I’m profoundly enthralled by things like rapid news-driven development in Django, and building a CMS that can switch from a beautiful feature layout to a Drudge-like breaking news linkbomb on a dime, and of course, leveraging the steady stream of free embeddable tools showing up online every day for your own newsy purposes.
But none of those pieces of the puzzle I’ve become so interested in these days — on their own, at least — come close to connecting readers to each other, or to the news, or to a news brand in some sort of interesting way. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Learning from Design
The SND session I went to last week with the highest awesome quotient was clearly Stephanie Grace Lim‘s session on “finishers” — design moves that take an idea from fruition to execution in a series of short repeatable steps.
One of the many fun parts of her presentation pro wrestling exhibition was “The Pollinator,” a way to get into the habit of listing the possible ingredients in a graphic and connecting the dots to create eye-catching juxtapositions to tell your story.
That’s the sort of basic thinking that’s necessary to brainstorm our way into new story forms online.
For example, here’s a doodle I just came up with:
When the “interactive” tools at our disposal consisted of Flash, and “multimedia” was a way to organize text, stills, audio, and video in a button-pushing environment, there were plenty of ways to decide whether the one tool in our box could do the job.
So here’s what I’m proposing: If you’re the online editor, or the interactive director, or the news developer, or the innovations editor, or the title of your choice, when you come across a story — whether it’s a noisy breaker or a long-term FOIA-rich piece that a reporter is putting weeks (months?) of their life into — stop for a minute and think about which tools to deploy in response.
Obvious enough, right?
Just keep in mind, you’re allowed to stray from the established norms (blotter = database, profile = slideshow) and cross-pollinate stories and tools to make something new.
Onward to stage two
I mentioned a problem earlier, wherein much of what I’ve become interested in lately is, essentially, one-way communication.
That’s yesterday’s news, if I can beat a dead horse cliché.
So, the next piece of cross-pollination I’m selling you today is this: *Every* piece of content, or interface, or display that you create should be infected with two-way communication.
Simple method: Comments. If you can’t build it, embed them with something like js-kit or Disqus.
More complicated, but still basic: User-contributed photos, video, stories.
Challenging goal: Tie each reader’s interaction with your online news product together with a social profile and opt-in tracker, allowing readers to gather their favorite stories, comments, photos, and yes, perhaps they’ll want to follow their friends as well.
There’s more to this, of course. There’s embeddable video players and widgets and Facebook apps and Twitter as a conversational tool, but none of this really address the larger issue: Organized media no longer has a monopoly on content creation.
So while we do our best to insert our own content into the diasporic spread of homebrew news and information, or to adopt the successful methods of social networking on our own sites, it remains likely that the tide has turned against organized news as a tenable business.
It’s time to cross-pollinate.
To become news development shops that sell tools as a product. To let readers into the reporting process. To build evergreen content with legs — to think in terms of permanent information stored online, rather than temporary news, flashing by as a headline on a page or a screen.
Read Ethan Zuckerman’s write-up of Persephone Miel’s Media Re:public presentation at the Berkman Center earlier this week. That’s the thread that’s tying these two ideas together in my head. (Um, cross-pollinating, even.)
Persephone and I talked more than a little about the twisted relationship between the future of professional news organizations and the future of citizen media in Boston earlier this year. She’s been studying the problem in great detail. From Ethan’s excellent paraphrasing:
There’s a million things we can try. We can experiment with networked reporting, with new editorial structures, with partnerships between professional and amateurs.
But we probably won’t. Legacy media is focused on the bottom line. Journalists are becoming more like bloggers, but often in bad ways. Civic-minded projects (like mine, I’m guessing) ignore how people really consume media. Amateur investigative journalism isn’t easy, and crowdsourcing is really hard to do well. We’d hope that public broadcasters would lead us into the promised land, but they apparently live in their own world.
I’ll leave off today with this: Think about what you, your newsroom, and your organization are doing to cross-pollinate. To mix and match story forms, to invite the public into the news, and the news into the public, and to participate in figuring out the future of news by trying to build it yourself.
Now, back to work.