11.1 Topics and Baselines, Not Stories

If Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood folks can create directors’ cuts of their movies, why can’t journalists do the same—and more? Why can’t they keep updating and improving their own published works?

Actually, they can, if they can get past the publication and broadcast models from the age of literally manufactured media, where the printed paper product or recording tape was the end of the process.

This is not just about newspapers or television and radio broadcasts. It’s about books, too—in fact, about any of the media forms that are making the transition into the Digital Age. The Mediactive project represents my own attempt to put this notion and others into practice.

In life, we accrete knowledge. We learn a little more about things as we go along, and we factor that new information into a new understanding of the larger topics.

This model maps to the way the Web works. On the Web, the best explainers accrete audiences and authority, as they attract more and more readers and inbound links. As mediactive knowledge accretes, you’ll find it in updates to the Mediactive website.

Because of its manufacturing model, traditional journalism has done things in a different way. The process has been to create a new story each time a bit more information about a person, topic or issue becomes available, and either to expect audiences to have enough background to understand why this turn of the screw matters or to add some background information that attempts to bring the reader/viewer/ listener up to speed.

This is inefficient, both for the journalists and for the audience. But in an online world, we can easily do better.

One way to do it better: Create topic articles that are dynamic, with successive iterations adding (and subtracting) from the original as new information comes to light. This isn’t a new idea—Wikipedia, after all, is precisely about this kind of approach, as I noted when I wrote about it in 2005—but it’s gaining currency. (Jeff Jarvis put it especially well in his blog, BuzzMachine.com, when he wrote: “The building block of journalism is no longer the article.” Jay Rosen and Matt Thompson, in a panel at the 2010 South by Southwest Interactive conference, greatly expanded on this notion when they examined what they called the “future of context,” and created a website for it.)

Some models are already available. Consider Wikipedia, where every version of each article that is written—and I mean everything, down to the version where someone added a comma and hit the save button—is available to anyone who wants to see it. You can even compare edited versions side by side.

In the real world, how might this work?

Let’s say I’m just starting to understand the role of financial tools called “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs) in the 2008 financial meltdown. And suppose that the New York Times had done a detailed explainer of CDOs. (I can’t find one, but perhaps it did.) Now comes the important part: Let’s further suppose that the Times has been updating that article on the Web to reflect new events, in addition to writing current news stories (and archiving them next to the original) and creating a huge link directory. The newer stories have lots of new details, only the most central of which make it back into the updated original explainer.

The Times has actually gone part of the way in this direction. Under the umbrella of “Times Topics” you’ll find a huge aggregation of articles that have appeared in the paper, including a page on CDOs. What you won’t find is what I’d like to see as well: the original uber-explainer—call it the baseline copy—and then the current, updated version so you can see what’s changed. Alternatively, it might be nice to see them mashed together, with the changes highlighted using colors for additions and strike-throughs for deletions. (You also won’t find, inexplicably and inexcusably, an element that would vastly improve a Times Topics page: links to journalism other than the newspaper’s own stories.)

The average reader would probably go to the updated Big Topic story, starting and ending there for the moment. Then, when new journalism appeared about CDOs, he or she would have more useful background to understand the nuances.

Again, as noted above, this idea isn’t all that new. In fact, wire services understood it a long time ago. The Associated Press and others have long used what’s called the “write-through”—adding new information to breaking news and telling editors what’s new in the story. Now, by adapting this to the Web, we can tell everyone.

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