Posted by: structureofnews | June 28, 2012

What’s News?

What’s news?  “Dog bites man” isn’t, but “man bites dog” is – right?

One definition of newsworthiness might be: Information that’s of importance, interest or relevance to the public – or at least, to the audience you’re trying to serve.  But if the notion of audience is changing,  shouldn’t the idea of “news” also evolve?

What does it mean to be “newsworthy” in a world where the logistics of distributing information – and the timeliness of it – isn’t as critical a factor as it used to be?  Where people can search for and come to information, when they want it rather than have it delivered to them when it’s produced?  Where “news” may not be a single story, but a collection of information that builds over time?

A good yarn is still a good yarn in the digital age, of course.  But what else might qualify as “newsworthy” these days?

To take an example: Is any single murder news?  Perhaps not to most readers of a metro newspaper, but it certainly is hugely relevant and important to some subset of people – family and friends of the victim (and suspect), neighbors, and so on.

No newspaper – given the limitations of newsprint and space – could really cover all the murders in a city; and in any case most didn’t see that as their duty.  In their eyes, their job was to cover “newsworthy” murders – those that enough members of the public/their audience would be (or should be) interested in.

And that makes sense, especially in a pre-digital world.  But what if you did cover every murder in a city, as startup Homicide Watch does in DC – allowing users to explore and follow every killing from crime to investigation to arrest to trial.   Doesn’t that sound like information that’s of importance, interest or relevance to at least some part of the public?

Laura and Chris Amico, who founded Homicide Watch, clearly think so – and traffic patterns back them up.  When the site first launched as a blog, it pulled in 80,000 page views a month; now that there’s a much-more robust database underpinning it, it draws 300,000 a month, with visitors staying six to eight minutes and perusing five to seven pages on average.  OK, so it’s not the kind of traffic nyt.com draws – but this is pretty good for a highly-focused single-subject site run by two people. And there’s clearly a huge level of engagement for the people who do show up.

Now, exploring documents and data about murders may not seem as exciting as, say, watching episodes of acclaimed crime drama The Wire, or reading gripping true-crime narratives in a newspaper; but in some ways it provides a much richer experience than any story can.

“There’s only so much you can expect from newspaper reporting because the form is so limiting,” says Chris.

And it is.  News stories, by their nature, focus on specific issues, events or narratives – and when they do that well, they really excel.  That’s what most prize-winning journalism is about.  But that structure also locks readers into a particular way of looking at those facts, while databases allow them to explore the information from multiple angles.

That’s not to say that one form is better than the other; both are necessary to give a more complete picture of murders in DC.  But Homicide Watch, with its mission to track every murder in the district, offers users a sense of completeness that goes beyond whether any particular death is “newsworthy” or not.

Doing so doesn’t prevent Laura and Chris from writing any given narrative about murders in DC, the way a traditional police or court reporter might.  In fact, it helps them do so, because they have a ready-made database of homicides at their fingertips, all the time.   They don’t have to FOIA data when they want to write; they already have it.

To be sure, you have to be skeptical about official numbers, as David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former police reporter, argues in a post about the need for more crime beat reporting.  But being buried in the data and details, as Laura and Chris are, can help in understanding what the limitations of the information are – or where the official numbers just don’t make sense.

In any case, the standards for traditional “newsworthiness” aren’t particularly well-defined to begin with.  How well should even the smartest reporter or editor assess the importance of any particular crime, and make a decision about whether or not to cover it?  “Humans are bad at spotting trends. That’s the core thesis in Moneyball, and it’s part of the reason we cover every homicide. The only way to see what’s odd is to know what’s normal, and the only way to  (credibly) do that is to be comprehensive,”  Chris notes.

But to come back to the original question:  Does this count as “news?”

If, as Homicide Watch does, you commit to cover 100% of something, are you giving up news judgment?   What journalistic value are you bringing to the daily collection of statistics?   If you force yourself to write about every murder , does that mean you make no call about the news value of any given killing?

I’d ague: Not really.  In fact, not at all.   Deciding to cover all murders – or school board hearings, or high school football games, or presidential press conferences – is a news choice.  Deciding what data to collect from each event  – say, the name of the detective but not the make of watch of the victim – is also a choice.  Those are news judgments – albeit news judgments about the mission and design of the site, rather than about an individual story.

And done well, a commitment to complete coverage doesn’t undermine news judgment on stories, either; in fact, it opens up new potential for broader and better stories.

Perhaps more importantly, committing to such coverage helps us rethink the notions of news judgment and news value, and just as importantly, rethink how audiences come to us and what they expect from us.  How much do they want the intermittent, albeit “newsworthy” (and hopefully deeply-reported) stories about what we think is important, or comprehensive information/data about those issues?  Or both?

Jonathan Stray references the newsworthiness/completeness dynamic at Nieman Labs as well.

One simple possible answer to this selective misrepresentation problem is simply to report all crimes. That’s not possible in the traditional model because of time constraints (and, for print, space constraints.) But as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has suggested, trying to cover all of something is a great way to force innovation in news.

But in the end, covering “newsworthy” events and covering all events probably aren’t in opposition; they’re different sides of the same coin, which is providing relevant public interest information to an audience.  But we should be much more actively rethinking how changes in access to information and how audiences form really redefine what we think of as news.


Responses

  1. [...] it collects and presents information a particular way, as various people have noted, including here.   Regular crime reporters, on the other hand, don’t – mostly because they’re [...]

  2. [...] of “news” can get in the way of informing people, as Jonathan notes (and I’ve argued here regularly as [...]

  3. [...] by Chris Amico, who helped found Homicide Watch, about which I’ve written a fair amount here as well.  Chris frames the app nicely (thanks, [...]

  4. […] serve their audience better, but using those structures to do better reporting.  Which will help serve their audience even better.  Now that’s a virtuous […]

  5. […] persistent types of content – but it hits all the themes of structured journalism, from the rethinking of what news and the atomic structure of news should be, to the new ways people come to information, to the idea […]

  6. […] and the creation of “news-on-demand.”  And that opens up questions about what’s newsworthy as […]


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