Ever since I worked at the Guardian’s New Media Lab in the Nineties and it was my actual job , I’ve been thinking about how news media is produced.
A lot of my thinking was originally driven by just extrapolating out where things were headed. The increasingly high frequency of the news-cycle, for instance, was so blatant an issue when I was writing a weekly newsletter, because the collapse of the news-cycle meant we went from a news-breaking weekly, to a news summary weekly, to a news creating weekly. The obvious thing was to just slam the dial on that, and plot out what it meant for news to be on a minute-by-minute hype cycle. I think we’re probably there now, but it was a useful, Moore’s Law-like extrapolation to imagine what that should look like.
Some of it was just futurist ideas that I couldn’t keep out of my head (reading about prediction markets in Extropy, for instance, and wondering how to actually guide columnists, journalists and commenters onto a self-correcting truth-seeking trajectory, rather than what I saw the current incentives being). Most of that hasn’t really played out — yet?
And some of it was just the regular frustrations of the early days of working within traditional media institutions. Newspapers, like any other institution, failed to seek to preserve their real value (their archives, for instance, or their research department), in the pursuit of what they and others thought was their value-add (their pundits, stature among elites or whatever). That problem seems to be ongoing, with the hand-wringing never stopping.
Anyway, I’d occasionally write up my thoughts in the form of a business-plan (when I was feeling ambitious), or a manifesto (when I was feeling righteous). The last draft was a couple of years ago, and rather than have it rust away in my drafts folder, here it is.
Feel free to steal these shadows of ideas. I called the product that I was hand-waving about, “spoolfeed”. It had four rules:
- THE FUNDAMENTAL UNIT OF NEWS IS THE STORY, NOT THE ARTICLE.
A single article provides some insight into an emerging news story. But right now, the elements of that story are scattered across dozens of news services, thousands of witnesses and experts, millions of online participants on social media.
Gathering these threads requires as much work on the part of an involved reader as being a professional journalist: visiting dozens of sites, curating lists of experts, filtering and fact-checking opinions.
Imagine one page —- one permanent home on the Web, or within the searchable app space—for each news story. The majority of these pages could be machine-generated: summaries, with links, to document clusters, together with other relevant indicators (associated hashtags, images or live streams near the source, links to TV reports whose closed-captions indicate deeper coverage.
But the biggest stories are individually curated, pulling together every accessible online source into a coherent and critically-appraised whole.
When you want to find out what’s happening ‘right now’ in a story you care about — and where to find out more— that page will be the place you visit, where you link to, and even where you contribute your thoughts or other comments.
- A STORY HAS A PAST, A PRESENT AND A FUTURE
Until now, journalism has emphasised two aspects of the story: its present state, and future possibilities; reporting provides the now, editorial speculates on the next. With few meaningful exceptions, the past is lost to the archives.
Newspapers and other media organizations sit upon an unused and, in the main, inaccessible ‘goldmine’ of previously collated information, resources and data, which moulders in archives and is buried from the public behind barely utilized search boxes – either by the organisations themselves or their users.
Yesterday’s news is an invaluable resource to be integrated and exploited, not discarded.
Stories are far more long-running and timely than mere articles (the story page on the Turkish coup will still be seeing updates now; as does the story page on the 2008 economic crisis.) That means those pages become more than just a first draft of history: they become the most complete historical record (ever?) available.
A permanent place for a story should let readers see, and link to, what it looked like at any moment in time and from multiple entry points or perspectives.
- THE ROLE OF NEWS IS TO DESCRIBE THE PAST IN ORDER TO ANTICIPATE WHAT IS TO COME
Q. Where’s the value in history?
A. In predicting the future.
News services’ value exists entirely in assisting their users to anticipate (or influence) the future. But they shirk the feedback loops that could sharpen their predictive ability. Failed predictions are buried in those archives. The churn of the ‘constant present’ means nothing much is learned — or revealed.
Others’ opinions can be aggregated, and turned into tangible bets. Probabilities can be attached to those predictions. An aggregated story page can record who got what right, and wrong, and adjust its priors for the next round of predictions accordingly.
In a future where prediction markets are legal, a story page could be the venue for the best of those markets. For the present, we’ll work to bring accountability back to the op-eds of news culture.
- EVERY RELOAD, AN UPDATE
But the past and future may be how people use the news, eventually. But the impulse to seek it out is always driven by novelty. The audience for news wants to know what’s happening right now.
Most news services are surprisingly static in how they present the news. Headlines may be tweaked, new articles added, but the fundamental view of the day’s stories stays constant. TV news repeats on the hour; front pages of sites settle for all but breaking stories.
An aggregator of sources will never be the first with the news. But it will always be the second — in seconds.
When people come to see the news, they come to see something new. We bang on reload on Google News, Reddit, Twitter and our own email because we want to see it change.
The goal of a story page should be this: every page reload, an update. That may be an impossible goal, but it’s the beast we’ll seek to feed, because that’s what the news audience wants.
(And your back button will take you to what you remember seeing, but forgot to bookmark or share.)
I’m not covering stories, but I am covering something similar, which is the massive database of criteria I use to sort through lists of things ranging from software to companies. A lot of what Danny describes applies to my thing, too.