Journalism is Burning Or How Breaking News is Broken

On a day when Alan Mutter told us at Radar about his blog post on the ten-year low for ad sales in print newspapers,
I had the thought that most of a newspaper is a waste of print. Much of it goes unread and all of it is thrown away. Maybe the shrinking of newspapers is a good thing, and I say that with a lot of love and respect for newspapers.

I had those ideas in my head when I came upon a completely unrelated story by Scott Beale on the early early and unexpected burning of Burning Man.

It wasn’t the subject of Scott’s story that stood out; it was the way he was telling it on his LaughingSquid blog. He reported the story by updating the blog over time. The practice is not unusual for bloggers. Revising or appending an update after the main or original story is fairly common. However, as this particular story grew and grew, Scott decided to keep adding more and more updates to the same blog post instead of creating new and separate posts each day. As of late today, he had twenty-four updates, each one adding some new piece of information to the story or linking to others and it was playing out elsewhere. The last update I read was a link to a Jimmy Kimmel segment where he’s making fun of the story.

Having been on the road, I had not read much about the Burning Man story until I read Scott’s story. Scott does a great job covering the story (and he doesn’t cloud it with opinion.) This story on Scot’s blog had a real beginning and I could follow it, having the sense of how it developed. I was able to catch up on what I missed and it was satisfying. If this story had been covered in today’s newspaper, much of the detail would have been collapsed and summarized — and that summary, if I want it, I’ll be able to find in Wikipedia. While a newspaper is unable to give me a choice between a chronological view and a summary, the Web could.

Scott’s story hints at a better way to tell a news story, better than traditional methods practiced by or imposed upon journalists. What’s increasingly difficult to tell, in print or other news media, is the difference between what is new and what is being used to fill up the paper or the hour-long newscast. As a reader, I care about how I fill up my time and use my attention and I know that print and TV waste it. If I’m watching a breaking news story on CNN, they repeat the story over and over again, and then go out into the field to talk to people who have no new news to report. You have to endure all of that in hopes that they will eventually uncover something new to report. I have often wished I could turn the TV set off and let CNN notify me when the breaking news story actually comes with news to break.

When I pick up the paper, I don’t know if or how today’s story picks up from yesterday or the day before. I know the journalist can’t assume that people are familiar with the story and have been following it for days so the story must be repeated. Also, on larger stories like the Iraq war, I get lost, seeing similar stories day after day without much sense of what’s exactly changing. It’s hard to see a beginning, middle or most dire, the end. I end up reading feature stories that promise to be original, self-contained and complete.

I wonder if anybody is thinking that there might be a better way to organize a story using the tools of the Internet, creating a timeline view of the news. What if each news story had its own “blog” and the developments were added as they occurred? A reader could choose to see the story from the beginning or start where you last checked the story. What if an RSS reader understood the structure of stories with updates and allowed you to expand and collapse a news story like a timeline? What if I could subscribe to stories I wanted to follow and just get updates?

While a timeline view of stories could be automated, I think the best results would come with a journalist using a tool to create the story. I use Google News but I don’t find it a satisfying replacement for a newspaper. While it is easier to scan than a newspaper or a newspaper’s daily index, Google is not particularly good at identifying the best story or the story with the right amount of news in it. In its own way, it fills up space, telling you how many stories they are, not which ones have new information. And that’s the key, the reader/viewer wants to know when there’s news, and not because the newspaper or TV needs to say it has news. I believe you need someone to make a judgement on what’s news.

I imagine someone’s working on a kind of wikipedia for news as it happens. I can think of some interesting ways to visualize a front-page for a news site that ranks and highlights stories with breaking news. The reader might be able to go back in time and join a story that’s now a week old. It’s a reverse Reuters, which, instead of pushing the same story of a single event to many channels, it organizes the flow of multiple stories of events coming from many, different sources. However, I want an editor or reporter sorting through that flow and organizing the story for me, much as Scott did.

Have you seen anything like this? Surely some “new media” lab must be working on this thing already.