Monday, July 7, 2014

What should the news write about, today?

I have always wanted to be journalist.  As a youth, it seemed terribly entertaining, jet-setting around the world chasing stories by day.  Living like Ernest Hemingway by night.  Taking [some of the first in the world] web monkey jobs at Georgia Tech's Technique and CNN gave me the opportunity to learn the news business from the inside.

Fundamentally, from an engineering perspective, the news business is out of sync with actual news events.

News events happen in real time.  There are bursts of information.  Clusters of events happen within a short span of time.  There is more news on some days, less news on others.

The news business demands content, visits, links, shares, likes, follows, trends.  Assembly line production demands regularized schedules; deadlines.  Deadlines imply a story must be written, even if there is no story to write.

Today's news business is incredibly cut throat.  Old dinosaurs are thrashing about.  Young upstarts are too.  My two young children only know of newspapers from children's storybooks, and icons on their Android tablets.  Classified ads, once a traditional revenue driver, have gone the way of the Internet.  Many "newspapers" are largely point-and-click template affairs, with a little local reporting thrown in.  Robots auto-post every press release.  Content stealing abounds.

All these inherent barriers exist for those brave few journalists left on the robot battlefield.  As usual with any industry that is being automated, the key to staying ahead is doing things that humans are good at, but robots not: creativity, inventiveness, curiosity, detective work.  Avoiding herds, cargo cults, bike shedding, conventional wisdom.

In my ideal world, news sites would post more news, look and feel a bit different, on days and weeks where there is a lot of news.  On slow news days, the site/app should feel like it's a slow news day.

The "it bleeds, it leads" pattern is worn out, and must be thrown in the rubbish.

Every day, every week, when a reporter is met with the challenge of meeting a deadline to feed the content beast, the primary question should be:  What recent trends/events impact the biggest percentage of your audience?

Pick any "mainstream" news site.  How many stories impact those beyond the immediate protagonists/antagonists/victims/authorities involved?

The news business, by its very nature, obscures and disincentivizes reporting on deep, impactful, and probably boring trends shaping our lives.  The biggest changes that happen to the human race are largely apparent in hindsight, looking back over the decades or hundreds or thousands of years.

The good stories are always the hardest to find.  Every "news maker" has the incentive to puff their accomplishments, and hide their failures.  Scientists have the same incentives (sadly):  Science needs negative feedback ("this theory/test failed!") yet there are few incentives to publish that.  Reporters must seek and tell the untold story, not the story everyone already knows.

Journalists of 20+ years ago were information gateways.  Selecting which bit of information to publish, or not, was a key editorial power.  Now, with the Internet, the practice is "publish all, sift later."  Today's journalists must reinvent themselves as modern detectives, versus the information gateways and "filters" of past decades.

1 comment:

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