This is the News

aka ‘Doing Fewer Things Better, The Problem with Infographics, and The Tyranny of Breaking News’

I’ve been meaning to write something about news for a long, long time. I’m not sure I’ll be saying much that hasn’t been said elsewhere, but hopefully it will act as a useful synthesis of the current debate, with a smidgen of my own thoughts on top.

Firstly, it’s widely said that the news industry is in trouble, or at the very least, going through massive disruption at the moment. And the finger of blame, more often than not, is pointed in the direction of the Web. No-one seems sure what to make of it, or indeed how best to use the Web for news. At times, it seems that in reality, things aren’t much different. Write your articles, and post them on the Internet. just like this blog. Which is where the first ‘battle’ seems to be – between traditional, professional journalists, and those who just write because they want to. Now, it must be said, that I’m absolutely not arguing that plain text writing, as it were, is in any way wrong, dying, or should be outlawed. Indeed, I’ll go on in this post to consider how we can best use the Web to experience news, advocating the importance of the Linked Data approach, just as I have for drama and sport in previous entries, but the fact will remain that this post will be first and foremost a textual essay. And that’s a good thing. But at the same time, it’s not the only thing, and moreover, given the potential of the new Web medium, we should at least be exploring and trying new things out, embracing the complexity and experimenting, rather than just being content with what we know and seems safe and simple. I’m not claiming I have the answers, but the willingness to explore, for me, is the key.

In a very similar vein to the content producers of television and radio, as I’ve explained in the past, journalism, in the main, treats the Web purely as a distribution mechanism, matching McLuhan’s hypothesis of old media confronted with the new. Frustratingly for me, and perhaps others, new platforms, rather than new media, are often lauded as the game changers. For instance, the iPad, and the current vogue for ‘apps’. I’m not disputing that these new forms offer simplicity and opportunities to experiment with presentation and user interaction, but more often than not, they tend to be blind to the massive opportunity for real, genuine, exciting change that the Web offers us. The whole debate around economic models for news on the Web is important, probably, but for me, again, it’s just background noise. It’s like we’ve discovered electricity, and instead of experimenting and investigating its properties, uses and opportunities, we’re sitting around debating how to bill people for their use of it.

More relevant, though, is the seemingly wasted opportunity of simply packaging up existing forms of news content into ‘apps’. As others, including Martin Belam, have pointed out, (here and here) this really is no different from the mid-nineties craze for CD-ROMs. Yes, it’s new, it’s simple, but beyond the immediate experience, does it really change things? Is it really something new? No. At the end of the day, it’s still just textual reports, or video clips, or images – and that’s a real shame. Again, ‘apps’ themselves aren’t inherently a bad thing. Something that packages up content and provides a coherent journey and experience around the Web is useful and should be encouraged – but it shouldn’t be just a surface level thing. The beauty of the Web is in the connections, in the way that it is free-form, the way that it has the potential to be an extension of our minds, freely linking between concepts with no artificial boundaries. If you’re reading something in the Times, you’ll be thinking about the subject of the article not just in the context of that report, or indeed in the boundaries of the Times, but as a general thing, linked in your mind to all sorts of related concepts.

A bit of history and hypothesis, then. News emerged as an industry dependent, really, on the format of the paper, on the medium of text and some images. On rolling TV and radio, of course, news reporting, as exemplified by Charlie Brooker, has not only expanded to fit the medium, but has almost become set in its patterns and ways. More worryingly, though, is the feeling that news currently inspires, across both paper, TV and radio media – dissatisfaction, bewilderment and despair. In the desperation to sell papers, to keep eyes and ears on channels, news outlets are forced to fill time, to fill space with whatever stories they can find (and/or make up!). And the emphasis is always on the breaking story, the immediate, the new, the now. I would argue that again, this isn’t inherently bad – people want to know things as soon as possible, often before others, so that they can then be the first to share it. But this constant barrage of ‘news’ is overwhelming and tends to lower the overall quality of journalism. Ironically, people like Nicholas Carr have been critiquing the Web for ruining attention and making people ‘surface skimmers’, but I’d argue that this is more the result of the pace and quantity of news through traditional means.

Indeed, the Web has the potential to be the exact opposite of this surface world. On the Web, there are no deadlines. There is no material constraint of having to fill the paper with whatever you can. And most importantly, there are no physical barriers to connecting ideas. If everything, potentially, is for the long term (and almost permanent), then there is simply no excuse to be focusing solely on the current, the present. I would argue that it’s completely the wrong model for the Web. Quite frankly, I find it incredible that there is no easy, official way for me to see news stories from any day except for today on the main news websites. Instead, I’m forced into Google searching for content. I’m looking for information about the news, why shouldn’t I be able to find it on the BBC, or on Sky, or any other news outlet. Why are old stories hidden away? There’s no need – and in fact, it’s completely illogical. More often than not, today’s current news is simply building on top of events that have previously happened. Events that will be referenced in the text of the ‘new’ article. And yet, unless a journalist has kindly provided a manually entered link back to a previous story, I’m forced to make the link back implicitly, in my mind. Yes, this made sense in the days of broadcasting, or of papers, where everything was ‘one-shot’ – you couldn’t get the past back, so you had to summarise in your ‘new’ content. But that’s simply not the case now. Perhaps the BBC news outlet shouldn’t try to cover every single story. Instead, perhaps it should pick and choose stories, and cover them in depth, with decent analysis that seeks to help people understand, not just to keep them up to date. Perhaps this is what is meant by doing fewer things, but doing them better. And perhaps it’s important to phrase it like that – not just as ‘doing fewer things better’ – the comma is of prime importance, else it seems we’re advocating doing fewer good things, and lots more bad things.

All this provides an interesting position for news outlets. They’re still trying to work out how best to position themselves on the Web. Yes, there’s the economic question. But paywall or no paywall, it’s really not a question of distribution. It’s a question of form. And whilst images, text and video are not dead, and are still useful, they are not going to solve any problems. My personal opinion here, of course, but if Sky’s position is to be first for the story, to be the arbiter of breaking news, that’s fine. That’s a useful service. But, I contend, it’s one based in the old world of news. It’ll still survive, but there’s an opportunity for others to provide something different, something that can truly revolutionise the news industry, whilst also sating the desire for understanding, the desire that is being so sorely underprovided in the current climate. People are crying out for understanding, for context. And the Web can offer this, not just in terms of lengthy ‘analysis’ articles and the domain of the personal blogger, but by using the building blocks of the Web itself – URIs and links.

Before I go into some examples of what this could turn out to be, I want to take a little time to talk about data visualisation and ‘infographics’. Again, it’s something which is currently in vogue, and very much the subject of debate. I think that infographics can be useful. They can reveal interesting patterns, and of course, look good. They can be, as the regular creators of infographics often acknowledge, misleading and dangerous – a form of propaganda. But again, this whole debate on the merits of infographics often (but, to be fair, not always) misses the point. Data gets collated, the infographic drawn. The graphic is provided as an image, and if you’re lucky, the data in a spreadsheet alongside it. Yes, sometimes it’s in a flash file where you can click on things. But most of the time it’s an image, which can be easily distributed by the Internet. To truly be using the Web, to be creating something new, however, we would need to be creating these graphics from the raw materials of the Web. It’s not going to be easy, at the moment, as the tools are only starting to emerge, and often the beauty of these visualisations are severely compromised. But more effort has to be put into it.

So, finally, a case study. As I write this, today is the hundredth day of the current Coalition government in the UK. There seems to have been plenty of reporting around this in the news. The significance of the hundred days, of course, is a reference back to the tenure of Franklin D Roosevelt in the USA, who used the first hundred days of his presidency to revolutionise American society by introducing economic reform and the New Deal. Not that you’d know from the current reporting. It looks to be just a random milestone chosen because of the niceness of the number.

More importantly, though, we need to consider why the first hundred days of a government is worth reporting on now. It’s precisely the kind of news content that the Web would be perfect at delivering – it’s a retrospective, a review, a summary of events. And what can I find if I turn to the BBC News website? Either a hundred second video (which plays without me asking it to – grr!) with clips of significant moments, or a long textual analysis. The video, especially, is frustrating. It’s offering me a whistlestop tour through time. And yet it’s not allowing me the opportunity to explore, to find out more, to discover. It’s just video. The text article doesn’t even have any real point by point summary of the hundred days. I want to know what the significant events were, why they were significant, and how they were reported at the time. But this isn’t provided. I can read, or I can watch. But I can’t explore. I must consume.

We can also use a related example to illustrate the frustration around infographics. This is a really nice infographic summarising and comparing the first hundred days of presidencies from FDR to Obama. We have nice colourful lines, an easy to use key to ‘types’ of event, and each event is summarised and dated. But it’s just an image. There’s dots, there’s lines, there’s text. Potentially, there could be sound and video. But it’s a flat file. There’s nothing I can click on. I have to consume. All the significance, all the message – it’s all implicit. It can’t be explored, it can’t be journeyed through. And this is where the Web can, and must be used to help.

I’m very much aware that I’ve been quite harsh in this post, and perhaps not providing examples of the solutions. I’m also aware that it’s a difficult time at the moment. In the overwhelming chase for the ‘new’, and with financial constraints, it’s often not regarded as possible to consider anything which doesn’t provide a simple, quick and easy solution. Perfectly understandable. But also perfectly misguided and wrong. Yes, in the current society, we need to make money to survive, and yes, experimentation often means failure and drains on resources. Yes, we should give the public what they want, and if they want more, faster, fresher, we can provide it. But that’s not the be all and end all, and simply can’t be. If we don’t explore, if we don’t try new things, then we’ll never progress. I believe that the lack of comprehension, of attention, of willingness to understand each other, ultimately stems from our preoccupation both with the ‘now’, and with the obsession with single narratives. The Web can allow us to break free from this. It can allow us to create and explore overviews, multi-faceted analyses of situations, which can be consumed in better ways than ploughing through a huge book or long documentary. It’s not the Web which is ruining our attention and/or critical faculties. It’s the lack of consideration, of experimentation, of effort to comprehend and acknowledge the complexities of the world – ones that can only truly be reflected by networks of concepts and ideas, not only in our minds, but on the Web. And it’s up to us to try.

Addendum: Other articles I didn’t get a chance to talk about in this post, but are well worth reading, and I may come back to, include Stijn Debrouwer’s ‘The Basic Unit of Information‘, Megan Garber’s ‘Following up on the need for follow up’, Philip Trippenbach’s ‘News: Rewired‘ and Silver Oliver’s blog.


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