Posted by: structureofnews | May 29, 2012

Old News

Ken Doctor has another interesting post at Nieman Labs, this one about the mission of universities and news organizations are blurring in the new digital environment – as are many other types of business boundaries.

Both institutions, he points out, are in the business of bringing some understanding to the world – or at least, hoping to do that by producing information – albeit at two very different paces.  One talks about timeless knowledge, the other about the latest headlines; but how much of that is a historical accident arising from how information was produced, and how much of that from a true difference in mission?

As the tablet makes mincemeat of the historic differences among newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, we see another bright line ready to dim: that seeming line between what a news organization and what a college each do. This is still another stopping point for all those leading the craft of journalism into the new age to ask what business we’re really in. What business does it make sense for us to consider, test, or ply? What fits with our mission?

Precisely.  And that’s one of the key messages to take away from another Ken’s posting:  That we need to rethink the definition of what we do as principally bringing daily – or hourly, or weekly, or whatever – updates to people.   That’s what we have done, it’s true; but that’s often because that was how we could bring information to people.

Now we can produce whatever content we want – words, images, data visualizations, etc. – on whatever timescale we want.   We can assemble information as building blocks of courses, topics pages, databases, or whatever.  We can serialize stories.  We can build new functionalities that allow users to customize stories with personally-relevant data.  And so on.

To do so, we have to break our overwhelming focus on today, and think more about the value of what we do over a much longer period (as well as its value today, of course).  It’s harder than it sounds.  So much of what we do – from the rush of adrenalin at deadline to the daily rhythm of editorial meetings to satisfaction of seeing your byline in the morning paper is built around the world of the daily.  The means of production has come to define much of our professional life, and we’ve failed, by and large, to think creatively and broadly about how to redefine what we do.

Largely, though, newsies inhabit an industry focused on the day. We trot out the well used quote, “News is the first rough draft of history,” but we let others make sense — and value — out of the incredible riches of newspaper archives. Let others create courses, connect the dots, and create knowledge. We’ve always been into a snapshot approach to the world. What’s news today lacks sufficient lineage to yesterday — or to tomorrow. We see such innovations as Storify and a few Google efforts (Living Stories, Timeline) that are efforts to connect the dots of news time.

So let’s get beyond the word “news” and focus on how to make it even more worthwhile once it’s old.

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