For the longest time, whenever I read the news, I’ve often felt the depressing sensation of lacking the background I need to understand the stories that seem truly important. Day after day would bring front pages with headlines trumpeting new developments out of city hall, and day after day I’d fruitlessly comb through the stories for an explanation of their relevance, history or import. Nut grafs seemed to provide only enough information for me to realize the story was out of my depth.
I came to think of following the news as requiring a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns, accumulating knowledge like so many cereal box tops I could someday cash in for the prize of basic understanding. Meanwhile, though, with the advancements of the Web and cable news, the pace of new headlines was accelerating—from daily to minute-by-minute—and I had no idea how I’d ever begin to catch up.
Jim Kennedy, director of strategic planning at The Associated Press, wrote about this study in the Winter 2008 issue of Nieman Reports.
In 2008, I encountered a study describing others from my generation who seemed to share my dilemma. The Associated Press had commissioned professional anthropologists to track and analyze the behavior of a group of young media consumers. Their key conclusion: “The subjects were overloaded with facts and updates and were having trouble moving more deeply into the background and resolution of news stories.”
The study’s participants seemed to respond to this ever-deepening ocean of news much like I had. We would shy away from stories that seemed to require a years-long familiarity with the news and incline instead toward ephemeral stories that didn’t take much background to understand—crime news, sports updates, celebrity gossip. This approach gave us plenty to talk about with friends, but I sensed it left us deprived of a broader understanding of a range of important issues that affect us without our knowing.
After years of working in online newsrooms, though, I had hit upon a secret—talking to journalists was like having the decoder ring without having to do the work. If I didn’t understand a story or why it was important, I could ask a metro editor about it. Without fail, she’d lay out the history and context in lush narrative detail, often with entertaining depictions of the players involved and fun asides with snippets of political trivia. Ten minutes of conversation with a good reporter could unlock the fundamentals of a beat so thoroughly I’d walk away feeling like an expert on the topic.
I started to realize that “getting” the news didn’t require a decoder ring or years of work. All it took was access to the key pieces of information that newsrooms possessed in abundance. Yet news organizations never really shared that information in an accessible or engaging form. Instead, they cut it up into snippets that they buried within oodles of inscrutable news reports. Once in a while, they’d publish an explainer story, aiming to lay out the bigger picture of a topic. But such stories always got sidelined, quickly hidden in the archives of our news sites and forgotten.
Meanwhile, young news consumers like me were flocking to another Web site—a place structured around context, but which was quickly becoming a go-to destination for news as well.
The Wikipedia Epiphany
In 2007, The New York Times noted that something weird was going on with Wikipedia. This “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” had taken on a function few could have expected an encyclopedia to perform.
As Jonathan Dee wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “For centuries, an encyclopedia was synonymous with a fixed, archival idea about the retrievability of information from the past. But Wikipedia’s notion of the past has enlarged to include things that haven’t even stopped happening yet. Increasingly, it has become a go-to source not just for reference material but for real-time breaking news—to the point where, following the mass murder at Virginia Tech, one newspaper in Virginia praised Wikipedia as a crucial source of detailed information.”
The following year Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations for The New York Times Company, would play a part in revealing Wikipedia’s strength not just as a breaking news source, but as the place to read about a news story long after the headlines have subsided.
Five years prior, in 2002, blogger Dave Winer had made a bet with Nisenholtz that for most of the top five news stories of 2007, blogs would outrank The New York Times on Google. When Winer and Nisenholtz reconvened to settle the bet in 2008, they unearthed a surprise. By the terms of the bet, Winer had won, but the real news was the site that trounced both the Times and the blogosphere—Wikipedia.
What is it about this site, I wondered, that made it the people’s choice not only for news over time, but for real-time news updates as well? Sure, the site’s ability to instantly marshal an army of amateur editors was a big part of the story. But there was also something quite remarkable about how stories are structured on the site, how breaking news gets folded into an elegant, cohesive record, enabling site visitors to quickly catch up on a topic without having to sort through a torrent of disparate articles and headlines.
If you’re looking for a way to combat information overload, to distill the universe of topics covered by the local newspaper into a manageable stream, it’s difficult to find a more perfect invention than the format Wikipedia has pioneered.
But I saw opportunity for journalists to build on Wikipedia’s model to make something even better. While Wikipedia does a fairly astonishing job of laying out topics of national and international import, it doesn’t scale down very well to the level of local news. And hairy, complex stories such as climate change and health care reform require deft, economical storytelling that Wikipedia’s cacophonous editing process is ill-suited to provide.
So in September 2008, I went to the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) to explore how journalists might start winning at the context game, creating a new model of news to serve a generation of news consumers like me.
With Columbia Tomorrow and The Money Meltdown Web sites, Thompson sought to bring context to the news by bringing together vital information about development in Columbia, Missouri on one Web site and the nation’s financial crisis on another.
Among the assumptions I wanted to test during my time at RJI was the idea that news consumers really are looking for context rather than merely the latest news. After all, during years of working in online newsrooms, I’d seen plenty of deep, contextual news packages ignored by our site users in favor of weather updates and crime reports.
The financial crisis provided an early test of this assumption. At the time, news about the crisis was ubiquitous. All at once, every news organization was unearthing news about a different aspect of the meltdown—the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the role of the Community Reinvestment Act, the status of the bailout plan wending its way through Congress. Amidst all this news, would people choose context?
The answer was yes. The breakthrough news item of the year wasn’t an investigation that yielded some hot new scoop, it was a piece of on-the-record explanatory reporting by “This American Life” and National Public Radio that went wildly viral. “The Giant Pool of Money” went on to become the most downloaded episode in the history of “This American Life,” garnering the award trifecta of a duPont, Peabody and Polk for its producers. Many listeners said they’d been tuning out all those crisis-related headlines until they heard the episode. For them, “The Giant Pool of Money” was like a decoder ring for this news story. And once you heard it, you wanted more.
But it could have been a fluke, revealing nothing more than a well-told story’s capacity to ignite. So at the beginning of October, I spent two days culling the best links I could find laying out different aspects of the crisis into a spare, simple, one-page site called The Money Meltdown. I posted a link to the site on my blog and for the rest of the month spent a few minutes a day maintaining the page.
That month, more than 50,000 unique users visited The Money Meltdown. A small number for a big news operation, but significant traffic for two days of work by a random guy with a blog. It was enough traffic, at least, to suggest that the hunger for context was real.
The next question I wanted to tackle during my time in Missouri was how journalists might approach the task of building news sites structured around the bigger picture rather than the latest news. Working with a team of about a dozen reporters and a pair of editors from the Missouri School of Journalism, we decided to tackle the story of growth and development in Columbia, Missouri. A college town bordered by rural land in the middle of Missouri, Columbia’s population had boomed over the past two decades, leaving the city grasping for a planning model that could more elegantly handle its explosive growth. It was the type of story that played out in obscure headlines about “tax-increment financing” and “transportation development districts”; a good candidate, I thought, for a dose of context.
I assembled dossiers containing about eight years of coverage of growth and development in Columbia by the city’s two daily newspapers, more than 800 pages of news stories. And I read through the dossiers page by page on my Kindle, attempting to ferret out the tropes that came up time and time again, the arguments the city kept having with itself over the decade. With the assistance of Columbia Missourian editors Scott Swafford and John Schneller, my team and I worked to take all that contextual information buried in the stories—the years of nut grafs, the forgotten explainers—and pull them together into an accessible, engaging package.
The outcome of this effort was a Web site called Columbia Tomorrow. Built in WordPress, the site so far contains about two dozen hierarchically arranged topic pages that attempt to lay out the bigger picture of growth and development in the city, as well as provide a friendly introduction to topics like storm water runoff. As new developments emerge, reporters post about them in blog entries that appear on the relevant topic pages, which are updated to reflect the latest news.
It’s too early to tell whether Columbia Tomorrow will be a breakaway hit with residents of the city. But it does, I think, what I hoped it would do. It points toward the possibility of a new direction for news Web sites, one that can balance the needs of news junkies and casual news consumers alike.
For years, our assumption has been that the Web was going to require more and more news, that the way to succeed online was to generate ever more frequent updates and shovel up ever more numerous headlines, to completely saturate our users with information so they’ll keep clicking. Needless to say, this is a resource-intensive endeavor. And with all signs pointing to fewer resources for employing professional journalists, it looks like a losing one.
But these experiments are prodding us toward the notion that the real value might be found not in publishing more news on increasingly less serious matters, but in distilling the news into an ever-richer contextual record. Instead of just diverting us with trivia, the Web might transform journalism into something that doesn’t need to be decoded, but instead helps us make sense of what’s happening in our world.After writing this article, Matt Thompson created another Web site, deathpanels.org, which deals with the current health care debate.