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3 News Foo themes that continue to resonate

Long-form content, the importance of context, and rebuilding trust emerged as important topics at the first News Foo.

A variety of topics created an overarching framework for the first News Foo, held earlier this month in Arizona. Among them: Reduced trust in the media and government; the future of business models for news and publishing; new tools for information gathering and dissemination; the challenges of accuracy and verification; and data journalism in the age of open government.

WikiLeaks loomed large, and it stimulated discussion around the alphabet soup of tech policy acronym like the ACTA treaty and COICA. (A future post will examine these and a number of other acronyms.)

More than a week later, three News Foo themes continue to resonate with me: the future of long-form journalism, the challenge of delivering context online, and the need to rebuild trust. I take a look each theme in the sections that follow.

News Foo schedule
The News Foo schedule board.

Theme 1: On the long form

The News Foo discussions on long-form journalism were deep, informed and skeptical. The economics of online long-form journalism are a challenge to those who practice or publish it, and yet there’s a continued appetite in young writers to produce it. A host of services have sprung up to feature the best of the web’s long-form offerings. Instapaper enables readers to save and read content offline on tablets and smartphones. Longform.org was founded to provide users with links to articles that are “too long and too interesting to be read on a web browser.” LongReads.com fulfills a similar function. For those who do wish to read-long form journalism online, Readability offers content without visual cruft.

Takeaway: Publishers of long form journalism might be well advised to add slide shows, resources for more information, multimedia resources and to “Gawkerize” themselves to make the most of the opportunities online. Julie Starr blogged about many of those services in praise of the long form, referring readers to Bobbie Johnson’s excellent piece on long form journalism in the Guardian. Getting that mix of multimedia, social content, data and summaries right will matter to the future of long form. For some outlets, that time has already passed.

Theme 2: Delivering context

A conversation about the future of context drove home the reality that while technology has rapidly enhanced the tools available to journalists, the need for the larger scope of events and history remains critical to readers. In a hyperactive social web, how can journalists provide a bigger picture? Matt Thompson of NPR, Adam D’Angelo of Quora, and Tristan Harris of Apture led a broad discussion about where, how and when context can be created.

Takeaway: Providing resources and materials readers need to make sense of a story remains central to the role of journalists. Sometimes, a few sentences and well chosen links can provide the needed context. For other material, prominent sidebars with links to “explainers” will be critical for readers who come fresh to a story or topic. For complex stories, the kind of quick summaries that viewers of “Lost” or “The Sopranos” came to expect before each episode may be worth producing. New efforts like Explainer.net bid to provide readers with an even better version of the classic “what, where, when, why and how” questions that a basic news story provides. As Megan Garber reported at the Nieman Journalism Lab, ProPublica’s new website, ProPublica.org, put future of context ideas to work earlier this year. For even more, well, context, review Steve Myers’ liveblog of the “future of context” session from this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival, where Thompson led a discussion with Harris, Jay Rosen of New York University, and Staci Kramer of paidContent. Thompson has written more about it at Newsless.org.

Theme 3: Rebuilding trust

Trust in the media, particularly in the online environment, is at historic lows. The news landscape is no longer dominated by three network anchors and the local newspaper. That makes new strategies of engagement, verification, authentication and links to original data even more important. It also requires media organizations to consider what builds trust, from responding to reader questions to highlighting corrections to explaining survey or research methodology. One idea that earned well-deserved attention at News Foo was the Report an Error Project from Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon.com and MediaBugs, and Craig Silverman of Regret the Error. The idea is deceptively simple: give site visitors an easy-to-find, easy-to-use “report an error” button in articles. While it has limited adoption to date in media organizations, Report an Error is an interesting concept.

Serena Karp, a new media professor at Arizona State University, shared a key point about the role of media staff online: “journalist participation in comments leads to reduced moderation and improved tone.” Karp linked to the Guardian’s journalist and blogging guidelines. Notably, Andy Carvin reshared her point with the comment that the same was true at NPR.

Takeaway: “Engagement” isn’t just a buzzword, as the Nieman Report’s piece on community hosts reminded readers recently. If editors and reporters engage readers online and give them a voice in getting the story right, the relationship that develops has the potential to improve the virtuous cycle of corrections reported, tips delivered and readers retained.

Data journalism, Ignite and science fiction

My News Foo experience also included facilitating a virtual session on data journalism, which brought City Camp founder Kevin Curry, Data.gov evangelist Jeanne Holm and Reynolds fellow David Herzog together with newsfooers to talk about open government data and data journalism. I also delivered an Ignite talk riffing on a similar topic, and I participated in a fascinating session on science fiction and the news. I’ll be posting separately on each of those topics, as they all deserve more space.

My own experience was just that: personal and limited to the sessions I participated within. For other takeaways and perspectives on the first News Foo, browse the following blog posts by other attendees (and one virtual participant):

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  • http://mike.teczno.com Michal Migurski

    Ideas that won’t work on the Kindle or in Instapaper: “Publishers of long form journalism might be well advised to add slide shows, resources for more information, multimedia resources and to ‘Gawkerize’ themselves to make the most of the opportunities online.” I spend a lot more time with long form journalism now than in the past almost exclusively because of my Kindle and my daily rail commute. On the other hand, I no longer subscribe to magazines like the New Yorker.

    To Gawkerize long form journalism would be to neuter the characteristics that make it travel well to small, underpowered, portable screens.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com Alex Howard

    Michael -

    Thank you for the comment. When I wrote about “Gawkerizing” long form journalism, it was in the context of creating interactive, lightweight and easily digestible media to go with the piece, providing the components that draw large online audiences.

    As a longtime reader of John McPhee, I agree that the long form itself is well worth preserving, as the diversity of platforms to share it and the readers, like yourself, who are consuming more of it.

  • Martha Garvey

    I’m curious as to why Michal no longer subscribes to the New Yorker–and will he come back when those publications are fully on a platform like the iPad?

    I suspect that there is going to be a reporter generation gap about the size and age of David Simon (once a reporter and master of the long form, now a TV producer who can use his medium to tell very big stories): a big absence of data-driven reporters between John McPhee and the younger Pro Publica journalists.

    This isn’t so much a discussion of age (I’m of Simon’s era), as exposure to tools. There are exceptions to this rule–I was agog at how excited John Dean was to get his next book on the iPad, so as to fully exploit the Nixon tapes.