October 7th, 2008

The New AP

by

Matt Thompson and Jeff Jarvis have been doing some important thinking on how news coverage needs to change in the Internet Age. They argue that a flow of shallow, time-dependent stories no longer works as a foundation for helping readers understand the world.

Thompson started a blog devoted to exploring an alternative. He writes in the introductory post:

Until recently, newspaper editors defined news as “important developments over the past 24 hours.” … My understanding of journalism is broader. To me, journalism is the constant effort to deliver a truer picture of the world as it is. The “latest developments” provide one lens through which to capture that picture. And as long as journalism was primarily delivered by static media, that lens made perfect sense.

The Web, however, makes possible other ways of delivering that picture of our evolving world. It allows us to shirk the tyranny of recency and place more emphasis on context – the information that often gets buried beneath the news.

Jarvis takes the idea further:

[A] discrete and serial series of articles over days cannot adequately cover the complex stories going on now nor can they properly inform the public. There’s too much repetition. Too little explanation. The knowledge is not cumulative. Each instance is necessarily shallow. And when more big stories come — as they have lately! — in scarce time and space and with scarce resources, each becomes even shallower. We never catch up, we never get smarter. Articles perpetuate a Ground Hog Day kind of journalism.

[snip]

I think the new building block of journalism needs to be the topic. … I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed.

I agree with both of them. (Disclosure: Matt’s a friend, and Jarvis is on the board of Publish2, where I’m an editor.) But there’s an ink-stained elephant in the room that needs to be faced if Thompson’s feeling that “we’re on the verge of an epochal advancement in journalism” is to come true.

I’m talking, of course, about the Associated Press.

The AP plays a major, but often unacknowledged, role in the modern news ecosystem. Aside from the handful of papers that can still afford a worldwide or national reporting staff, most papers’ non-local coverage draws heavily from the AP (sometimes supplemented by wire services from Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times, McClatchy, Bloomberg, Reuters, etc.).

This coverage is important — AP is usually the first to report on major stories, particularly in out-of-the-way places. But it has also contributed to the spread of what, in my work as a wire editor, I came to think of as AP’s house style: voiceless (the Ron Fournier Effect notwithstanding), incrementally updated, process-oriented, one sentence of “news” stretched to 12 paragraphs.

Such stories aren’t always engaging or interesting, nor are they effective in providing understanding. Without context, they can induce news overload. As Jay Rosen recently wrote:

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior reports. … That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

None of this is meant to denigrate individual AP journalists, who do tons of great and important work. The issue is institutional — as much a function of objectivity-era daily journalism as of house style.

Meanwhile, the Internet’s depth and variety have made newspapers’ pool of wire sources look increasingly shallow.

For any given story, the most interesting and informative takes often come from sources other than the traditional newswires. On any given day, the stuff that actually makes people smile (when was the last time a newspaper made that a goal?) is found not on the AP wire, but in viral videos, Cute Overload photos, and Best Week Ever posts.

The longer newsrooms ignore this amazing universe of content, the less relevant they are for readers. The longer the AP fails to help newsrooms find this content, the less useful it will be. A content-sharing service is a good start, but I think the AP — like other wire services — fundamentally misunderstands what a web-era newswire needs to offer. (Though in fairness, most AP member papers are still focused on print.)

Not just more in-house niche content, but more of the best content from all over the web, regardless of the source: More engaging one-off stories and ephemera, as well as more relevant and understandable analysis and context.

The AP’s not alone; no wire service covers papers large and small, blogs, magazines, and web sites. But on the web you don’t need to pay anyone to help you bring great stories to readers. All you have to do is link.

Finding all this material is another matter. Individual bloggers do their part each time they link, but there hasn’t been a good way to aggregate the blogosphere’s links.

That’s the real mission of a wire service for the web era: Not to provide full-text versions of a single source’s (or handful of sources’) news, but to offer links to the best stuff culled from ALL sources.

And since nobody’s doing that, we’re going to give it a shot. Call it the web’s newswire, version 1.0; Publish2 as the new AP.

I’ve created a Publish2 newsgroup called The Wire. Armed with a packed RSS reader, I’ll be saving links on all manner of topics from all kinds of sources. The goal is to provide a thorough, interesting, and engaging wire for news organizations that want to start moving beyond the AP or are forced to do so for budgetary reasons.

This link wire could be an answer for editors like Steve Buttry of The (Iowa) Gazette, who writes, in a recent cancellation letter to the AP, “I don’t know yet how The Gazette will operate without AP content.”

Imagine this scenario: The print edition of The Gazette becomes “an all-local newspaper” supplemented by content-sharing, as Buttry suggests in his letter. And every day the paper includes a note to readers:

“We’re still going to cover non-local stories, but in a new way. On our website, we’re linking to the best of these stories –- from many sources, not just the narrow range we used to print — to try to make the news more understandable, engaging, and interesting.”

Meanwhile, The Gazette has set up web sections of curated links to the best national, international, business, entertainment, sports, etc. news and commentary — links drawn initially from feeds of The Wire’s tag pages. The Gazette could even publish a Drudge Report-type page of The Wire’s links on all topics.

Voila: not just sustained but improved coverage, without having to pay a cent.

This is not an argument to kill the AP. Indeed, any thorough link wire would certainly include AP stories. This is an argument about the centrality of AP-type stories in the web-news mix, and the utility of the AP as a distribution mechanism for web-focused news organizations.

I realize that one person acting as editorial gatekeeper goes against any number of principles of web journalism. Ultimately, this newswire will be powered by the collective editorial judgment of thousands of journalists linking stories. (Anyone who would like to contribute or suggest links is welcome to ping me at josh [dot] korr [at] publish2 [dot] com.)

For that to happen, there needs to be a shift not only in the conception of a wire service, but also in the conception of the link itself.

Journalists need to understand that finding and curating links is as important to web journalism as original reporting. They need to understand once and for all that linking is journalism.

This is why algorithm-based link services are not the answer. It takes human intelligence and judgment to turn a flood of information into a coherent news story (i.e. reporting); it takes the same intelligence and judgment to turn a flood of news stories into a coherent body of links.

That’s the radical evolution Matt Thompson senses is at hand: Journalists using their expertise and judgment to filter the web and make the news make sense.

Links make context- and topic-focused journalism possible — not to mention journalism that’s surprising and fun instead of predictable and boring. All we need is a way to find those links and make them accessible to all news organizations.

So let’s get to it.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ll be fleshing out this vision further on the Publish2 blog.

  • If I have questions how the AP is organized & run, where can I ask them?

    Are AP articles PR-generated as often as other articles are? If so - is this considered acceptable practice?

  • Carolyn,

    This is a great point: "While I completely agree with the points about context, sometimes news is happening before context can be formed and understood. The incremental developments are important, too."

    My sense is incrementals are probably most valuable for stories and events that are unexpected or basically unfold in real time (e.g. crimes, natural disasters), or for stories that unfold over a defined period of time (like the primaries/ caucuses).

    They're much less valuable for long-term/open-ended stories (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and for complex stories that assume a base of knowledge (the mortgage crisis, congressional business, Russia's invasion of Georgia, Pakistani politics).

    But yeah, I don't think the answer is to get rid of incremental updates, any more than it is to get rid of the AP (especially since AP provides many of those updates). The goal should be to find a better balance between incremental news and context, and to be more aware of which is more appropriate for a given story or situation.

  • I like the article...I think the only piece missing is semantics. This is how new/media organizations can help find more (additional) relevant content.

    If you can leverage an asset, like the-wire, and have it suggest things (like zemanta http://zemanta.com does for blogs)...now you have something cool. And it stays fresh and keeps updating itself as new content comes online.

  • Henry,

    I think my ideal would be a balance between a news magazine approach and a rethought spot news approach. (And papers certainly shouldn't eschew local spot news.)

    For instance, instead of endless basic stories about crime, accidents, and foreign attacks, papers could run a variety of basic stories that are ... simply interesting. Not of world-historical importance, but just interesting. Here are two examples that I linked for The Wire.

    For your first concern, links have been a pretty good business for Google. With the network effect of thousands of journalists linking, there's plenty of potential.

    As to your second concern, I actually don't think it's that hard to curate blogs. The vast majority still offer commentary and links, not original reporting, so vetting them is a matter of assessing the quality of their arguments and links (or the hilarity of their pop culture riffs, as the case may be) rather than the accuracy of any factual claims.

    For the blogs or sites that do reporting, many are written by card-carrying journalists or academics. Those that aren't would be presenting either first-person, on-the-scene reports or assertions of fact based on other reporting.

    The first category would probably be less dodgy -– say, a random person Twittering about an accident scene. These posts will sometimes clearly be sketchy enough to avoid -- if a single blogger is the only person claiming he saw a violent carny riot at the state fair, be skeptical -- but if the piece is compelling and doesn't seem obviously fake an editor could always link with an explanation of why they're linking and exactly what they do or don't know about the linkee.

    If that seems slippery, remember that journalists do something like this all the time. When a journalist asks a person-on-the-street to describe an attack they just witnessed, or a concert, or a hurricane -- any first-person experience, really -- they're trusting that person to generally tell the truth. I don't see why bloggers-on-the-street wouldn't get the same general benefit of the doubt.

    The second category of reporting -- non-observed factual assertions -- carries a much higher burden of proof. In the case of the YouTube video you mentioned, it's pretty clearly a fake. (Hint 1: The guy's MySpace URL keeps flashing on the screen. Hint 2: He claims to be an aspiring rapper living LA.) So if I were an editor, I would either ignore it (very likely) or do what Radar did -- link to point out that the guy's a joke. Or take the CNN iReport fiasco -- there should be a MUCH higher burden of proof for a factual claim like that, and extreme skepticism that the only person to have the information is anonymously reporting it on iReport. (Steve Jobs heart attack = carny riot at the fair.)

    In all these cases, journalists would use the same editorial judgment that helps them evaluate a source's claims or decide whether to run a thinly sourced staff report. And because the link wire is collaborative, that editorial judgment is also enhanced by the network effect -- by thousands of journalists fact-checking, verifying, and judging links.

    But again, the universe of reputable and soundly-argued blogs and sites is so vast that there's plenty to work with even if editors are worried about gray areas.

  • Carolyn Washburn

    I agree with much of this. Very exciting.

    Some thoughts...

    We need to ensure a process by which we understand the sources of the content, the understanding that not all links are created equal. We need to guarantee the expertise. The standards those sources apply for balance and news judgment.

    We need to ensure that journalism consistently has people on the ground around the world in all the right places. That can take many forms. I think we even need a new model of sharing content from the traditional services, like NYT. If fewer organizations can afford to have reporters/writers all around the world, we need to ensure that those who CAN are sharing as widely as possible so all citizens benefit.

    I don’t buy that we can get it all for free. At some point, if we really want consistent quality content from around the world, someone is going to have to pay for it and I think we need to be willing to.

    Some of the Ron Fournier Effect is worrisome to me. Some of AP News Analyses lately have so bordered on opinion that we have wondered whether we should run them as op-eds. Some pretty sweeping adjectives and subjective observations not, in my view, adequately supported with evidence. I still want some news source that I don’t have to think about putting through a bias filter while I read – can’t it be that AND be engaging?

    And finally...
    While I completely agree with the points about context, sometimes news is happening before context can be formed and understood. The incremental developments are important, too. We learned that here during the Iowa Caucus season. There was great, great value for readers in giving them very frequent short bursts of incremental developments that over time we can add up, and add context and come to meaning. But meaning isn’t always possible while events are unfolding…

    Food for thought…?

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