For the past few days, a job posting has been making its way around the web: the Poynter Institute, it announces, is looking to hire a writer/curator for its Sense-Making Project. Which is a job title that — out of context, anyway — doesn’t itself seem to make much sense (A what for the what?). But it’s also one that’s intriguing. Writing? Curating? Sense-making? Can’t argue with that.
I asked Kelly McBride, Poynter’s Ethics Group Leader and lead faculty for the program, about the project and its new position. The Sense-Making Project itself, she told me, is a pilot effort funded by Ford and focused on the intersection between journalism and citizen engagement — and closely related to news literacy, the movement that aims to educate citizens to be savvy consumers of news. “We started with the central question of how citizens will make sense of the universe,” McBride says. And the curator position is in part predicated on one clear answer to that question: “They’re going to need some help.”
One of the project’s aims, McBride says, is to cater to the expanding group Poynter refers to as “the fifth estate”: the broad network of people, journalists both professional and non-, who are now participating in the newsgathering process. The project wants to “create a place where people who are motivated to develop new skills about consuming information can go to do that, to be in conversation and to share their ideas,” she says. And the person who takes on the writer/curator job will guide and, yes, curate that conversation.
In some ways, the position is one that requires the skills of (pardon a slight oxymoron) the classic blogger: “gathering and writing and reassembling and helping us look through all of this information that’s out there, putting a magnifying glass on certain parts of the virtual world and saying, ‘Here’s something to look at.’” But the new role will combine curation with a slightly more academic approach: one that considers the contextual aspects of information. The writer/curator will be taking, if all goes according to plan, an archaeological — and in some senses anthropological — approach to news and the social capital it engenders: a kind of Putnam-meets-Wasik-meets-Foucault-style sensibility toward social knowledge. “The whole idea of the project is, ‘What if you had someone whose only job it was, every day, to be looking at information?” McBride says. “And this person gets the new world and the old world, and isn’t writing to an audience of professional journalists, and is writing to Joe Citizen, saying, ‘Hey, this is kind of interesting.’”
It’s meme-tracking, essentially — tracing the movement of ideas though our social spaces — except with information, rather than notions, as the core proposition. “If you think about what PolitiFact does for political facts,” McBride says, “we’re thinking similar to that, only for the rest of the universe.”
It’s an intriguing idea — and one that suggests a subtle shift in the atomic structure of journalism itself: from the article as the core unit of news, and even from the blog post as that unit, to something more discrete and, yet, tantalizingly ephemeral: the fact itself, the assertion itself, the piece of information itself. Propositions that are solid and fluid at the same time. “What we’ve found,” McBride says, “is that when you start taking a single piece of information, you can actually look at the history — where it came from, who linked to what, who transformed it, and how it got to you. And then you can look at how it went out from there.” The analysis might require “diagnosing language,” she says, or “asking about the motivation of the person who delivered the information.” It also might require “asking about the setting in which the information was delivered, because things on Facebook are different from things on Twitter.”
Either way, the analysis will focus on a goal that’s quickly gaining traction in journalism: the provision of context as a means of adding value to information. With the project and its expansion, “I hope to create a body of work that reveals trends and pressure points that have yet to be revealed,” McBride says. Because “it’s in those trends that you start to say: ‘Oh, okay, here’s a tool people need.’”