Posted by: structureofnews | August 8, 2010

The Future is Past

It used to be – and especially if you were in the wire-service business – that speed was how you valued news. If you beat the opposition by a day – or even a minute, if you covered the Fed – that was how you kept score.

And to some extent, that is the way news should be valued. If I can tell you before anyone else that taxes are going up next week, that’s something readers should appreciate. So too is anything truly exclusive – the mayor is corrupt, the school canteens are serving toxic food, and all that.

But in many cases bringing that news to someone a day later isn’t critical to his or her life; and so it’s hard to extract real value from that. If it doesn’t matter to you whether you learn that the school board is wasting millions of dollars today or tomorrow, will you pay more for the earlier story?

Perhaps instead we should be thinking of the value of stories rising over time, not falling. For many readers, it’s the past stories – the archive – that will add value to a story. If there’s an accident on the nearby corner, it’s the fact that there have been 12 accidents there over the last year that matters, not that there was one yesterday. Of course, a good reporter should access the archive when he or she writes the story about the accident, and mention the other 12 crashes there. But that depends greatly on the skill of the reporter, and it doesn’t allow for other connections that could be made.

To some extent that’s partly what EveryBlock does, by bringing together a huge trove of police reports in a visual manner. But that’s just police reports – what about the stories? And how should they be presented? Shouldn’t stories be structured in some way that allows us to access them like police reports are accessed, so we can reuse them in a different format?

More broadly, as we look at newsrooms and what journalists do – how do we increase the value of their output beyond that day’s newspaper and that day’s story?


  1. […] But the idea that media organizations should think about the shelf-life of their content is one close to my heart.   Again, I’m not a fan of how Demand Media does it, but it’s good […]

  2. […] carefully at the reader experience and how we’re packaging things; we need to look at how the shelf-life of the content we create and how it can continue to generate value; we need to think about how we […]

  3. […] But catchy slogans and pithy quotes, while great in speeches, don’t provide real guidepaths to any digital promised land. Even if all this were true generally, it doesn’t rule out profitable niches where ‘the Crowd’ may not be willing to cough up all they know – say national security issues or political lobbying.  And by defining speed as a – the – key characteristic of digital platforms, he overvalues the rush to publish over the persistent quality of information on the web.  How often do we need to know something immediately versus wanting deeper, more contextual information when we need it? […]

  4. […] I’ve written before about how our thinking of ourselves as being in the “news” business can get in the way of  really understanding what we do; that a focus on the word “news” tends to concentrate our attention on immediate events and coverage rather than on the value of information over time. […]

  5. […] We’re been so focused on the idea of speed and reach on digital that we often forget about the value of its (potential) permanence.  We find ways to work faster and faster and speed information to people at ever quicker-rates.  And as a result we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about how best to build the tools, structures, stories – and products – that really take advantage of the accumulation of information over time. […]

  6. […] narrative) is the centerpiece of any journalistic enterprise, or that we should build content that persists, but to really think about news apps as means to solving real-world problems, divorced in some […]

  7. […] relentless preoccupation with what Ezra Klein calls “presentism” that leads us to both undervalue the long-term worth of what we produce as well as, frankly, underserve our audience.  And the report, smartly, […]

  8. […] should read the piece – and he’s nailed most of the issues.  But why, as I’ve argued before, do we keep thinking of news as something that’s only good for wrapping fish the day after […]

  9. […] world.  After all, one of the notions behind structured journalism is the idea that we can both extend the shelf-life of our daily work as well as generate content more […]

  10. […] there are many new opportunities to take advantage of what digital technology offers us – persistent information, floods of data, the capability to machine-generate prose, to name a few – and it seems be […]

  11. […] In other words, there’s a lot that Google doesn’t do – or doesn’t do well – even with publicly available stories and content, and that good information design (or information architecture) can allow you to bring much more value to users than simply the ability to find stories amid the mass of information out there.  What it takes is a focus away from the “now” of finding the latest information, and an examination of the kinds of needs users might have over a longer period of time. […]

  12. […] That’s the trick – not to just let readers hunt for historical stories, or even just surface related articles from the archive, but to really use the information in those stories as the building blocks of new stories, databases or information graphics, and created automatically. That’s the idea, at least, behind structured journalism. (You knew I was going to get to that at some point.) And that’s part of the broader idea that there is embedded value in older information. […]

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