News Thing??

In the summer of 2011 I gave an Ignite talk (not online, but the slides are) about what the news story would look like when it was no longer a story.

News stories — those little blocks of words providing a self-contained update about some ongoing event — are a product of the business model and technology of print media. They worked very well when we could only read the news once a day in a handful of newspapers. They are absolutely useless on the web.  They are limited, isolated snapshots, uncustomisable, inflexible, unreactive to the constantly changing reality around them. They are published in vast numbers, more than anyone can read, yet contain enormous redundancy between them. Yet we still use them as our atomic unit of news. It’s as if we shot films on HD video cameras but still had to splice them together from individual frames.

So what would a news story look like if we could reinvent it for the web? I argued that it would be an interactive page that would, in some form, contain not just that day’s update but the entire history of the event, including its alternative versions, conflicting interpretations, unverified rumours, unanswered questions and background context. It would be written (a better word would be “managed”) by a journalist, but invite input from many sources, including its readers (a better word would be “users”). It would have four basic aspects:

Curation (of the most useful material for that story’s audience)
Critique (the tools to examine, filter and fillet information, separating the relevant from the superfluous and truth from falsehood and rumour)
Crowdsourcing (the tools to invite and incorporate contributions from the users)
Context (the ability for users to get a broader understanding of any aspect of the story)

To these I’d now add Customisability, the ability for users to focus in on those aspects of the story they want to know the most about.

What would this beast be called? I didn’t know, so I named it the News Thing. It’s still a story, just a living, evolving, interacting one. People are already tinkering with the idea. SBNation‘s “story streams”, Storify‘s collections, even Wikipedia pages all contains elements of what the News Thing would have to be. Journalists will still tell the old, fixed kinds of stories, anything from 15,000-word ones in the New Yorker to 140-character ones on Twitter, but for following breaking news events as they develop, I think future news stories will look something like the News Thing.

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