Why we need to blow the article up in order to save it

Many media outlets — and not just traditional players like newspapers or magazines, but even some newer and more digital-savvy ones — still think of the article or the story as the bedrock foundation of news and journalism. But with so many different sources of content, and so many different ways of distributing it and displaying it, is that really still the case? Author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has been writing about this question for some time, and makes the argument that the article should sometimes be separated into its component parts in order to be more useful, advice that new-media startups like Circa seem to be taking to heart.
In a recent post, Jarvis writes about how it makes more sense to think of the various elements of a typical news article as “assets” of various kinds — so the nugget of news that triggered the story might be a single asset, and then the background about that event would be another, related photos or video would be a third, and so on. Do all of these things have to appear in every article? Not really. That’s just the way that things were done when you only got one chance to print something every day. So why does that form still dominate? And should it?

The future of news: Small pieces, loosely joined

During a recent Twitter discussion about Facebook’s IPO, journalism professor Jay Rosen sparked a debate about those questions when he said a Reuters story was so dense with financial terminology that it was almost impossible for a non-financial reader to understand (Anthony De Rosa at Reuters collected some of the conversation in a Storify module, which is embedded below). What the story needed, Jarvis said, was some background — but when those kinds of elements are included in stories they rarely serve readers well:

If you know nothing about an ongoing story, it gives you too little history. If you know a story well, it merely wastes the paper’s space and your time. It is a compromise demanded by the one-size-fits-all constraints of news’ means of production and distribution.

What would be ideal, Jarvis said, is if there was a way to connect that piece to a source of background material that is constantly updated — and of course there is: it’s called linking to Wikipedia, an extension of Jarvis’s “do what you do best and link to the rest” mantra. But not everyone does that; some outlets such as the New York Times prefer to link to their own database of “topic pages” instead, perhaps in part because those backgrounders are engineered to do well in search, and in general seem to prefer to link internally if at all.

If the disaggregation of the traditional story format was taken to its logical conclusion, Jarvis argues that we could end up with “news organizations that specialize not just in beats and topics but in kinds of assets,” with one being just the news nugget (like a wire service), another the explainer (like The Economist), another the data related to the story, etc. Then links between those component parts would help the reader follow as much of the story as they wish, and in whatever order they want. Sean Blanda of the consulting firm Technically Media has also written about how the article needs to evolve, and how the “atomic unit of journalism is the fact.”

A news ecosystem is already evolving

You can see the kind of news ecosystem Jarvis envisions developing already in a way, with Twitter and blogs or aggregators becoming the place where the news breaks, followed by more information on blogs or newspaper sites — along with photos and mashups and related ephemera on sites like BuzzFeed or Reddit (which has also taken on much of the Q&A function, and some of the fact-checking one as well). This is an illustration of what Jarvis and others have called “news as a process,” and also an example of author and Harvard researcher David Weinberger’s description of the web as “small pieces, loosely joined.”
Some of these connections are already created with plain old hyperlinks, of course, although not everyone uses them (or even likes them, if you listen to critics like Nick Carr). Is there a way to make those kinds of connections easier? Blogging pioneer and programmer Dave Winer thinks there is — in a recent post, he described a way to connect different types of documents such as comments together, a kind of peer-to-peer protocol for a document-based web.
It’s an interesting idea: instead of just a story with some scattered links in it, you could have a bundle of assets that could be packaged or linked to in any number of different ways using APIs to sources of different types of content. Judging by a blog post it published on the topic, this is also the kind of area that Circa — the media startup from Cheezburger founder Ben Huh and David Cohn of Spot.us — is focused on. As the nature of information changes thanks to the web and social media, shouldn’t the way we are delivering it change as well?

Producing news articles and putting them behind a paywall is a great idea if what people want is content. But what if they just want information? If that’s the case it will be much harder to ask folks to pay and even doubly hard to meet their desires with an outdated form (the article).

As De Rosa commented during the debate about the Reuters story, accomplishing that kind of thing in practice would require altering the entire way that traditional media content is created — and also the way that reporters and journalists think about what they are supposed to be doing. But if they are competing with more and more sources of information, many of which don’t even look like traditional journalism, they should probably start thinking more creatively soon.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users The Official CTBTO Photostream and Yan Arief Purwanto