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A confab with Matt Thompson: Noodling the future of context

matt_smubLast week I had the pleasure of participating in a one-day think tank in Washington, DC, called “The Future of Context.”   It was organized by Matt Thompson, a 2008-2009 Donald W. Reynolds Fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, where his focus was on “Wikipedia-ing the news.”  During the academic year, he blogged his project at Newsless, and out of his work came Columbia Tomorrow, a just-launched site that aims to provide contextual environment for news about economic development in and around Columbia, Misouri.

True to the “Future of Context” title, and nurtured by Matt’s excellent skills in moderating a discussion, much of the D.C. discussion was oriented toward discovering the shape of news in context to come.  I’ll leave it to Matt to report (in context!) the full proceedings of the confab, but let me highlight a few insights that struck me as particularly valuable (attributed to the participants who offered them where I recorded it in my notes , but unfortunately I failed to do that in each instance):

  • Bounded news sites will be less important than news networks, which can surround topics in a fluid way.  Individual news sites can add curated news networks, and add value with features like “what’s changed since you last checked in.”
  • Creating such topical networks is easier for big questions, harder for long-tail topics.
  • The right technology and user interfaces can incorporate sourcing material and make it relevant to the story, and can transform traditional sourcing networks into crowdsourced networks — a way to build living stories.  (Phil Bennett, Washington Post)
  • Commenting needs to evolve into conversation.  This can be done by having reporters and editors step in, add context, ask questions, and moderate the discussion flow.
  • Mobile devices will continue to grow in use and gain features.  Mobile reflects who, where and what you are.  As it evolves, mobile can offer content not only based on our location, but on our journey — where we came from, where we’re going, what we’re doing, who’s with us or near us.  (Gary Love, Hearst)
  • Mobile Web usage is distinct from “surfing” — it’s more directed, a different experience.
  • News organizations should be convenors of social networks and conversations.  They should use their brand, their reach, their marketing power to do this, to leverage the innate urge to citizenship to pull people into context.  (Howard Weaver, Anchorage Daily News)
  • Traditional news strategy is “eat your broccoli” when the next booth is giving away curly fries.  (Scott Karp, Publish2)  Putting news in context is like selling nutrition, long life and balance.
  • Contextual storytelling answers “what is your city becoming?”  Twitter networks can be used to ask questions, crowdsource context.
  • Radio has always been good at having conversations with its audience.  We are hardwired to learn best through conversations.  Newspapers in the past couldn’t tap into conversations very well, but now we can.  By focusing energy on making people part of the conversation and building community, we raise demand for our product.  (Steve Yelvington, Morris)
  • Engagement is central to the demand for context.  We need to be bowling together.  (Matt Thompson)
  • There are counterexamples to social networking, like Talking Points Memo (no comments, no community), and even Huffington Post.  But in reality these are cogs in a larger machine which is social in nature.
  • Newspapers are behind the curve and are often left out of the network ecosystem in part because of things like system limitations that don’t allow hyperlinking in stories.  As well, many editors still think they are gatekeepers rather than guides and curators.
  • Data can add context (for example in crime mapping projects).  But the problem is often that the project ends, the maps are not maintained, the context becomes stale and even misleading.
  • Advertisers can add context: blogs, newsletter to engage customers in conversation.
  • We’ll see more collaborations between newsrooms to tackle larger projects like the stimulus project or swine flu that are too big for any individual news operation.
  • Publication is the beginning of a process.  Future-pointed contextual journalism means that it needs to start a dialogue.  (Matt Thompson)  Each investigative project could become its own web site, spun out of the newsroom and independently operated, to carry on.  (Phil Bennett)
  • It’s not the race to be first that counts — its who can become the convenor of the conversation around the story, and can make that conversation solution-oriented.  A collaborative beat blog is in fact a continuous conversation.  Again, we need to turn commenters into contributors and commenting into conversation.
  • To implement a more contextual news ecosystem, journalists need to be entrepreneurial.  They need to be indispensible, at least to a niche audience (Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans concept).  We do journalism for people, not to people.  We can’t do that while remaining detached.
                                   
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Mark Coddington    April 18, 2014
Plus: The pushback against Vox and The Intercept, Twitter’s data buy, and the rest of this week’s news and tech must-reads.