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October 1, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

The Onion

When thinking about multimedia journalism, the model I use these days is usually the onion. Not The Onion, but the layered vegetable. Yes, it's a cliche, but a useful one. Plus, onions are one of my favorite cooking ingredients, next to peppers, which don't lend themselves well to the analogy at hand.

If the financial crisis has highlighted any weaknesses in journalism, it's the need for better beginner-level primers on complex events. The most-acclaimed pieces on the crisis, after all, were things like TAL's "Giant Pool of Money," which was nothing more than a broad-level breakdown of the entire issue. It wasn't an in-depth evaluation of credit default swaps, or a detailed examination of the global financial system. But listeners to that program ended up with an overview of the crisis, what caused it, and the outcomes. Afterwards, they were better prepared to consume and understand other news about the crisis, which is crucial.

Now, there's nothing wrong with close-up niche journalism. I think it's incredibly important that media organizations continue to dig deeply into events--indeed, that's a valuable role that they play as watchdogs, and one that's in danger from newsroom budget cuts that eliminate investigative teams. But at the same time, the media need to acknowledge their role as gatekeepers. A good gatekeeper not only tells you what the news is, but why you should care, and what you need to know before you can fully comprehend it. Insistence that the media is only a transparent and objective transmitter, instead of a gatekeeper, thwarts the ability to do that, because it leaves media organizations skittish of looking like advocates or educators.

Faced with a complex set of issues like the bailout, and with media organizations not providing basic educational elements, readers have turned to new sources. Newspapers have been caught off guard by the rise of structures like Wikipedia. The old guard of journalism is repulsed by the idea of turning to users for content, and it pushes them even more into either local coverage or niche journalism. Meanwhile, the kinds of reporters/editors/commentators who cannot pull themselves away from shiny objects are overly enthusiastic to it, and see it as their saving grace. Take, for example, this idiotic post from Jeff Jarvis that was passed around today: The Building Block of Journalism Is No Longer the Article.

Jarvis starts with a decent thesis--we need new ways of organizing our news into larger stories--and quickly spins off into a vague fantasy wonderland of ponies, wikis, blogs, and aggregators. In other words, he looks for a technical solution to what is very much an editorial problem. Like many journalism technocrats, this is probably because in his eagerness to find the next big publishing trend, Jarvis is searching for excuses to blow up the print medium and start over, which includes making up flaws in the structure to support his argument. I actually agree with parts of Jarvis' end goal, but his underlying assertions--and his total lack of explanation for how we get to said goal--are faulty.

The problem with the credit crisis, for example, was never that we lacked information about it. Nobody needed an aggregator. Nobody needed another expert. What we needed, and what few people provided, was a decent explainer based solidly on that information and those experts, one that did a good job of synthesizing everything into an easily-understood and trustworthy package. That's the competitive advantage of journalism over community publishing: credibility, despite the best efforts of outlets to throw it away. Give people the same information that they're getting now from Wikipedia, but back it with solid fact-checking--you know, part of that whole "informed electorate" process that civics classes insist journalism exists to perpetuate.

In my own little part of CQ, we've been trying to put together story arcs to organize stories along these kinds of lines, although we haven't been nearly as successful as I'd like to be. Multimedia projects (to finally get back to the onion metaphor) fill a very specific role, as I see it: they give you a series of layers for your explainers, so that you can provide detail on demand, something that has actually been a weakness of print. If you produce an article (or worse, a video or radio show) to educate finance newcomers, for example, it'll inevitably frustrate more experienced members of the audience. Those forms of communication are usually written as linear.

What I'd like to do, and what I've been working on building, is a kind of multilayered multimedia experience--one that has a fast-track pathway for those just wanting a basic overview, but providing links, video, and graphics in increasing detail as the user digs into it. So the beginner can just hit play and watch the slideshow, while more knowledgeable (or more curious) viewers can explore the topic with more depth, all from the same application. It's an extension of my thoughts on "smart videos," as well as (believe it or not) a lesson learned from gaming. This exact same strategy is used in most modern entertainment software: a quick path for the casual player, hoards of side goals for the dedicated or obsessive. We're just delivering information instead of achievements.

You can't be everything to everyone with multimedia/interactive visualization, but you can provide a lot more layers of information quickly and easily. Eventually, I would hope, text publishing will catch up with this, but it requires a better system of tagging and sorting than even the best outlets are currently providing, as anyone who's tried to locate an old story or feature again on NYTimes.com or WashingtonPost.com can attest. If people like Jeff Jarvis really want to tap into the strengths of community-based energy for concrete improvements in journalism, maybe that's the place to start: not with the articles, which don't need fixing, but the index and semantic framework, which desparately do.

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