At a traditional Cantonese dim sum restaurant, waiters and waitresses wheel past each table continuously, their carts laden with small plates of delicacies. Choose whatever seafood, vegetarian, chicken, beef, pork or rice delicacies RELATED ARTICLE
“It’s Not the Assignment: It’s the Lessons That Come From It”
– Michele Weldonyou desire. Sample char siu bao, dan ta, or har gow at whim. There is no way to predict what will come out of the kitchen when; the meal has no beginning, middle, end, preferential order, minimum or limit. Your impulses, appetite, time constraints and budget determine your satiety. Some claim it isn’t even a meal; it is just tea.
This à la carte approach echoes digital journalism’s menu today—and likely will in the future. One consequence is a potential crisis of context. Not only has the relevance of the printed front page evaporated—a transformation that has taken decades—but the home pages of online news sites have also lost their meaning in the era of Web searches along with Twitter links. Now each story exists in a vacuum without the architecture of editorial news judgment to suggest its relationship to other events and narratives.
The story stands alone, each one the big story of the day, the journalistic gems scooped up and linked to on blogs and aggregator sites from FeedReader to the United Kingdom’s Fingertips. Even their domain names reflect a tasting menu of choices.
With content bites migrating in a customized flow for the consumer, what do we lose—if anything—in core journalistic principles when a story no longer has a home? Without a front page or home page that reflects an editor’s triage of news judgment, do stories sacrifice their logical placement in the larger schema? Or is this merely the natural progression of the democratization of news—moving beyond open sourcing to open paging?
Key Word as Context
What is worth examining in all of this moves us beyond the pay wall argument and the frustrating attempts to monetize online content (though some would point out that you pay per item at a dim sum brunch). It lands us smack in the middle of a discussion of whether these revolutionary changes in how stories are delivered and consumed affect the tenets of journalism as we have known them, regardless of what business model is employed.
In Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability,” his seventh chapter is entitled “The first step in recovery is admitting that the Home page is beyond your control.” In it, he writes, “The one thing you can’t afford to lose in the shuffle—and the one thing that most often gets lost—is conveying the big picture.”
Yet with the digital trend of viewing an individual story as a commodity, the big picture is being lost as it is pirated away by aggregators such as Yahoo! News or MSNBC, news feeds such as NewsGator, or ideological and issue sites such as Alternet.org or Cyberjournalist.net. Kidnapped from its digital home base, the story now travels the Web based on its own value; neither its umbrella media brand nor the journalist’s byline bears significance. Like it or not, we have reached the age of keyword-chasing journalism.
Such à la carte journalism is exemplified by the unveiling in December of Google Labs Living Stories, which was launched in cooperation with The New York Times and The Washington Post. Billed as “a more dynamic way of reading news,” the project takes content from these news organizations and unifies coverage on a single page with a consistent URL. It is adopting the unbranded story idea with the slug or headline generating clicks, not the originating media site or even the byline. Google summarizes the story and adds updates to the top, regardless of journalist, newspaper or media site—meaning that a third-party aggregator revises the narrative from how it was originally told.
Regardless of the complicity Google achieved with Times and Post editors, it is this manner of content takeover that at least one media giant considers hostile. Late last year Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., said he intended to block Google from aggregating its content, particularly The Wall Street Journal’s, for free. In response, Nicholas Carr of the blog Rough Type wrote: “Newspapers are struggling, but they remain, by far, the world’s dominant producers of hard news. That gives them, as a group, a great deal of leverage over companies like Google who depend on a steady stream of good, fresh online content.”
But is such leverage real? Does it have sustainable power? This doesn’t seem likely at a time when popular citizen journalist sites such as allvoices.com promote Contributor Reports. And many observers contend that fighting this trend toward content cannibalization is futile; an attempt to cut off aggregators, interested bloggers, or sites from lassoing desired content is self-destructive in the world of the Web. Consumers—trained in the Web culture to believe that content should be free—will find news and narrative somewhere else. After all there exists a nearly infinite supply of mainstream journalists or amateur producers who are willing and able to provide such (substitute) storytelling.
In the fall 2009 edition of the Newspaper Research Journal, Hsiang Iris Chyi and Seth C. Lewis released the findings of their study of 68 newspapers with a combined circulation of nearly 24 million readers. “Local newspapers sites—or newspaper sites of any kind—trailed behind Yahoo! News, MSNBC and, to a lesser extent, AOL News as a source for online news among local users,” Chyi and Lewis reported. They elaborated:
[The] success of Yahoo! News and others at capturing the largest share of news attention in local markets suggests something about their core advantage: the ability to be where their users are—placing headlines next to users’ e-mail and search results and otherwise creating a Web setting for incidental exposure to news content.
Each Story on Its Own
For the last century the nature and delivery modes of journalism have been evolving. In recent years the pace of change has only accelerated, especially when it comes to content, sourcing, style and presentation of stories. As this happens, people’s appetite seems to shift away from a diet of largely hard news to a hunger for a quick sampling of all stories. And the explosion of storytelling across the platforms of text and digital, print, audio, video and interactive has undoubtedly enriched and enhanced the information landscape.
Yet with each story considered on its own, the deliberate and studied story mix of a single media brand has become inconsequential. Stories mix with all other stories, arriving from anywhere and everywhere.
Do we as readers and as journalists need to be bound by the choices of front page and home page editors to tell us what stories are important? Do we need to depend on them to tell us what we want to read and watch? And why? And in what context? Are we incapable of making such news judgments for ourselves?
We can sample stories from an infinite supply of sources and come away fulfilled. We can make the connections and formulate the big picture of the world’s events and newsmakers by choosing individual offerings determined by our own rubric of interest levels. Or we can navel-gaze and become consumed with stories that value immediacy over impact. Each of us can be the creator of our own front page. We have our own Facebook pages with links, photos, comments and video of what we consider important. This becomes the front page of what we label news of the day. Is our social media our new front page?
Given how easy it is to be myopic about the world’s daily events, confusing our own self-importance with global consequence, it is up to us as media providers and users to ensure that our content exposure is broad enough and deep enough to develop an intelligent and reasonable understanding of the world. And one that does not make us hunger for something more.
Michele Weldon is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the author of three books, including “Everyman News: The Changing American Front Page” published by University of Missouri Press.