spacer image
spacer image

Welcome! You're looking at an archived Snarkmarket entry. We've got a fresh look—and more new ideas every day—on the front page.

August 7, 2007

<< Monsoon! | 'No Real Than You Are' >>

The Attention Deficit: The Need for Timeless Journalism

In Romenesko Letters today, Gordon Trowbridge makes a very good point about the coverage before the collapse of 35W: the press did see this one coming. Over the past several years, newspapers have published a number of prominent investigative stories on bridge/highway deficiencies. My own paper published a front-page story in 2001 headlined “A bridge too far gone? Repairs overdue on many spans.” An excerpt:

Bridge work is getting increasingly expensive as a bubble of structures built after World War II are wearing out and requiring major renovation or replacement during the next 20 years. [The 35-W bridge was built in 1967.]

And some state highway officials warn that Minnesota isn’t keeping up.

“We continue to fall further and further behind what we should be doing,” said Timothy Worke, director of government relations for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

“We’re essentially deferring,” he said. “When you get in that pattern, the recovery takes so long and becomes so expensive that you really get caught in this downward spiral of disinvestment. It’s kind of where we’re at now.”

The Cassandra effect. We’ve seen this before, in a big way. Even when our coverage anticipates disaster, it often draws too little attention to avert it.

It’s impossible to say how many of our stories have helped our communities avert disaster, of course. Will that report about too many boomers retiring spur an increase in attempts to retain older workers? Chances are, we won’t know unless a couple years down the line, it becomes a problem larger than our capacity to ignore it. By which point, of course, we’ll just have to live with the consequences.

To an extent, this will always be an issue. We have a limited number of resources, and a potentially unlimited number of problems to apply them to. Every minute, a news organization is dreaming up yet another impending calamity, and society’s only got so much attention to give.

Not so fast. We may never eliminate this problem, but for the first time I can think of, we have the opportunity to mitigate it.

A newspaper has always been able to signal a story’s importance on two scales: our front/home page tells our audience what we think are the most important stories of the day, and our Sunday front/home page broadcasts the most important stories of the week. That’s it. If the problem isn’t solved this week, or if the reporting is the product of a major public disaster, maaaaaybe we can keep it alive another few weeks, but that’s certainly pushing it. (If it’s not one big problem, but a heaping mess of problems that crop up afresh every few days — e.g. Iraq — then apparently we can keep it alive for years.)

Of course, there’s no notion of time hard-coded into the Web. As we’ve recently discussed, a website such as Wikipedia, typically thought of as a collection of evergreen resources, is perfectly capable of addressing breaking news. And as I’ve written in the past, the news cycle on the Web goes backwards as well as forwards. I think this may be one of the most important and underappreciated realities of journalism right now:

Journalism can now exist outside of time. The only reason we’re constrained to promoting news on a minutely, hourly, daily or weekly basis is because we’ve inherited that notion from media that really do operate in fixed time cycles. But we now have the potential to signal importance on whatever scale you might imagine — the most important stories of the year, of the decade, of the moment.

What are the most important issues facing this community at this time? What would our sites look like if we asked ourselves that question? What would our journalism look like?

Instead of just announcing problems, we could transparently evaluate and prioritize them. Does this issue concern quality of life, public safety, human and civil rights? How many people might it affect? If it’s an impending disaster, how likely is it to occur? If it’s an ongoing crisis, is it worsening, is it getting better? We could allow our community members to set their own news priorities. We could present our news to the public filtered according to current or personal importance, instead of just how recently it appeared on our radar.

Not two weeks ago, the Star Tribune’s reader representative was complaining about the midsummer absence of news. If we committed to providing regular updates on those important stories, we would be unearthing legitimate news that too often gets buried by the tyranny of recency. “Still No Action On Strengthening Levees,” the headlines might have said. “Bridges Languish in Need of Repair.” And if the warnings aren’t heeded, at least we will have traced the progress of a possible disaster before the fact, giving us unprecedented insight into what went wrong and when.

Not so long ago, I said, “Purposeful malfeasance will always be less common and less expensive than simple inefficiency or shortsightedness. In the coming age of journalism, we should assign the highest value to reporting that is above all else useful. Reporting that identifies problems and suggests solutions.” I think the point still holds true. A journalism unfettered by time would align much more closely with timeless reality.

Posted August 7, 2007 at 7:35 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism


This is brilliant. However, after you laid out the two time-scales of importance & their corresponding real-world manifestations:

A newspaper has always been able to signal a story’s importance on two scales: our front/home page tells our audience what we think are the most important stories of the day, and our Sunday front/home page broadcasts the most important stories of the week.

...I was expecting to read how a newspaper website might, in practical terms, communicate these long-term issues. Are you literally imagining a new kind of section, a sort of tracking chart for the most pressing issues facing a community?

"We could allow our community members to set their own news priorities" is a solid notion, but I don't think it quite solves the problem, as I would never put "dilapidated infrastructure" down as one of my news priorities, but obvs. it is important.

Some papers, including the Chronicle, do a feature where they keep track of little issues -- potholes, etc. -- and tally the days until they're repaired. Although it can be a bit tedious there's also a very admirable watchdog quality about it.

Come to think of it, there's something correct about the watchdog metaphor here. We tend to think of the watchdog's growling, barking qualities in this context -- or at least I do -- but there is also its patience and tenacity to contend with.

For some reason I think of Jane Mayer in the New Yorker: She's literally been following the secret prisons/extraordinary rendition/CIA torture story for YEARS now. It is an absolutely virtuoso performance of tenacious -- and in a way timeless -- investigative journalism. Her stories basically say: Forget news pegs. This is important. I'm going to follow it wherever it goes.

There's also another, more modern metaphor that might be useful: debugging! Maybe we should think about these kinds of stories as "bug reports," which we can prioritize and track over time -- and even eventually fix.

The news site of the future runs on FogBugz :-)

You're right, I left that thought dangling, 'cause it's National Night Out, and I wanted to go hang w/ my neighbors for a bit. I added a sentence that I meant to put in.

I wanted to refrain from describing the actual outputs of such a news ranking too precisely, in case the example overshadowed the concept, but yes. In practical terms, a "tracking chart for the most pressing issues facing a community" is one no-brainer output of a news ranking. A "Big Problems" module on the home page contains 5 boxes, each representing an issue, the top box colored an ominous red and the others lightening as they descend. Each box bears the name of an issue, the latest headline on the subject and a timestamp.

But the point that I really think is the most important foundational piece of this: journalism and time are no longer locked in this committed relationship.

That's been my hobby horse for a while now. I think part of the reason many people consider our journalism (especially daily journalism) so disposable is that we have treated it, more or less, as something disposable. It's done, it lives for a day or so, it dies.

We've got these amazing examples of journalism that peers into the future, reaches deep into the past, and stretches across time, yet our news sites reflect mostly one grossly lacking dimension of newsworthiness -- what happened in the last 24 hours. We have only just begun experimenting with ways to sustain attention on a story beyond the typical newspaper life cycle. Some of the methods we've begun employing -- dynamic, evergreen databases, for example -- have already shown us there's a hunger for news beyond the now.

When I say "we could allow our community members to set their own news priorities," I'm definitely not saying we should abdicate an editorial responsibility to evaluate and prioritize. I definitely think we should put our prioritizations out there, and our explanations for them. But we should also strongly encourage people to share their own news priorities, and pay attention to what they tell us.

I think there are tons of other implications here. Every time one of those omnibus budget bills is announced, instead of the lame, redundant chucklers about how some Congressmonkey in Wyoming earmarked $3 bil for doggy sweaters, we could compare budget allocations to what we've identified as our community's greatest needs. Is infrastructure being funded in proportion to its importance?

Did you ever link to that podcast before?? It's awesome! You are lame! -- for not linking to it!

Here it is, clearly delineated, for those unable to penetrate your crypto-linking.

There's a great line in the pilot episode of the new AMC series Mad Men, where Don, the protagonist, confides (over a cigarette that he knows will kill him): "I'm living like there's no tomorrow -- because there isn't one."

I always thought that this, too, was the peyote-fueled revelation Tony Soprano had in the desert after he killed his nephew. "I get it!" Tony came into our lives, and the therapist's chair, filled with dread about the future. He wanted to keep his children close, but not too close. Either way, he could lose them. Christopher, his surrogate son, couldn't be trusted. Neither could any of his friends. When Tony kills Chris, he is killing the future; he's become Livia, the mother who dreams of smothering her child in his sleep. With Chris dead, there is nothing left. It's all a big nothing. Dump the asbestos from the schools into the river. There is no future.

This is the world we live in now.

I have another thought, and it's not unrelated to my mention of Mad Men and The Sopranos above. To what extent does this dilation of time play off of other new trends in media culture?

Shows like Mad Men or The Wire can be time-, place-, and media-shifted, which helps facilitate rediscovery and obsessive fandom on DVDs, streaming video, or filesharing. So a good show that few people watch at airtime can still have a viral impact or even become a hit. Likewise, Trent Lott feting Strom Thurmond, or George Allen calling a kid "macaca," can turn from a tiny news story into a big one, because we consume and circulate video differently now.

It's worth considering, though, whether different media (text and video) or different genres (news and entertainment) have different logics, if they dovetail into one another, and how. Clearly documents in the traditional sense play a pretty big role in the intersection of bloggers with the MSM -- cf. 60 minutes, and the GWB national guard papers -- but video in particular seems to have found its own niche, and could arguably have a greater impact, in no small part because the way's already been paved by the recycling of entertainment.

spacer image
spacer image