Posted by: structureofnews | June 4, 2011

The End of the Story?

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.

But.

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.


Responses

  1. […] thinking, and now more than ever, we need to rethink almost every element of what we do, from the story to the deadline to the audience to the platform.  As Kevin notes: The Guardian has time to make […]

  2. […] small – revenue streams, but also the more fundamental questions about how we create the basic units of news, the persistence of our content, and what it costs to do […]

  3. […] Yet that needs to coexist with a real willingness to tear pretty much everything else up, from the form of stories to the relationship with the audience to business […]

  4. […] we shouldn’t be wedded to those forms simply because they’ve served us well over the decades.   What other forms might work […]

  5. […] CMS and publishing platform; the core of the operation is generally still geared towards creating stories and that day’s (or minute’s) […]

  6. […] is akin to trying to get oil paintings to mimic photography (or vice versa.)  Or hanging on to story forms developed for print in a digital world. As (Blow’s friend Chris) Hecker explained it: […]

  7. […] a critical question, but we don’t spend enough time on it.  How should journalism evolve in its most basic form?  How do people come to news these days?  What do they actually want or need – today, next year […]

  8. […] may sound a little like technology consultant-speak, but it’s really a question about how the story form should evolve now that news – or content – can be pulled on demand by users as much as it can be […]

  9. […] wedded to a product that really no longer exists – a once-a-day “product” built primarily around the story as the basic unit of […]

  10. The story has been with us since the beginning of time. It evolved, adapted, changed form and structure. And it will do so in the future. Stories are everywhere around us – even articles of industrial design are compact stories, and so are objects of nature – rocks, plants, people…
    Journalism and a lot of news reporting is storytelling of significant real events with real people – or at least they do contain the potential thereof. The facts in themselves without narration cannot do the ‘job’. Part of the ‘job’ is to sing songs of our lives – and I believe that to be a fundamental human need.
    The simple intake of facts without the thread of narration is bound to fail just so as the prussian educational model of memorizing data has failed (and is failing).
    What Circa does seems to both do the ‘job’ and move (hopefully) in the direction of structured journalism that you very rightly evangelize. At the moment (15.12.2012) Circa does seem to me as the most evolved model of news reporting around – at least on mobile.

    • I agree that the story has been around forever, and that it remains the form our brains are most adapted to understand – and that gives it a primacy that few other forms can match. That said, the whole point of structured journalism is to both extract broader meaning from narrative, and help reconstruct new narratives from facts – even if imperfectly. Ultimately we need both data and story; and ideally to be two sides of the same coin.

  11. […] isn’t to say we should be killing off the narrative story as a time-honored form of imparting information. (Although, as USC professor (and friend) Gabe Kahn […]

  12. […] we should abandon the ideas (or ideals) or journalism, or our public service mission; or even that stories will disappear. But it does mean that we should be thinking much more imaginatively about what we can and […]

  13. […] haven’t I written at least a couple of times why we have to get past the story as the basic unit of journalism?  It’s true, I have.  And I […]

  14. […] the most powerful ways to impart information to people.  But we need to get past the notion of story (and other individual pieces of content)  as the basic unit of what we do; for one thing, the economics of competing on individual stories […]

  15. […] the internet delivers your product, and not only can anyone start up a news site at will, the form and format of news itself is rapidly evolving. So if we don’t take a broader view of what it means to gather, […]

  16. […] to produce a different kind of non-story-centered journalism. And, I’d argue – and have argued – that this can be serve the public better, lower our costs and possibly even increase our […]


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