Some great thinkers in media are leading what I’ll call the “context movement”, a push toward giving audiences more satisfying, better understanding of the worlds in which they live instead of  simply presenting ephemeral, episodic stories as journalists always have. As the daughter of immigrants, helping provide better entry points for news is near and dear to me. I’m also a fervent believer in this because Texas Tribune founder John Thornton imagined the TT as an attempt to do what the movement talks about — provide knowledge, not news.

I first heard Matt Thompson talk about context at the 2008 Reynolds Journalism Institute dedication at the Missouri School of Journalism (Go Tigers). The principle then became crystallized when Thornton said the context void inspired him to start the Tribune. We have some great examples of projects that move toward that goal, but after this morning’s panel I feel an even stronger need to try and rethink what we prioritize, how we organize information, and how we share it. If you missed the panel, I’ll try my best to provide some Cliff’s Notes. The conversation is continuing online, so please weigh in in this space or at the Future of News site if you’re interested.

THE PANELISTS

Matt Thompson, NPR and formerly of the Knight Foundation; Jay Rosen, author of PressThink and professor at NYU; Tristan Harris, CEO/Founder of Apture.

The Liveblog, by Poynter’s Steve Myers.

THE PROBLEM

We receive more information than ever, and a lot of it is ambient and unsatisfying. Take health care reform as an example. “Most of the news is ‘episodic’,” says Thompson. You hear a little about the excise tax, Stupak, reconciliation… the torrent of information is hard to keep track of. Then, new torrents of headlines come at us all the time. We ASSUME that over time this will cohere into real knowledge. Eventually you hear enough about public option that you understand a little. Mounting evidence indicates that when you’re faced an ever growing flood of headlines it’s not useful.

“Suppose your laptop continually received new updates that you didn’t have software for,” Jay Rosen said. News is much the same way; designed to provide constant updates to a larger narrative that doesn’t exist or isn’t currently provided by news producers. Audiences actually need systemic, not episodic information. Need an intellectual framework for episodic news to make any sense.

Incidentally, systemic knowledge (Wikipedia entries, “Top 10 things you need to know about [blank]”) is actually easier to provide than the episodic stuff. One news organization boiled down every health care system in the world into four types. That helped people understand what we have in U.S. and what we want to change it into. If you look at health care on a broader level,  you can distill it so it’s more understandable.  We need an intellectual framework for themes and situations and debates in the news. That’s what context means.

WHY CURRENT NEWS FORMS LACK CONTEXT

The current news system is an artifact of an earlier era of industrial production that has passed. But the web allows us to fix some of the problems.

Because journalism is structured around the single story, it’s not accommodating to help people have more meaning, more context.  But that’s a function of the old ecosystem. In prior platforms, we couldn’t give background due to limits on time or space. So we learned to produce news with updates. The ecosystem was not conducive because reporters were producing for primary time-specific models.

There’s also very little reward for providing context if you’re a journalist. News reporters see it as doing something “extra”, providing “more info”, instead of making the background – the topic page or whatever you want to call it – the main draw and the incremental stories the side dishes. The journalism system – newsrooms, reporters – compete not to equip readers with more understanding but to break news. Metrics on “success” as organizations are also skewed because they measure how many people watched, how many clicked, not more understanding.

Also, as reporters become experts, they begin to ID with most sophisticated users on their beats and then lose contact with people who are still starting out with a subject or entering late.

“EPISODIC NEWS” DOES NOT FIT OUR TIME, OR OUR TECHNOLOGY

“Episodic news is bass ackward,” Thompson says. As reporters, we map out our beats, we actually understand issues systemically so we know what’s important. Then we dribble out all we know in stingy little bits (news stories). We do this bc audiences still read these episodic bits. But also because we were bounded by old media platforms. Newspapers and broadcasts were bound by time. Newspapers had to expire, and broadcasts were here now and then gone later.

For first time we have a medium that’s capable of supporting systemic and episodic information at one time. We’re not constrained by time.

WHAT ATTEMPTS AT CONTEXT LOOK LIKE NOW

The “nut grafs” are the most common attempts at context in mainstream news right now, and it’s largely a product of the old page-based models of news (there’s only so much room to fit in the background info, so let’s wedge it in.) The result is a sprinkle of systemic information stuffed into our episodic stories. In the health care example, it might be a paragraph explaining what reconciliation is in the middle of an episodic story about the latest tussle of the House and Senate bills.

Other news organizations are providing topics pages (the TT has more than 250 of them plus extensive candidate and elected officials directories).  Thompson argues this is still not the best way to do it because most topics pages are largely automated collections of links that still don’t put all those links into context. Google’s tried to automate contextual information with Living Stories and it’s proven how hard it is.

“I worry that our approach to providing context is mirroring on the web how it looked in other media [and not optimized for the web],” said Thompson.

CONTEXT WORKS

Systemic organization of news benefits the reader, but also benefits producers of information. Your information becomes more valuable, desirable and useful as your desire for a framework becomes stronger. For example, This American Life’s “Giant Pool of Money” episode dared to start at a very basic level and explain the global financial meltdown in a way people could understand.

Journalists who did the Giant Pool of Money project were also confused when they started, then went on a journey of discovery. The people involved with financial systems did the explaining, and the journalists connected that explanation into a way that made sense. Afterward, it makes following the financial crisis with far more ease. If you understand the background, it helps you better understand the experience. Enriches you overall.

The web also rewards news providers who provide context. People are far more likely to re-visit the wikipedia page or the topics overview a year after a news event. Thompson’s “The Money Meltdown” site pulled together the best links to explain the financial crisis. Matt posted it on his blog and in one month, 50,000 unique visitors came along and looked at it 75,000 times. It speaks to a desire. It’s all about pulling together links, in some cases. What’s difficult right now is automating it. Link barns as topic pages aren’t working.

If you imagine reorienting staff around creating context as is rewarded by wikipedia, the web is set up to reward it, so what are we waiting for?

CURRENT PROBLEMS WITH CONTEXT

Lack of perceived demand. What good is a long explainer on something when no one is requesting the explainer genre? Rosen’s test-driving ExplainThis.org, allowing people to “demand” what they want to know that journalists can help respond to. “The press does not belong to professionals in journalism. It’s ours,” says Rosen. ” The more people who participate in the press, the stronger the press will be. But professional journalism was never optimized for public participation, it was optimized for efficiency on the old platforms.”

HOW TO ACHIEVE CONTEXT?

Wikipedia specializes in background knowledge. NYTimes specializes in investigations and updates. Why are they separate services? Why aren’t they the same? It makes more sense to provide context just as you’re coming into a story halfway through its development, like the health care debate.

Wikipedia is structually inspiring to us. Instead of bifurcating the story into a bunch of components, Wikipedia was pulling information together. Wiki works really well over time. It’s often the first choice people go to for news a year after something’s been in the headlines. Currently we present it as “more information”. The consumer doesn’t necessarily want “more information”. We want to present the minimum you need to understand a subject, and then develop that as your need for more increases.

As you read earlier, topics pages presented as “extra information” are the new vogue.  Where context peddlers want to head is actually flipping the model. The context should be the foundation. The systemic stuff should be what you can access first. The episodic stuff is what should be the more info. We “ghettoize” topics pages on our sites, by creating a topics section. When the public just finds just a random collection of links on a so-called topics page, “the quest for context everywhere is set back,” Thompson argues. What would a site look like if it were structured around systems instead of stories? The essential stuff is what you need to know is first, and as your knowledge expanded you got day-to-day headlines.

Journalists may think, we’re doing so much and now you want to provide context!? Think like an engineer. Make it an imperative to do work you can re-use to provide context. You can use that subduction plates info graphic again and again with every story you write about earthquakes. It’s redefining the notion of “today” value. You’re writing something TODAY that’s only appending something that’s already valuable. Engineers don’t do work they can’t re-use. Do work you can use next time.

If we reorganize the telling of stories around a quest for clarity and beat reporters weren’t just covering their beats but revealing something we need to know, and we saw news coverage not as series of updates but as a giant story, that would be on the way to where we want to get.

CALL TO ACTION

Our imperative as journalists is that we understand this systemic framework ourselves. We should devote as much value to expertise as we do to the latest news. We should also sell and market context. What happened five  minutes ago is great, but “10 things you need to know about health care” is more useful. We need journalists thinking that way more commonly. As participants in the news system, we need to demand that. We should say, we don’t understand this topic. Build stuff on your own for topics you don’t understand. Find the best links, pull them together. The web rewards context. The pieces that provide it become seminal pieces rewarded by search engines over time. Start with the users and their need to participate in the news and have a handle on the world.

Thanks for the great panel, guys. I hope this summed things up okay. Let’s keep the conversation going.

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