There’s much more talk these days of the end of the “story” as the basic unit of news – an idea that’s not new to this blog, but appears to be gathering steam. It seems to make some sense – but does it make business sense?
Jeff Jarvis kicked off the latest discussion with a post about the article as being a luxury or a byproduct of real-time reporting; Jonathan Glick, the CEO of Sulia, added a note about the divorce between news and analysis (with news being the loss-leader for more valuable analysis); and Amy Gahran at the Knight Digital Media Center weighed in with thoughts about a more “Lego-like” structure to storytelling, with more modular pieces fitting into a more non-linear forms of journalism.
All interesting stuff, and perhaps that is the way journalism is headed, or should be headed. But for my money – literally – the best post was at the Nieman Journalism Labs, whose headline on the topic captured what may be one of the most important, and yet most overlooked, questions:The news/analysis divorce: Who gets custody of the cash? Among other things, it notes that context – from longer stories – is a critical part of any news consumption diet.
The pieces of many stories — the chronologically gathered details — have little value, economically or otherwise, without relevant context. As a reporter, how can I tweet observations about a source my readers don’t know about, or new wrinkles in an investigation that is still a mass of contradictory evidence?
Glick may not arrive at the right answer, but he is asking the right question: If short articles, once the journalist’s daily bread, can indeed be replaced in part by snappier, tweeted updates, how will reporters make money?
Which is not a small question. Just as the first wave of digital change upended the traditional advertising-driven business model of many media companies, this new unbundling will further undercut the already-shaky business of the legacy media.
True, that may not be a bad thing – at least in broad terms – as we look beyond advertising and limited circulation revenue to new ways to pay for what we do. But at least for the moment, there aren’t a lot of other options out there.
To be sure, Jarvis, Glick, et al may be overstating the case. For now. There are certainly new delivery mechanisms for news and on-the-ground reporting, and there are few journalists writing these days that can assume their audiences don’t know the basic facts of a given news event. But we’re still a ways away from an age where people have twitter streams of news directly injected into their brain and can afford to skip the next day’s news summary/story. So while news and analysis may be feuding, and making the children unhappy, divorce is still a little ways off.
Fundamentally, the idea that “stories” – carefully crafted work that exists in a point in time that provide context and understanding to people as they read it, in that moment – are dead doesn’t make sense. We do want information, and we do need context, and narrative is an age-old form of imparting information. And, at least in the current business model that we have, it’s the form that allows us to make some money.
First, it isn’t the only way of imparting information. We now have visualizations, interactive databases, slideshows and who knows what else will be invented next. Tweets – especially on events where we already have a sense of context – are a very fast way to push news out to people, and can be turned into a a running narrative. Ditto live blogs.
More importantly, “stories” are relatively high-cost items to produce – at least relative to how long they last, and hence what (monetary and otherwise) value we can extract from them. That, it seems to me, is a much bigger driver of “the end of the story” than the faster-and-faster speed of information transmission.
Put another way, the strengths of stories – context and place in time – are also its weakness. A 3-month old (or 3-year-old) story just doesn’t read as well or is as valuable as one done today. But it’s hard to produce a story on every topic, on demand, every day. Hence the notion of structured journalism – to try and have today’s story as well as extract from it enough to be able to build – and update – other “stories” or news products. Politifact being a prime – and only, as far as I can see – example of this. I’m sure there are other ways to extend shelf-life and value of the work we do each day, but at least for now, this is the one that makes sense to me.
Regardless, we should come to expect, one day, the end of the story. But we should do so with a clear eye on what it means for journalism – and journalism’s business – so that it won’t be the end of the story for us, and our profession.