Saturday, January 30, 2010

News Flows

Just like old times, I'm turning an email reply into a full-fledged blog post.

This is in response to an email my dad sent me, which I have quoted inline.

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/01/25/100125fa_fact_auletta

You can probably find the full text.

I didn't bother. There are enough other interesting things to read out there that I'm not going to spend the time (let alone money) to jump through hoops to read the full version of this.

The article is mainly about how the Obama administration relates to the press and tries to control the stories published about it. But buried in there are some interesting comments about the process. They claim that reporters now must file numerous daily reports- blog posts, tweets, updates for the paper or network website, do on air interviews for their site, or networks... They are so busy doing all of this that they do not have time for reporting. They cannot discuss issues with other people at the White House, or call up experts elsewhere for feedback. Instead, they just print whatever someone at the White House said, and are thankful they managed to get a quote in time to file their report.

I think this is indicative of a larger shift in the news ecosystem. My prediction/idea is that there will be a split between the people reporting on the basic facts of the situation -- who said what when -- and those writing interesting narratives that tie things together.

Until now, each newspaper or TV station had to have its own person physically present in the room at a press conference in order to write down what was said and then type it up or say it on the air. With the ease of duplicating information, we don't need 50 people to write down the exact same thing. We probably want more than one person to be doing this to avoid mistakes and such, but there is no need for every national news outlet to have someone recording what the press secretary is saying, especially when it can -- and should -- be streamed live online and archived.

What we do need multiple people in the room for is asking questions of the press secretary and not accepting vague answers or avoidance. I don't know enough about the environment in these kinds of press conferences to know how this would play out, but it seems like a shift of focus would be inevitable.

Likewise, most news nowadays comes in the form of stories that are designed to be informative, relatively entertaining (or at least not completely dry), and contain some context of the situation (if it is a part of a larger unfolding event). What could certainly happen, however, is a separation of the basic facts -- Obama said this during his state of the union speech; 7 people were killed in Iraq at this location -- from any sort of narrative tying them together. As a programmer, my hope would be that the facts are reported in a standard, open format which could be read by any application and mashed up in interesting ways, but I doubt something like that will happen.

This could ease the burden on journalists, who are now expected to do both of these roles; both collecting raw data and synthesizing it into a "story." Just like we don't need a multi-paragraph article each time the Dow changes (we can just look at the number directly), we don't necessarily need an article to make us aware of what was said at the State of the Union. Of course, most people are less interested in the exact value of the Dow or what was said in the SotU and are more interested in what the facts mean or imply. That is where I see the role of journalists and reporters thriving, in the making sense of large collections of data.

One can imagine that this lessens the value of what they have to say, but it forces one to wonder why the media have taken this route.

Some have said that the media (especially cable news) is responding so strongly to things like Twitter because they don't want to miss the boat like they did with blogging. There is definitely a sense of "we have to use this because it is cool, regardless of whether it is useful" with the cable news outlets, and reeks of trying to get on board with what the cool kids are doing.

There are probably other reasons as well, but I suspect that a lot of the push from the old-guard media outlets to use Twitter is due to this, especially if they are forcing people to do it, rather than letting them use Twitter because the journalist finds it to be a useful tool.

It is one thing to say the days of one article per day, all issues the same time on the morning paper are over. It is quite another to claim that the public demands a constant flow of near meaningless "news".

There was a part in the Shirky and Rosen video series (I forget where) where they were talking about the notion that the main "hard news" stories were never really for the general public. They are sort of positioned that way, but most people simply don't care about most of what is going on in the world on any kind of day-to-day basis. For example, the center story on the New York Times site is "Full of Tricks, White Dazzles in Superpipe," which is about a snowboarder. Now, I certainly don't care about that, and neither do most people, but it is there nonetheless. The real purpose of the front page of the newspaper, according to them, is occasionally present everyone with the few truly important stories: US goes to war; Lehman collapses, bringing down economy; etc.

Most people don't really care about what Obama said on one particular night, but do care about the general direction the country is moving. A newspaper comes in multiple sections, in this view, not so that a sports fan can stumble across an interesting article about climate regulation in Eastern Pennsylvania, but so that the sports fan can completely ignore everything except the sports section.

What people do anyway, and what they've always done, since the beginning of the notion of "public opinion" as something rulers cared about (which they discuss in the video; it is fascinating), is pick and choose only those things which they find interesting or applicable to their daily life, and only occasionally read about anything outside of that.

What a "flow-based" news ecosystem needs to achieve, then, is to allow people to filter out all of the news about which they are uninterested, but occasionally push to them stories about the few things outside their regular interests that are genuinely important: major corruption, war, major economic decisions, etc. This is essentially what news has always done, even if it has the pretense of providing everyone with a broad, daily summary of events across multiple areas of interest.