asks some key questions on the how, what we can do digitally that overcomes some of these problems of journalism, structurally and also in terms of re-constituting journalism as a self-sustaining business built on delivering value to audiences. These are the questions that I’m asking right now, and what Suw and I have been thinking about from 5-9 over the last 18 months. We’ve got some pretty clear ideas on the how. (Yes, I’m being a bit cryptic, and unfortunately, I’m going to have to leave it at that dear reader.)

The great thing about having such a digitally native panel is that you can dive deep into their statements and continue the conversation on a site they set up for the purpose. Matt’s opening statement is at Newless. Jay has posted his opening statement on PressThink, and Tristan has posted his statement on his blog. Steve Myers did a great bit of live blogging at Poynter from the panel, and Elise Hu has a great summary of the panel as well.

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