Posted by: structureofnews | January 31, 2012


What did you have for breakfast last Tuesday?

If you’re like me, you probably don’t remember – and that’s not surprising.  Unless something extraordinary happened at breakfast, or it was a particularly special day for you, we don’t generally devote valuable memory space to store all the minutiae of our lives.   But what if you learned today that there was an outbreak of food poisoning that Tuesday, and it’s critical that you remember what you ate?  Could you dig deep into your memory banks to recall those details?

It’s not easy.  But that’s not a flaw in memory; that’s a feature of it.  We couldn’t possibly remember everything that happens to us, so we have to sift events for meaning as they happen to us.  As Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, notes:

What makes things memorable is that they’re meaningful, they’re significant, that they are potentially colorful to you in some kind of way…

True enough.  But what seems trivial today could become meaningful tomorrow, and vice versa.  How can we know we’re noticing the right things? Are we condemned to remember key details of the world only through the prism of the present?

And so it is with journalism, which nearly by definition tries to chronicle what’s important at that moment.   Which is an important mission – but doesn’t make it easy to reuse what we’re reporting and writing now at some later date.  (Just try reading stories from six months ago and see how hard it can be to follow it.)

This all made sense when today’s newspaper became tomorrow’s fish wrapper, and where archives were dusty bound volumes of old papers in the library stacks; but that’s no longer the case.  We can and do pull up all kinds of old stories and data all the time now.

The trick is, how can we find ways to store potentially useful information – say, what we had for breakfast last Tuesday – in ways that make it easy to access months later and so that we aren’t overwhelmed by all that information?

Storage isn’t the key concern any more – any more than it is with human memory.  (We’ve long since outsourced much of our memory to computers, Flickr, Facebook and old-fashioned notebooks.)  The problem is systems and taxonomies to be able to find and make sense of all that information.  No filing system is future-safe.

Politifact fact-checks some political statements but not others; Muckety catalogs some relationships but not others.  Clearly we can’t anticipate all questions and store all information.

But there are some things we can do.  We can be more consistent about how we collect and store information.  If we’re going to log what we eat for breakfast – just to torture that analogy to death – let’s do it regularly and diligently.  There’s no point recording it on random days.

In newsroom terms, that means making sure there’s some consistent set of types of information we want from every story – or at least for certain categories of stories.  Is it relationship information of the people and entities in the story?  Is it geolocation data?  Notes and documents?  Better and more consistent metadata?

We may not make the right choice about what to keep.  But the alternative – not making a choice – is to give up a chance to build for the future as well as the present.


  1. […] – as Brian Williams has discovered, to his cost – because we’re designed to remember meaning, not details. And as our relationship to events change over time, so too do our […]

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