A month ago, I used the Online Journalism Facebook Group to ask readers to suggest what areas they wanted covering, in an experiment with bottom-up editing (the forum for suggestions is still open by the way). Megan T suggested “Rethinking the production of newspapers”.
After researching, conceptualising and scribbling, I’ve come up with a number of models around the news process, newsgathering, interactivity and business models.
The following, then, is the first in a series of proposals for a ‘model for the 21st century newsroom’ (part two is now here). This is a converged newsroom which may produce material for print or broadcast or both, but definitely includes an online element. Here’s the diagram. The model is explained further below it
Building on the strengths of the medium
The strengths of the online medium are essentially twofold, and contradictory: speed, and depth.
At the same time, the unlimited space and time of the web, and its hypertextual and ‘pull’ properties, make it potentially deeper and broader than the previous kings of context and analysis: newspapers and magazines. Think Wikipedia’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Think the Daily Kos. Think hyperlocal websites. Think Chicagocrime.org.
The process model above proposes how a large news story might pass through a converged newsroom, from speed to depth, in the following steps:
- Alert: as soon as the journalist or editor is aware that a story is breaking, an alert is sent out. This might be from their mobile phone, Blackberry, or wifi laptop. Subscribers to text or email updates, a Twitter or Facebook feed, would be notified instantly. This shows you ‘own’ the story; it reinforces your reputation for being first with the big stories; and for the smaller stories, it can provide an opportunity to add personality to your coverage (the ‘what I’m doing now’ approach of Twitter). And it drives readers to your website, newspaper or broadcast.
- Draft: too rough for print or broadcast, but perfect for blogs. Backing up the alert, the draft report – like a wire report – gives initial names, places and details – and sources. It is updated as fresh details come in. The draft performs the important role of keeping the ‘Alert’ readers on your site, but it also serves to spread word through the blogosphere, bringing in more readers and helping your search engine ranking. Ideally it will also attract commenters and pingbacks which can add or correct details, or even provide new leads. Frequent updates – for instance linking to other coverage – help to prevent it getting knocked off the top of Google News (which looks for the most recently updated, not the first posted).
- Article/Package: in between the two extremes of speed and depth where online excels, traditional print and broadcast media have these strengths: their documentary nature, and the very limitations of their time and space. Their ability to document a ‘snapshot’ – an interim definitive account: the 300-word article or 3-minute package – is key to traditional news media’s appeal. The editorial decision that this story was worth a spot is important when compared to the internet’s infinity. At this stage, the draft turns into a package with higher production values, and which could be online, in print, broadcast, or all of those. The timing may be dictated by print or broadcast processes.
- Context: back online, that infinite space has an important role to play in providing instant and extensive context: how many times has this happened? Where can I access previous reports? What does that concept mean? How does this scientific principle work? Where can I find more information about this person or organisation? Where can I go to for support or help? Hypertext is central here – the ability to link to a range of documents, organisations, and explanations – both from your own archive and from external providers – in a portal that provides an essential resource. The print or broadcast report may also draw on some of this context, but it should refer to the online resource for more.
- Analysis/Reflection: after the report, comes the analysis. For online this may mean gathering the almost instant reaction taking place in the blogosphere in general, on your own blogs and forums, and proactively from the informed and the affected. The person covering the story may reflect on the whole experience on their blog, while podcasts are great for staging discussion and debate. At some point print and broadcast will take one or more snapshots for their production cycles.
- Interactivity: interactivity requires investment and preparation, but can engage and inform the user in a way other media cannot, as well as providing a ‘long tail’ resource that generates repeat visits over a long timescale: a Flash interactive may take days to produce but can provide a compelling combination of hypertext, video, audio, animation and databases (they can also be dynamically updated); a forum can provide a place for people to gather and post experiences and information; a wiki can do the same but more effectively. Live chats can allow users direct access to newsmakers, journalists and experts.
- Customisation: the final stage should be automatic: the ability for users to customise information to their own needs. At its most basic this might be to subscribe to email, text or RSS updates of that particular story. More advanced services might include social recommendation (‘Other people who read this story also read…‘) or database-driven journalism that allows users to drill down into the information: ‘What happened to that street?'; ‘How many cases were there in my postcode?'; ‘What does this tax mean for someone on my wage?’. This means production processes that integrate things like metatagging, and interfaces that can run off a database, and last but not least, a culture that thinks in terms of these possibilities.
That news process in action
Let’s take a typical mid-range news story: ‘public figure makes controversial statement’ to illustrate the process specifically:
- Alert: ‘Lord Smith: “stop ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees”‘ – link to…
- Draft: gives more detail, and is open to comments and discussion, linking to other blogs. One commenter points out that Lord Smith studied English Literature. Journalist seeks ‘official’ comment to put in the…
- Article: two blog post comments incorporated into a version that goes in the printed newspaper.
- Context: best links taken from blog post comments, as well as full transcript of speech, audio and some mobile phone video taken by one attendee. Tags (‘LordSmith’) used to link to ongoing coverage and provide an instant ‘portal’.
- Analysis: one particularly well informed blogger who linked to the Draft post is paid to write a longer piece for the paper. A commenter – an academic – is invited to a podcast discussion with Lord Smith.
- Interactivity: website visitors are invited to ‘attempt an essay question’ from a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree, giving a real first-hand understanding of what is involved in the subject.
- Customisation: an RSS feed or email alert is available for any stories tagged ‘LordSmith’
The news diamond
This model can also be represented as an alternative to the inverted pyramid: a ‘news diamond’, if you like.
Just as the inverted pyramid was partly a result of the increasing role of the telegraph in the news industry, and dominant cultural ideas of empiricism and science, this news diamond attempts to illustrate the change from a 19th century product (the article) to a 21st century process: the iterative journalism of new media; the story that is forever ‘unfinished’. More than anything, it’s designed to challenge the dominance of the inverted pyramid, to illustrate its origins in the industrial era, and its shortcomings. And in the spirit of the ‘unfinished’, none of these models are final: please post a comment with your own contributions.