How journalists manage information: from leads to stories

Venn diagram: Feeds, contacts and archives

Tools for managing feeds, contacts and archives are merging

5 years ago I wrote about a network infrastructure for journalists working online. I explained how RSS readers, social networks and social bookmarking were being increasingly used to improve on the roles that newswires, contacts books and archives played in the traditional newsroom.

Well here’s an update: not only is that infrastructure now a reality, but it has become much more complex. And as these tools have become more widely adopted it has shifted the focus on information management from the institution to the individual journalist.

How journalists managed information in the 20th century

Here’s what information management looked like during the 20th century: in order to report stories, journalists relied primarily on three types of information: newswires, contacts, and archives.

Newswires, contacts and archives

In the 20th century journalists relied on newswires, contacts and archives

Newswires were paid for by the news organisation, and to access them the journalist had to be physically present in the building. Archives were maintained by the organisation and, likewise, had to be physically accessed on site.

Some journalists maintained their own archives: for example they would keep notebooks from interviews. A smaller minority might have filing cabinets at home if they regularly undertook big investigations. But on the whole archiving was the publisher’s responsibility, with specific librarians employed to maintain and assist.

Only contacts were the journalist’s responsibility: on the whole, the information infrastructure was controlled by the institution.

Newswires and archives were controlled by the news organisation; only contacts were maintained by the journalist

Newswires and archives were controlled by the news organisation; only contacts were maintained by the journalist

How journalists manage information in the 21st century

In the last decade or more that has changed dramatically. Newswires began to be complemented, and to some degree overtaken, by RSS feeds and email alerts. The contacts book became supplemented by social networks. And archives could be maintained through social bookmarking. Here’s how I mapped that out in 2011:

And here’s how I see it now:

Contacts and feeds are controlled by the journalist, feeds and archives less so by the institution

Control over the information infrastructure has moved from the institution to the journalist.

Control over the information infrastructure has moved from the institution to the journalist.

This has happened first with newswires, which are now better described as feeds. While not all journalists adopted RSS readers, most now use email updates or alerts of some sort, and social media dashboards like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite. Meanwhile Facebook has launched its trends dashboard for journalists Signal (covering Instagram too).

Notably, publishers and broadcasters have started to take on a more proactive role recently, taking out institutional subscriptions to dashboard tools like Crowdtangle, and more ‘newswire’-style startups, like Storyful (acquired by NewsCorp) and Newsflare are offering similar services.

Archives are in the middle ground: more journalists now have their own ‘virtual filing cabinets’ on Dropbox or Google Drive. Some organise their material more systematically using Evernote. Social bookmarking tools like Pinboard and Diigo, which allow you to bookmark and tag (and therefore organise) online content are still, in my opinion, underutilised.

The convergence of tools

When I drew that diagram in 2011 each part of that infrastructure was connected by RSS, but in the 5 years since those connections have become overlaps, as different tools added more features.

from-leads-to-stories-21stc-tools

The most obvious example of this is the way social networks like Facebook shifted emphasis to the ‘news feed’ and Twitter to the ‘while you were away’ algorithm. Some suggest that these feeds make RSS redundant, but if anything they emphasise why RSS is important: using RSS gives you control over how your feeds are organised. In contrast, relying on social media feeds means delegating to that platform’s algorithm (on Twitter, creating lists gives you more control too; you can also create lists on Facebook).

Likewise, while Dropbox and Google Drive are useful for general storage, tools like Evernote provide extra functionality to make archives more accessible through tagging. Evernote is also used by many people to manage their contacts.

Meanwhile, as social networks become more like blogging platforms, chat apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Telegram have taken on the more direct role when it comes to contacts.

The overall result of all this is a more complex picture for journalists when it comes to information management: they must think about managing feeds of information across more than one platform: newswires, RSS, email, and social media. They must manage contacts across social media and chat. And for well organised journalists, background material must be stored and, ideally, organised using tags on a service like Evernote or Pinboard.

But a little bit of time invested in that infrastructure can have a massive benefit in terms of time saved when doing your journalism: spotting leads quicker on your feeds, following them up faster with contacts, and having background instantly to hand in your archives.

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