News in the time of Internet

March 4, 2009 / News organisations and journalists have to learn to swim in the dominant medium if they are going to make it.

Timothy B. Lee, towards the end of a sympathetic reflection on the demise of the Rocky Morning News, remarks:

As more newspapers go out of business in the coming years, I think it’s important that our sympathy for individual employees not translate into the fetishization of newsprint as a medium. And it’s especially important that we not confuse newsprint as a medium with journalism as a profession. Newsprint and journalism have been strongly associated in the past, but this an accident of technology, not something inherent to journalism. Journalism—the process of gathering, summarizing, and disseminating information about current events—has been greatly enriched by the Internet. Journalists have vastly more tools available for gathering the news, and much more flexible tools for disseminating it. The replacement of static newspapers with dynamic web pages is progress.

I agree (and I admit that it’s a lot easier to get philosophical when you’re livelihood is not directly dependent on the institutions that are foundering). It’s why Adrian Holovaty has, for some time, advocated a stronger connection between journalism and programming: the latter allows investigators to do the former in new ways. Machines can do a lot with information if that information is structured:

The goal for me, a data person focused more on the long term, is to store information in the most valuable format possible. The problem is particularly frustrating to explain because it’s not necessarily obvious; if you store everything on your Web site as a news article, the Web site is not necessarily hard to use. Rather, it’s a problem of lost opportunity. If all of your information is stored in the same “news article” bucket, you can’t easily pull out just the crimes and plot them on a map of the city. You can’t easily grab the events to create an event calendar. You end up settling on the least common denominator: a Web site that knows how to display one type of content, a big blob of text. That Web site cannot do the cool things that readers are beginning to expect.

Because the dominant medium is now computerised and networked, there needs to be some kind of convergence between old-fashioned muckraking and the production of structured data, if the organisations in which journalism thrived in the twentieth century are to live on in the twenty-first.

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