May 2nd, 2009
If the wire editor and feature editor roles are becoming obsolete for print newspapers, as Steve Yelvington persuasively argues, then those editors should be retrained — or retrain themselves — as web curators. Rather than become obsolete, these editors could become essential to their news organization’s future on the web.
On the Internet, we have no need of wire editors; if we wish to have wire content on our websites, we can plug in AP Hosted News, or run a full feed of AP Online or some similar product from another service. But with everything on the Internet just a click away, the value of such branded and hosted wire content is low (and measurable), and even that may go away before long, based on simple cost-benefit analysis. We may be better off sending users to CNN, MSNBC and NYtimes.
Feature editing faces the same problem:
But the job simply doesn’t transport to digital media. Again, everything on the planet is just a click away, much of it more interesting, entertaining and informative than can be found in the typical daily newspaper’s features.
Yet there is a HUGE opportunity in this shifting landscape. Just because there’s a wealth of content a click away doesn’t mean that news consumers know where to click in order to find it.
Instead, we have what Clay Shirky describes as “filter failure”:
Here’s what the Internet did: it introduced, for the first time, post-Gutenberg economics. The cost of producing anything by anyone has fallen through the floor. And so there’s no economic logic that says that you have to filter for quality before you publish…The filter for quality is now way downstream of the site of production.
What we’re dealing with now is not the problem of information overload, because we’re always dealing (and always have been dealing) with information overload…Thinking about information overload isn’t accurately describing the problem; thinking about filter failure is.
Local news sites may serve their readers much better by sending them to CNN, MSNBC, and NYT for non-local news, as Steve suggests. But they may also send them to local news sites in other regions for stories dealing with common issues. They may send them to local blogs and other non-MSM media sites.
There is a wealth of sources on the web. Helping readers find the best of the web could help local news sites remain daily destinations rather than just a host for content to be aggregated by someone else — which could help those news operations get back into the content distribution business, which is how they made money in print, and how they could make a lot more money on the web.
Wire and feature editors are already skilled content curators — they just need to adapt those skills to filtering the web. One challenge they can apply their news judgment to is discovering new sources of trusted information, something Google CEO Eric Schmidt admits alogirthms struggle with.
For general search, we’ve been careful not to bias it using our own judgment of trust because we’re never sure if we get it right. So we use complicated ranking signals, as they’re called, to determine rank and relevance. And we change them periodically, which drives everybody crazy, as or algorithms get better. There’s no question in my experience that the top brands represented in this room would, in fact, float to the top in our search ranking. The usual problem is you’ve got somebody who really is very trustworthy but they’re not as well-known and they compete against people who are better known, and they don’t, in their view, get high enough ranking. We have not come up with a way to algorithmically handle that in a coherent way.
Another skill that would help wire and feature editors take on the challenge of filtering the web, and make them hugely relevant in the web media era, is collaboration. They could learn a lot from the editors in Washington State who have been practicing collaborative curation, whether for a statewide flood or a flu outbreak.
Publish2’s Senior Editor Josh Korr wrote about this vision for re-inventing the wire function on the web in a recent Nieman Reports piece, “A 21st Century Newswire—Curating the Web With Links”
If I were a wire or feature editor in a newsroom, instead of waiting to become obsolete, I would start immediately learning how to be a top notch web curator. I’d ask myself — how can I become the Jim Romenesko or Matt Drudge for my community. I would start learning how to use the tools of web curation and learning how to collaborate with other web curators. I’d study how newsrooms like Chicago Tribune have created an editorial workflow for collaborating to curate the web (see Colonel Tribune Recommends on the Chicago Breaking News blog.)
And if I ran a newsroom, I’d look at how I could retrain and reassign talented to editors to be vital contributors to the web operation, even as their function becomes redundant for the print operation. (Or, I’d imagine a future where content from a diverse range of web sources could be licensed and curated for print — see this Josh Korr post.)
There’s still time for any journalist in the newsroom to become essential to the future of news, rather than being emblematic of the past.