Two pieces, loosely joined

explainthis.org

Part one. Late last night, Jay Rosen published a small peek at an idea for a new type of news site. ExplainThis.org would be a platform to connect users with questions to journalists with research and communication skills. Jay’s perspective on this idea has a few notable features: users would be able to coalesce around questions by voting up the ones they have in common, the questions would be more complex that what could be answered through a simple search, and the answers would require “real journalism” to be marked off as complete. It’s also distinguished from Cody Brown’s next big idea in that it would limit the answering participation to “journalists”, although it’s not clear how Jay would define this term, and that the questions would focus more on issues of national interest.

Part two. Through a post by Charlie Stross, I learned from The Observer today that drug money is actually what saved banks in the liquidity crisis, according to the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime:

Speaking from his office in Vienna, [Antonio Maria] Costa said evidence that illegal money was being absorbed into the financial system was first drawn to his attention by intelligence agencies and prosecutors around 18 months ago. “In many instances, the money from drugs was the only liquid investment capital. In the second half of 2008, liquidity was the banking system’s main problem and hence liquid capital became an important factor,” he said.

Some of the evidence put before his office indicated that gang money was used to save some banks from collapse when lending seized up, he said.

British bankers want to see the evidence he has to back up those claims and, as a reader, I was left completely perplexed and boggled as to whether this is a significant story or not.

These two parts don’t need to be mutually exclusive. The starting point could be zero, “What questions do you have?” in Jay’s case, but the starting point can also be further along the continuum of discovering the truth for a particular topic. Adding the ability for the user to ask follow-up questions, with the expectation that the journalist will continue researching the most important of them, would be a powerful approach for more quickly getting at what the community needs to know. Pragmatically, this functionality could mimic work NewsMixer has already done: one type of user comment is a question. In the context of the drug money story, I’d like to ask what the implications are if the facts are true.

The story shouldn’t attempt to be a definitive account of what happened, but rather an entry point for deeper learning.

The importance of Google’s Living Stories

Google's Living Story for Afghanistan

Google, in collaboration with The New York Times and The Washington Post, dropped a bombshell today in the battle for the future of news: Living Stories. The new project is described as “an experiment in presenting news, one designed specifically for the online environment,” and there are currently pages for eight different topics, including the climate change negotiations, the war in Afghanistan, and the healthcare debate.

There are four reasons why Living Stories are a Very Important Thing:

Topics are introduced with context. Each has an approachable, up-to-date summary at the top of the page that acts as a primer for the issue. The primer includes links, too; if the reader wants to learn more about a specific event presented in the summary, it’s just a click away. Let’s compare: The New York Times topic page for global warming and Google’s Living Story for climate change. In my opinion, Google’s information hierarchy wins.

Time is heavily leveraged for perspective. The clickable timeline with milestone headlines underneath the initial topic summary is a powerful method for understanding how the “living story” has unfolded to date. Stories are also presented in reverse-chronological order, making it easier to dive back into history for deeper understanding.

Filtering by the abstract components that make up an ongoing story is absolutely brilliant. For the Afghanistan page, this means “All coverage” can be filtered down to “The Global Response,” “Casualties,” and “The Afghan Elections,” among others.

“No updates since last visit.” The future of news is personalized. More importantly, personalized in the sense that the news knows what’s news to me.

A critical ethos of contextual journalism is to drive understanding. The goal should be to present a topic in such a way that the new information starts where the reader is at, and then lends the opportunity for the reader to learn as much as they have time for. The nut to crack is how you scale this method of presenting information across all of the topics a news organization may cover. That riddle involves what the information architecture looks like, how you incorporate production into the editorial workflow, and how you ensure the pages stay consistent and up-to-date.

In the Times article about the announcement, Josh Cohen of Google News said “if [Living Stories] worked well, Google would make the software available free to publishers to embed in their sites, much as those publishers can now use Google Maps and YouTube functions on their sites.” From the business perspective, it’s again unfortunate that Google is the one seriously innovating with the intersection of technology and journalism. Derek Willis notes that Living Stories was built “in collaboration with news organizations” using their APIs. Google Search was built in collaboration with content producers and their XML sitemaps.

Content doesn’t matter without the package. The package is how you make the money, and Google looks like it’s doing serious experimentation with one key component of a rebooted system of news: context.

Another case for the news wiki

From Steve Myers’ interview with Jimmy Wales, published yesterday:

People do often come to Wikipedia when major news is breaking. This is not our primary intention, but of course it happens. The reason that it happens is that the traditional news organizations are not doing a good job of filling people in on background information. People come to us because we do a better job at meeting their informational needs.

Jason Fry adds further analysis today in a piece about rethinking sports reporting:

It’s a quietly devastating indictment of journalism. And Wales is absolutely right, for reasons explored very capably a couple of months back by Matt Thompson. Arrive at the latest newspaper story about, say, the health-care debate and you’ll be told what’s new at the top, then given various snippets of background that you’re supposed to use to orient yourself. Which is serviceable if you’ve been following the story (though in that case you’ll know the background and stop reading), but if you’re new you’ll be utterly lost — you’ll need, to quote Thompson, “a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns”. On Wikipedia, breaking news gets put into context — and not in some upside-down format that tells you the very latest development that may or may not affect the larger narrative before it gives you the basics of that narrative so you can understand what that news means.

Along these lines, Wikipedia was the third place I looked for information after hearing about the swine flu outbreak last April; the first blog post I read and stories provided by the New York Times iPhone application proved inadequate.

How should a news wiki be executed? I have my ideas but the only real way to find out is to experiment.

Voting on the freshness of an article

A Twitter idea that I want to make sure gets archived somewhere so that I can build it later: it would be really cool if, as a reader and news consumer, I could indicate graf by graf on an article whether “I already knew that” information or “this is news to me.” For someone reading a lot of the #swineflu coverage, it seems as though most of the articles are largely rehashed information that I’ve seen elsewhere. Empowering the user to give feedback as to whether they’ve heard the information before will allow the news organization to focus more on providing new and unique coverage.

This data generated by ranking the freshness of information would immediately begin to build profiles of what the reader knows. If they’re logged in, the news organization could put this information on what they’re indicating they know and don’t know in a database, start aggregating it, and then feed the reader related links and stories on similar topics. Related information, however, would now be determined by both topical metadata and a virtual profile of their knowledge base. On the front end, the data that the readership is contributing could go towards a rating of how “fresh” the article is. If the organization were really forward-thinking, the content of the article could then depend on this profile of how much the reader knew.

Voilà. Another new format for news.