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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

MSNBC.com’s Breaking News traces info to its source

There are some news events whose coverage is planned far — far, far — in advance of the events themselves. Those are exceptions, though: Most of the time, news is unscripted and unpredictable — breaking, appropriately enough, through the fabric of daily routine.

The tornado-laden storms that ravaged the South this week were some of those breaking news events. So were last month’s earthquake, and resulting tsunami, in northern Japan. For occurrences like those, as we know all too well, up-to-the-minute news can be especially hard to come by, since we don’t (yet) have a mechanism that connects sudden eyewitnesses of news events to the people who suddenly want to learn about those events.

MSNBC.com, though, is trying to provide that kind of connection through its Breaking News trifecta — a branded web domain, Twitter feed, and Facebook page, complemented by three mobile apps — that aims to be a curation engine for breaking news. The idea is to collect the biggest stories of the moment, in near real-time, from hundreds of news sources worldwide — including, often, eyewitness accounts shared on social media from people at the scene of breaking-news events. Google News-style, the feature aggregates stories from around the web and links out, when possible, to their full versions. River-of-news-style, it strips stories of their narrative and context, honing them down to their headlines.

“Our goal is to empower the moment of discovery,” says Cory Bergman, who helps run the project for MSNBC.com. Breaking News’ editors — “a small, caffeinated team of news junkies embedded inside msnbc.com’s newsroom” — scan wire services, Twitter, RSS feeds, live video feeds, YouTube, and even email alerts to hunt for breaking news, (ideally) immediately after it breaks. Their goal in that, Bergman told me, is “to discover the first instance of a breaking update in real time.” That instance could come from an Alabama paper or a person in Sendai, or anything (or anyone) in between. And it can come via users themselves, who, increasingly, are helping Breaking News editors flag noteworthy events that are bubbling up among social and local media. And “as we find stories and eyewitness accounts,” Bergman says, “we link to the originator directly, and credit them, and send them a short burst of traffic.”

To do all that, the team relies on a range of social networks, but focuses most squarely on Twitter. “Twitter is the real-time news distribution platform, quite frankly,” Bergman puts it. And, as such, “the twitter lexicon is infused in how we work and how we think.”

The main point, though, is…the pointing. Breaking News provides the raw material of the news — the quick-hit updates, in real-time — but it’s not trying to provide, in any strict sense, stories. Though the way that breaking news events are presented and contextualized is, clearly, crucial, Bergman notes, “in many ways, we’re a breaking-news discovery service that’s completely agnostic of source.” Which means: “We don’t want to own the news; we just want to point to it.”

That attitude isn’t unusual — do what you do best, link to the rest, etc. — but it’s noteworthy considering that it’s coming from a major media organization. (Breaking News is something of a skunkworks project at MSNBC.com: Charlie Tillinghast, MSNBC.com’s general manager and publisher, appointed Bergman, along with Tom Brew and Ben Tesch, to do something interesting with breakingnews.com, which MSNBC.com acquired in 2010. The curation project is the result of that charge.) Every once in a while, the Breaking News team “might skew toward NBC” in the stories it promotes, Bergman acknowledges. Overall, though, “we are very, very passionate about keeping an even line and linking the first iteration — the first instance of breaking news — regardless of where it comes from.”

And the team is hoping that user contributions will help scale that idea. Last month, Breaking News launched a new set of features that allows users themselves to curate information — providing, essentially, the same tools that the editors use to discover and share breaking news. Those tools allow users to scan live updates from dozens of news organizations; to comb video and images — from (currently) YouTube, Twitpic, yFrog, and Plixi — for eyewitness accounts of events; or simply to share links to breaking news stories, tweets, images, and videos that the users have already come across. “If we can grow a community of spotters,” Bergman says, that alone “would have an amazing impact on the breaking news that we discover.”

The idea — and the hope — is to provide a link between breaking news and the news more broadly. “Hard and fast breaking news is currently an underserved market,” Tillinghast noted last year; the Breaking News project is hoping to change that.

                                   
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