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June 10, 2009, 11:03 a.m.

Matt Thompson on adding context and depth to how we report news

Zach wrote yesterday about Google News integrating links to Wikipedia pages in its results, mentioning news-as-wiki guru Matt Thompson, who did some really interesting work as a Donald W. Reynolds Fellow at the University of Missouri this year.

For a little more background on what Matt’s project was about — and how breaking out of the traditional news story model can add context and meaning — here’s an interview I did with Matt a few months back at Poynter. He explains his ideas and talks about what would eventually evolve into his Columbia Tomorrow site. It’s a really interesting discussion, well worth 14 minutes of your time. There’s also a full transcript below.

Josh: All right. We’re here with Matt Thompson, of newsless.org and the University of Missouri and the Star Tribune and any number of other affiliations. You’re working on a very interesting project at Missouri for this entire year as a fellow. Tell me a little bit about what you’re working on.

Matt Thompson: Right. So I’ll start theoretical, then I’ll get to practical. Theoretically, we focus a lot on news as we’re talking about journalism and how it’s evolving and what it’s going to become and what it is. My focus, working as a web editor, a web producer, is on context. And I’m trying to figure out what context looks like — what more contextual journalism, more context-rich journalism looks like on the web.

So while I’m at Missouri, at Reynolds Journalism Institute doing a year-long fellowship, I will be working with The Columbia Missourian on creating a web site built more around context than around time. A web site sort of inspired by Wikipedia as much as anything else.

It’ll have, very broadly, two components to it. A wiki — not necessarily public edited, so sort of a fudge on the wiki. But it contains stories as they develop over time, synthesized into a report that is cohesive and reads as a single story. And a blog that contains ongoing updates and developments as the story iterates over time.

Josh: So what is, have you narrowed it down to one particular project? One topic area that you’re going to be focusing on? Can you talk a bit about that?

Matt: Yes. So we’ll be working with, for the prototype that we’re creating, we’ll be working on growth and development in Columbia, Missouri. Everything from sewer and infrastructure, roads, to school building projects to commercial developments and residential developments in the different neighborhoods of Columbia.

Josh: And what you’re describing is not — correct me if I’m wrong — it doesn’t sound like a technological advance. It sounds like a different philosophical approach to doing the news. Imagine I was the most traditionalist, hidebound, curmudgeonly news person in the world, if I were to hear what you’re doing, what would be my reaction to it? What are the grand shibboleths that you’re violating in some way?

Matt: So one of them is notion of the article. We’ve always had in newspapers — just necessarily, we’ve had this notion of the article, this thing, this story that when developments occur in the life cycle of a news story, that we will produce a solid narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end that sort of captures a snapshot of time.

On the web, that notion of the article sort of starts to break down. The idea of a report that is posted and then sort of fades quickly in relevance into an archive doesn’t make the most use, I would say, of the strengths that the web can provide.

If you consider a breaking news story for example — on the web, we would have to as an update comes in on a giant crash that happened somewhere in the city, we’d have to first make an article that has a beginning, a middle, and an end somehow out of the fragments of information that we’re pulling together as the story’s developing.

And during the day as updates come in and we discover that this one story is actually a couple of related stories, or involves a couple of related stories, we have to decide where to fork the article. Or how those divergent stories are reflected in this one sort of inflexible article format.

Then after the print story comes up, it will be in tension with the web story. Structures for containing information like blogs and wikis that have evolved as the web has developed tend to be more fluid. So there have been several New York Times stories and stories in other publications noting that Wikipedia seems to work as well for breaking news as it does for containing the record of a story over time.

So part of this project is an attempt to bring those web-native structures, story structures, to journalism. So going back to Mr. Curmudgeonly Editor for a second. This is how — just to give an example of how this would unfold in real life — imagine you’ve got a typical growth and development story. A developer wants to build a project somewhere in a city and he’s having some tensions with residents on what that development can include. And there are a series of city council meetings on this. The city council keeps knocking this back down and telling the developer to go and modify his plans because residents aren’t appeased at how the plan is unfolding.

Typically, we would cover this as a series of stories. Each has a beginning, middle and an end. Each has its own nut graf. And for our web audience, at any given point in the life cycle of this story — when the plan is proposed, after the city council knocks it down, after the committee finally approves it — a web user will come to this story without any sense of what the larger context of this story might be. The most context that they’ll be able to get is what we can fit into that daily report.

Under my model, as developments arise on that particular story, they’ll be posted to a blog. Meanwhile, for an audience that’s coming to that story fresh, they’ll be able to quickly get the background, the overview, the “what’s next” of that story in continually updated wiki.

Josh: So obviously you’re in the middle of going forward with this process. You don’t have all the answers yet. But if a newsroom down the line were to adopt some of your ideas, would you anticipate it would require them to structure the newsroom in any way differently? Or would it still be a beat reporter who’s covering a topic but would simply have the additional responsibilities of editing this wiki, for example?

Matt: I think for a lot of — something a lot of newsrooms are grappling with right now is the notion of complementarity. You’ve got very different media: the web, print, broadcast. And many news organisations are right now struggling with keeping these things in balance — with reporting the news in such a way that it makes sense in each platform. I think an important consequence of reporting stories this way on the web is we aim to move from a focus on news developments to news topics. Following a story that evolves over time.

So one offshoot of this that I think actually might prove beneficial for constructing print narratives out of these developing stories, is that we will create a place for a community to cohere around a particular story. If residents from the city are mad about a project that’s in development and there’s a lot of talk and buzz, discussion in a place about something that’s happening, right now there’s no place on a news website for them to coalesce — for that community to coalesce, to start discussing the story and to take that discussion somewhere. At most, interested parties might find each other in the comments to one of the stories that they find on the website. But that discussion will quickly fritter away as the story fades in the archive.

Changing to a model where we present stories as ongoing topical collections, means that we have a stable place for a community to discuss, coalesce around a news topic. So that’s one consequence. I think as an offshoot of that, there’s a strong possibility that parts of that discussion — that ostensibly richer discussion — can make their way into print as well, making the story more vibrant and more reflective of the community dialog than it might have been otherwise.

I think another consequence is that we often, in telling these incremental stories, individual stories on one development, taking place here on a city council ruling or regulation that is unfolding over there — what we in the newsroom are seeking to tell in many cases is a larger story.

In growth and development, for example, the larger story that we are trying to tell is what is our community going to look like tomorrow and what are the different factors affecting that.

Telling stories over time on the web I think means telling larger stories, means relating incremental stories to each other, small process-oriented stories that often take up the bulk of many beats — beats like education and growth and development — those incidental flashing up the end stories that bubble up for a moment and then fade away. Each of those bubbles up often to something larger. And I think using structures like blogs and wikis to tell these stories allows us to show how they cohere in to larger narratives.

Josh: One last question. As you go forward with experimenting with this idea and trying it out, what are the big questions that you have in your mind that you want to get answers to? It sounds like a great model, quite frankly, but what are the things that you need to find out how they work not just in theory but in practice over the next few months?

Matt: I guess I should say — I am focusing on the one component of how journalism is evolving and that’s really how the journalism itself — how we structure storytelling is evolving as we move to the web.

There are several things that I am leaving out of the parameters of my project just because I don’t think I’d get too much value out of trying to be all-encompassing with it. So there are consequences of my research that I will acknowledge but probably not pursue in the scope of my time in Columbia — things like the business model. What does a shift from stories as ephemeral articles to stories of ongoing topics mean for news websites that are often looking for more pageviews and more places for people to click.

I think some of the questions that I’m asking that I still don’t have the answer to and that I think are going to arise out of doing this and actually putting this into motion are related to narrative. What is the best way to engage an audience with a story that unfolds overtime? How do you use the blog and the wiki in a complementary fashion? What does the voice and the tone and the orientation of that wiki look like? How do you pitch a story to an fresh audience that is coming to without knowledge? What’s the best way to sort of capture an ongoing topic in an engaging fashion?

And then continuing the storytelling questions that I have, what is the role of things that we are now — we’ve taken to a pretty good place in journalism, things like multimedia, data. How do those sit in this type of environment, and how can we use those tools and really that’s complementary to everything else?

And you brought up another aspect that I am considering, which is what is the workflow for this look like? How do we make our work on this type of a thing efficient? If reporters have to maintain both a blog and a wiki and ostensibly file updates for print, what does that look like and how do we make that workflow manageable?

Josh: All right, well thanks very much.

Matt: My pleasure, thanks for interviewing me.

POSTED     June 10, 2009, 11:03 a.m.
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