Posted by: structureofnews | December 28, 2010

The Many Questions of Journalism

Reprising some earlier thoughts:

Imagine you made a product – let’s say Model T cars – and it was being threatened by some fancy new technology, say maybe a mostly free subway system, and you had to think through all the possible issues and problems surrounding your industry and look for ways forward.

The obvious way would be to look at how customers want to get around, and build something to serve them, but let’s assume that’s all still in flux; in any case, you still need to understand each part of your industry in some systematic way.

So you’d want to look at revenues – is there an untapped market for Model Ts among elderly people who can’t walk to the subway?  We might think about product enhancements – what add-ons will make people pay for cars in a world of free subway rides?  What about new technologies that we could use in the product? Maybe halogen lamps will make driving safer at night, say, or windscreen wipers could improve the driving-in-the-rain experience.

And costs – do we need to handcraft every Model T, or is there some more efficient manufacturing process?

But at some point you’d want to look at the product as a whole as well. Maybe people don’t want a boxy, hand crank-started vehicle and are really interested in a different mode of personal transportation. Maybe what they want is a fleet of taxis. Who knows unless you ask?

The point is that so much of the debate on The Future of Journalism is centered around points one and two – the tedious debates over free/not free, over how to get more traffic, as well as the appeal of new add-ons to news sites, like video, audio, maps, databases and so on.

All those discussions are valuable, and certainly there are a lot more tools for information gathering as well as story telling out there – and there are a lot of smart people doing very interesting things with those tools.

There’s even some good debate about point three: The nature of newsrooms and how the factory floor needs to be rebuilt and retooled for a new age – but there’s also far too much resistance to the idea. We don’t need a $5 billion endowment to keep the New York Times or Washington Post intact; if we had that much money we’d use it to fund completely different types of newsrooms. A Model T assembly line isn’t the best way to turn out Prius hybrids, even with the best new tools in the world.

And even fewer people are addressing what the product should be, which is a whole different point four: Storytelling is as old as time, but stories, as produced for newspapers and magazines, are really products of a production process. How many words, in what form, how they’re read, when they’re read – all based around the printing plant and the trucks that deliver them to people. It may be that this is the best way of communicating information to people – but maybe it’s not. We should at least ask the question.

To be fair, some people are asking: Talking Points Memo was at the leading edge of some new kinds of journalism when it crowd-sourced the firing of US attorneys.   Politifact has blown up the story as the basic unit of news.  At the South China Morning Post,  our new WhoRunsHK offers a new way to look at information about the interconnected world of HK’s key people and institutions. And sites like EveryBlock or do explore the notion of how information gets to people and how they use it. But we could do with more digging here.

So that last question is some of what structured journalism is trying to address – and in the process, hopefully shed some light on some of the other questions as well – revenues, enhancements, efficiencies.

If we are going to be dinosaurs in a new information age, we need to look at everything we do – and that includes the product that we make, not just at the newspaper level, but at the atomic, story and paragraph level. Not to mention how we can aggregate what we do into “molecules” of greater value.  And then completely restructure it.


  1. […] their help in reporting.)  And in the areas I’m interested in, what are the impacts on the newsroom process, the new products that can be created, and how we can make money from all of […]

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