A Story is Never Finished; Neither, Maybe, is a Book

(Note: Some of this is adapted from a 2006 talk I gave at Columbia University School of Journalism.)

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 some of their own works?

They can, if they get past the publication or broadcast metaphors from the age of literally manufactured media, where the paper product or tape was the end of the process.

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


We accrete knowledge in real life. We learn a little more about something. We factor that new information into a new understanding of the larger topic.

This 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. 

Because of the manufacturing model, traditional journalism has done things a different way. The process has been to create a new story each time there’s a bit more information about a person, topic or issue, and either a) expecting audiences to have enough background to understand why this turn of the screw matters; or b) add some background information that attempts to bring the reader/viewer/etc up to speed.

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

We can do it by creating ownership of articles, and beyond that, of topics — and then adding (and subtracting) from the original as new information comes to light. (Jeff Jarvis put it well in his piece last year when he wrote: “The building block of journalism is no longer the article.”) 

Some models are already available. Consider Wikipedia, where every version of the article — 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 adjacently 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 current financial meltdown. And suppose that the New York Times had done a detailed explainer of CDOs. (I can’t find one, but perhaps they 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 story.

The Times has 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 this 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 one to see what’s changed. Or maybe I want to see them mashed together, with the changes highlighted using colors for additions and strike-throughs for deletions. 

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

The idea isn’t new, really. The Associated Press and other wire services have used what’s called the “write-through” forever — adding new information to breaking news and telling editors what’s new in the story.


As noted above, I raise this point because it’s the approach I’m taking to this project. I’ll be adding material from blog posts into publicly viewable chapter drafts. 

The chapters will keep changing even after a book is published, though it’s way too early to know how often, if at all, a new version of a book will be printed. Given the rapid progress in the publish-to-order world, it may be mroe often than I’d imagined.