Nieman Journalism Lab ran a nice profile of Connected China a couple of days ago; it was written by Chris Amico, who helped found Homicide Watch, about which I’ve written a fair amount here as well. Chris frames the app nicely (thanks, Chris!):
It’s a context-first effort to catalog, organize, and visualize everything Reuters knows about power in the People’s Republic. What emerges is something radically different from news as we know it: The app focuses almost entirely on telling you how power is structured today, and how players are connected.
But more than that, he introduces a new – to me, anyway (proving I didn’t study economics at school) – way of thinking about how to categorize news and information: In terms of stock and flow. These are economic concepts that, to grossly simplify, describe a quantity at a given time, and the rate it changes, respectively. Which doesn’t sound very news-related, but Chris helpfully points to a 2010 post by Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket that torques the ideas very nicely into an information context:
Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
Which is another way of saying – there’s stuff that’s intended to be newsy, and there’s stuff that’s intended to last a while. Sometimes they’re the same thing, but often they’re not. A book generally doesn’t have the latest information in it, and a daily story doesn’t have a huge amount of context in it. There’s value to both, of course – we need to stay current and informed, but we also need to step back from the flood of news sometimes and think more broadly about issues.
Robin notes that technology has enabled – and encouraged – flow much more than it has helped stock; and he wonders if it’s a good thing.
I feel like we all got really good at flow, really fast. But flow is ephemeral. Stock sticks around. Stock is capital. Stock is protein.
You get no disagreement from me on that – I’ve written many times that fixating on news as what-just-happened not only underserves people who aren’t tied to the latest update of an event, but also potentially leaves a chunk of value on the table. But the broader point is that there shouldn’t be any dichotomy between stock and flow. They’re two sides of the same thing – or can be, if we organize ourselves to more effectively capture the value of our flow and turn it into stock. Which is the central tenet of structured journalism.
That’s essentially what Chris and Laura Amico did at Homicide Watch, reporting in real time on murders in the capital, but also structuring and storing in a database all the key information they gleaned. There’s flow – that day’s story – and there’s stock – the database that powers other parts of the site and allows (in theory, at least) users to see how DC is doing in terms of murders at any given time. And so it should be for Connected China as well. Chris notes that:
The tradeoff for any likeminded product is usability. It’s hard to see when something has changed on Connected China; the app always loads to the same front page. I want Connected China, and the editorial team behind it, to give me new reasons to dig into this database. There’s a lot to find once I’m in, but I need to be reminded to look, and the atomized structure of the news headline — Breaking: This Just Happened In Beijing — does a great job of being that reminder.
(There is in fact a featured story section of the site that does flag the latest news, but it’s true that it’s not on the front page.) The site is, as he notes, much more stock than flow. But it’s stock that doesn’t stay still.
One of the site’s most important features isn’t technical at all: It’s the newsroom’s commitment to maintain Connected China’s underlying database. This is surprisingly rare among news applications — especially those tied to print publishing cycles, where interactive apps tend to be snapshots of giant datasets that illustrate a story but don’t change the underlying reporting process.
A large part of trying to explain structured journalism – or Connected China, or Homicide Watch, or Politifact – comes down to finding metaphors that work. Stock and flow isn’t a bad one – as long as we remember that one can (and should) become the other.