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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Nov. 8, 2010, noon

Energy-efficient journalism — urban planning for news

I came across a great story in The Economist last night — a look at emerging systems of urbanism, part of the magazine’s “Special Report on Smart Systems.” In cities large and small, eastern and western, established and nascent, planners are attempting to bring some of the systematized logic of the world of digital design — strategic centralization coupled with strategic individualization — to bear on the urban landscape.

Take PlanIT Valley, an area just outside Porto, Portugal — which, borrowing the “service-oriented architecture” concept from the design world, is attempting to build itself into “the world’s smartest city.”

Much of the city, which is to cost about $10 billion, will rely on prefabricated parts; its foundation, for instance, will be made of concrete blocks that come with all the gear for smart infrastructures pre-installed. Eventually the entire city and its buildings will be run by an “urban operating system” that integrates all parts and combines them into all kinds of services, such as traffic management and better use of energy.

It’s a neat idea, for informational infrastructure as much as architectural: an urban operating system. Energy-efficient, generally efficient. An approach to civic space that is strategically comprehensive — the product not merely of collective efforts, but of collaborative ones.

We often talk about news as a collective endeavor, as an “ecosystem.” (In fact, if you’re in NYC tomorrow evening, in fact, you can attend Columbia’s 2010 installment of its “Changing Media Landscape” panel, an event whose title is as apparently unironic as it is permanent.) Culturally, though, and viscerally, we tend to understand journalism as a fundamentally individualistic enterprise: A world of beats and brands, of information that is bought and sold — an epistemology built upon ownership. And we tend to see ourselves within that structure as a system only in the broadest sense: small pieces, loosely joined. Very loosely. Individual news organizations — among them, increasingly, actual individuals — decide for ourselves the scope of our coverage, the way of our coverage, the details of our coverage. Because it is our coverage. While, sure, the market rewards niche-finding and, with it, comprehension — and while, sure, we’re certainly in conversation with other outlets as we go along — still, with notable exceptions, most of the discourse we have with our peers in newsgathering plays out via the calculation of competition. In general, we’re all Darwinists. Which is to say, we’re all capitalists — even when we’re not.

Ironically, though, the net result of that core individuality, for all the obvious good that comes from it, is often some form of redundancy. “Designs are often used only once, most buildings are not energy-efficient, the industry produces a lot of waste, and many materials are simply thrown away,” The Economist notes of industrial-age planning strategies, going on to cite a Harvard Business School case study finding that the waste in question accounts for a whopping 30 percent of construction costs. The architectural impulse toward ownership — in this case, the idea that urban spaces’ constituent structures should be singular rather than systematized — is both a means to beauty and artistry…and an inefficiency that’s quite literally built into the system of production.

A similar thing happens in news. In attempting to apply the aesthetic of individualism to a pragmatic public good, to put our stamp on it in a craftsmens’ guild kind of way, we often produce work that is unintentionally, but necessarily, wasteful — because it is unintentionally, but necessarily, duplicative. (Forty reporters covering a single press conference, 2,000 covering the Chilean miners’ rescue, etc.) Just as there are only so many ways to design an office building, or a parking structure, or a green space, there are only so many ways to structure a single news story. But structure that story we do, each of us outlets, because our individual missions are just that: individual. So we repeat ourselves. Repeatedly. And we resign ourselves to the repetition. (Google “Obama + coconuts” today and you’ll get over 2 million hits. Make of that what you will.) And then, because we need some way to control the crowded content of our own creation, we rely on external engineers — Twitter, Facebook, The Huffington Post, Google News — to impose order on the chaos. The coders become the curators become the arbiters. The news, as a civic space, ends up outsourcing the design of its own traffic flow.

Which may be fine. The whole point of a system, after all, is to overcome fragmentation with collaboration — which is exactly what we’re seeing play out, organically, in our news ecosystem. But what if, at the same time, we were more intentionally systematic about the news we produce? What if we applied the operating-system logic to journalism? While there’s certainly a systemic role for redundancy — duplication in journalism provides a crucial check against error, exaggeration, and the like (and, of course, it’s in nobody’s interest to develop the first one to come over the over-centralized oversight of news) — there’s something to be said, I think, for being more broadly collaborative in our thinking when it comes to the news that we — we, the news system — serve up to consumers. (Which is a group that tends to care very little about the proprietary structures — the beats, the brands — that define journalists’ work.) A do what you do best; link to the rest mentality writ large.

The model we saw on display in outlets’ recent collaborations with WikiLeaks could be instructive; a nice balance of competition and collaboration could be one way to bring a digital-design sensibility to the news. Collaboration is no longer the province of utopians and/or nerds; increasingly, it’s defining the systems that are, in turn, defining us. Just as architecture understands that empty space is its own form of structure, journalism increasingly appreciates that connection — links, relationships, permeable borders — is a kind of content unto itself. Openness is architecture.

In a post earlier this year, Josh advocated for the development of a New Urbanism for news, a system of information delivery that offers “a retrenchment from endless sprawl, the construction of concentrated experiences, a new consciousness of how we obtain and consume.” As abundance edges out scarcity as the defining factor of our news economy, we’ll increasingly need to think about news production as a dialectic between creativity and containment. And as a system that, for the good of its consumers, balances the benefits of competition with the complementary benefits of collaboration.

Image via peterlfrench, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 8, 2010, noon
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