Curation is a relatively new term in journalism, but the practice is as old as journalism itself. Every act of journalism is an act of curation: think of how a news report or feature selects and combines elements from a range of sources (first hand sources, background facts, first or second hand colour). Not only that: every act of publishing is, too: selecting and combining different types of content to ensure a news or content ‘mix’.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ in his talk to employees at the Washington Post said: “People will buy a package … they will not pay for a story.” Previously that package was limited to what your staff produced, and wire copy. But as more content becomes digitised, it is possible to combine more content from a wider variety of sources in a range of media – and on any one of a number of platforms.
Curation is nothing new – but it is becoming harder.
Choosing the tools
I’ve identified at least three distinct types of curation (you may think of more):
Curation as distribution or relay: this is curation at the platform level: think of Twitter accounts that relay the most useful links and tweets from elsewhere. Or Tumblr blogs that pass on the best images, video and quotes. Or UsVsTh3m.
Curation as aggregation or combination: seen in linkblogging and news roundups, or galleries, or news aggregators (even creating an algorithm or filter is a journalistic act of selection).
Curation as filter or distillation: this often comes in the form of the list: Buzzfeed is a master of these, distilling conversations from Reddit and complementing them with images.
There are also a number of ways in which the journalist adds value (again, you may think of more):
Through illustrating (as Buzzfeed, above, does with images to liven up highlights from a text discussion)
Through following up
As a journalist operating online, you are both reporter and publisher, able to curate content both at the article level and that of ‘publication’ – whether that’s a Twitter stream, a Tumblr blog, or a Flipboard magazine. Here are some suggestions for tools and techniques: Continue reading →
“It’s the quest for this – genuinely new forms of digital content – that represents the next profound moment of change we need to prepare for if we’re to deserve a new charter.
“As we increasingly make use of a distribution model – the internet – principally characterised by its return path, its capacity for interaction, its hunger for more and more information about the habits and preferences of individual users, then we need to be ready to create content which exploits this new environment – content which shifts the height of our ambition from live output to living output.
“We need to be ready to produce and create genuinely digital content for the first time. And we need to understand better what it will mean to assemble, edit and present such content in a digital setting where social recommendation and other forms of curation will play a much more influential role.”
At first glance, Sky’s decision that its journalists should not retweet information that has “not been through the Sky News editorial process” and the BBC’s policy to prioritise filing “written copy into our newsroom as quickly as possible” seem logical.
For Sky it is about maintaining editorial control over all content produced by its staff. For the BBC, it seems to be about making sure that the newsroom, and by extension the wider organisation, takes priority over the individual.
But there are also blind spots in these strategies that they may come to regret.
The Sky policy articulates an assumption about ‘content’ that’s worth picking apart.
We accept as journalists that what we produce is our responsibility. When it comes to retweeting, however, it’s not entirely clear what we are doing. Is that news production, in the same way that quoting a source is? Is it newsgathering, in the same way that you might repeat a lead to someone to find out their reaction? Or is it merely distribution?
Writing about a similar policy at the Oregonian late last year, Steve Buttry made the point that retweets are not endorsements. Jeff Jarvis argued that they were “quotes”.
I don’t think it’s as simple as that (as I explain below), but I do think it’s illustrative: if Sky News were to prevent journalists from using any quote on air or online where they could not verify its factual basis, then nothing would get broadcast. Live interviews would be impossible.
The Sky policy, then, seems to treat retweets as pure distribution, and – crucially – to treat the tweet in isolation. Not as a quote, but as a story, consisting entirely of someone else’s content, which has not been through Sky editorial processes but which is branded or endorsed as Sky journalism.
There’s a lot to admire in the pride in their journalism that this shows – indeed, I would like to see the same rigour applied to the countless quotes that are printed and broadcast by all media without being compared with any evidence.
But do users really see retweets in the same way? And if they do, will they always do so?
Curation vs creation
There’s a second issue here which is more about hard commercial success. Research suggests that successful users of Twitter tend to combine curation with creation. Preventing journalists from retweeting leaves them – and their employers – without a vital tool in their storytelling and distribution.
The tension surrounding retweeting can be illustrated in the difference between two broadcast journalists who use Twitter particularly effectively: Sky’s own Neal Mann, and NPR’s Andy Carvin. Andy retweets habitually as a way of seeking further information. Neal, as he explained in this Q&A with one of my classes, feels that he has a responsibility not to retweet information he cannot verify (from 2 mins in).
Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. But both combine curation with creation.
A third issue that strikes me is how these policies fit uncomfortably alongside the networked ways that news is experienced now.
The BBC policy, for example, appears at first glance to prevent journalists from diving right into the story as it develops online. Social media editor Chris Hamilton does note, importantly, that they have “a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts”. However, this is coupled with the position that:
“Our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.”
This is an interesting line of argument, and there are a number of competing priorities underlying it that I want to understand more clearly.
Firstly, it implies a separation of newsroom systems and Twitter. If newsroom staff are not following their own journalists on Twitter as part of their systems, why not? Sky pioneered the use of Twitter as an internal newswire, and the man responsible, Julian March, is now doing something similar at ITV. The connection between internal systems and Twitter is notable.
Then there’s that focus on “all our audiences” in opposition to those early adopter Twitter types. If news is “breaking news, an exclusive or any kind of urgent update”, being first on Twitter can give you strategic advantages that waiting for the six o’clock – or even typing a report that’s over 140 characters – won’t. For example:
Building a buzz (driving people to watch, listen to or search for the fuller story)
Establishing authority on Google (which ranks first reports over later ones)
Establishing the traditional authority in being known as the first to break the story
Making it easier for people on the scene to get in touch (if someone’s just experienced a newsworthy event or heard about it from someone who was, how likely is it that they search Twitter to see who else was there? You want to be the journalist they find and contact)
“When the technology [to inform the newsroom and generate a tweet at the same time] isn’t available, for whatever reason, we’re asking them to prioritise telling the newsroom before sending a tweet.
“We’re talking a difference of a few seconds. In some situations.
“And we’re talking current guidance, not tablets of stone. This is a landscape that’s moving incredibly quickly, inside and outside newsrooms, and the guidance will evolve as quickly.”
Everything at the same time
There’s another side to this, which is evidence of news organisations taking a strategic decision that, in a world of information overload, they should stop trying to be the first (an increasingly hard task), and instead seek to be more authoritative. To be able to say, confidently, “Every atom we distribute is confirmed”, or “We held back to do this spectacularly as a team”.
There’s value in that, and a lot to be admired. I’m not saying that these policies are inherently wrong. I don’t know the full thinking that went into them, or the subtleties of their implementation (as Rory Cellan-Jones illustrates in his example, which contrasts with what can actually happen). I don’t think there is a right and a wrong way to ‘do Twitter’. Every decision is a trade off, because so many factors are in play. I just wanted to explore some of those factors here.
As soon as you digitise information you remove the physical limitations that necessitated the traditional distinctions between the editorial processes of newsgathering, production, editing and distribution.
A single tweet can be doing all at the same time. Social media policies need to recognise this, and journalists need to be trained to understand the subtleties too.
Here comes another chant for publishers to reassure themselves with. ‘Curation is king’ is becoming a cliche so quickly I probably don’t have to explain it. The idea runs thus: we are so overwhelmed by information now that the role of publishers is not to gather the information so much as to filter it, manage it and present it.
Isn’t that convenient.
…Because they were doing that already.
Like ‘Content is king’, ‘Curation is king’ is a comfort blanket for the afflicted, a sticking plaster for injured pride. It says nothing about the new environment in which we’re operating; it suggests we do nothing other than more of the same; and it suggests our old position as arbiters of The Truth is unaltered.
And it’s a pile of crap.
Yes, curation is an important part of how information is disseminated online, but in a networked environment curation doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the behaviour of a million internet users measured by an algorithm, and to the six degrees of separation in our social networks. We’re in there somewhere, like an Indian traffic policeman, but let’s once again not conflate the act with the platform.
The problem with ‘curation’ is that it’s a misnomer. As one actual curator said:
“We go to museums to define ourselves, the world and the civilisation around us. If the curator is devalued cheapened through this woolly thinking then museums could lose all respect as cultural bastions. When I asked what the most important function of curators was, we saw how complex and varied the job was and not a singleperson said “selecting“.”
So if curation is king in online journalism I guess I missed the coronation. Curation is a usurper, here to distract us from the bloody mess we’re in with the message ‘Business as usual’.
If curation is king I say it’s time for some regicide.