Trying to explain structured journalism – or even the problem it’s trying to solve – to people can be a challenge sometimes. So it’s great when I find someone who very succinctly and neatly describes the issues we’re facing.
Dan Conover at Xark 3.0 lays out in stark terms what’s wrong with the information age we live in, and proposes an alternative “Semantic Economy.” I’m not so sure we can get there as quickly as he imagines, but we’re certainly rowing in the same direction. More on that further down, but first his diagnosis:
But what goes unsaid … is how horribly inefficient the information age has become. Networked media gives us instant (and too-cheap-to-meter) access to generally relevant answers, the tech industry gives us unprecedented and highly affordable processing power, and everyone with an ISP has as much publishing capability as they need. It sounds like the beginnings of a highly productive, highly profitable era – except it’s neither profitable nor productive at the moment (at least not if you define productivity by the dollars generated from work).
Information, he points out, is being largely created in one of two formats: free text and unsearchable databases. Neither works particularly well if we’re trying to link information and create new value.
It’s as if we’ve come up with all the technologies needed to create a modern automobile, except its 1870, and the only fuel source we have for this remarkable new machine is coal.
Add to that the issue that we don’t have a business model that effectively monetizes the text, and the whole thing looks pretty nasty.
Consequently, we are stuck with a contemporary global economy in which very few people are reasonably well compensated for producing anything. In the same sense that our manufacturing sector has collapsed because third-world factories charge next to nothing for labor (often with resulting deficits in quality), so has our media economy collapsed because our only proven model for funding the creation of news and information comes from renting consumers’ attention to commercial interests. Since most people are happy to pay attention to low-grade schlock, the business case for producing high-quality, useable information is increasingly weak. Why invest in an expensive product with a lower rate of return when the cheap product makes you more money?
So what’s a publisher/journalist to do? Dan’s plan harks back, in some ways, to the Semantic Web, which as he points out, Clay Shirky mercilessly took apart – with humor, but mercilessly – back in 2003. But this time he wants to create a content management system that allows for more semantic integration so that organizations can have their content, in effect, talk to each other more easily. (At least, I hope I’m understanding what he’s suggesting.)
In other words, if your story tags/structures a company name as a company name, and mine does as well, we may be able to – given scale and breadth – pull those two pieces of information into a new and hopefully profitable product. And if you building in the appropriate tracking and licensing models, everyone can get a piece of that pie.
There are many similarities to the notions embedded in structured journalism – among them, getting more out of free text by structuring it as we write it, rather than trying to reverse-engineer meaning from stories later on. That builds us databases of information that, if organized well, can be recombined into new products.
But I think it’s that daily structure that matters – and perhaps that’s where I differ from Dan. It would be great to have a CMS that allowed for all kinds of semantic structuring – and it can probably be built in short order. But I suspect it makes more sense to build – or envision – the product you want first, and then try to engineer the CMS and journalists around it.
If you want to make Politifact, you have to set things up so you have a rating on each pronouncement that Obama makes; that doesn’t come naturally with a generic CMS – and even if an industry-wide CMS had that provision, how do I know that my rating matches your rating? That comes instead from franchising the Politifact structure to other organizations, as they’ve done. More importantly, it comes from restructuring your newsroom so they write the stories and rate the statements a certain way.
Similarly, the data structure for WhoRunsHK is set up in a particular way; it would be great if everyone adopted the same structure and we could all share information and build an even more robust product – but what works in Hong Kong may not work as well in the Philippines.
That’s not to say that having industry-wide standards isn’t a good thing – it is, and is a critical step as we move ahead. But that the likely path forward is probably some organizations building successful products and franchising/allowing others to duplicate the structure. That’s organic growth, as Dan also champions, but I suspect it’ll come about through products, not standards.
But whichever way it grows, it’s a good thing as long as it grows.