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July 8, 2011, 1 p.m.

Newsmotion wants to bring artistry and the wealth of networks to the coverage of international news

Born out of the Egyptian revolution, a startup thinks about how to harness independent journalists and citizens into a focused news report.

Some of the biggest challenges international news reporting faces have to do with time: the moment versus the long run. How, on the one hand, do you capture news items in real-time, and fashion them into something resembling stories? And how, on the other, do you maintain audience interest in stories that spread and stretch over weeks and months and, often, years?

A new startup wants to tackle both challenges at once. Newsmotion aims to cover international events both as they’re happening and over the long-term — to marry immediacy and continuity in a single product. It will focus in large part on the broad themes of international reporting, with special attention to social justice and human rights — tackling big ideas like genocide, the black market economy, the availability of water. The site is the project of a collective of award-winning journalists and journalism thinkers: the journalist, producer, author, and professor Julian Rubinstein; the war correspondent (and former Nieman Fellow) Elizabeth Rubin; the artist/engineer/NYU professor Natalie Jeremijenko; and others. And the project’s advisers include the journalist-professors Todd Gitlin and Dale Maharidge. It’s a group that brings a distinctly intellectual point of view to the various problems and opportunities associated with international news coverage.

And their goal is a broad one: to produce “important stories and good storytelling,” Rubinstein says — and, importantly, to produce them “in as many ways as suit the story.”

While the site itself isn’t yet live — it plans to launch later this month — the ideas informing it are telling of the media moment we’re in. In an era that finds more and more foreign bureaus being shuttered, Newsmotion wants to take advantage of the wisdom of individuals around the globe: to create a new organization of journalists and other witnesses who are used to operating independently. And, in an era that finds raw information proliferating online, it wants to find ways of sorting and contextualizing news updates — to find the signal, as it were, in the noise.

With that in mind, here’s a preview of Newsmotion in overview form.

The power of the network

Like so many other things in journalism and beyond, Newsmotion is a byproduct of the Egyptian revolution that arose earlier this year. As the events there unfolded, Rubinstein — with friends and friends-of-friends and, ultimately, a network of people around the globe — followed the stories emerging from Tahrir and beyond, particularly through Facebook and Twitter and other social networks. And, in the process, they broke stories of their own. Armed with social technologies, Rubinstein notes, the collective of individuals became a kind of de facto news network: When it came to important information, he says, “we were able to get it, and get it out, and spread it.”

From there, Rubinstein says, “We just realized, ‘Well, we have the ability to do what a news organization would do. What if we tried to do it?'” What if their loose collective of reporters and actors and witnesses could become its own news outlet?

Newsmotion tries to answer that rhetorical question. And its soon-to-launch platform reflects its networked roots. “What we’re trying to do is fully integrate social media,” Rubinstein says. Newsmotion’s interface will allow users to toggle between real-time RSS and Twitter feeds, and to sync them according to keywords. And the site will be linked, appropriately enough, to the Newsmotion Facebook page. But the group, and its design team, are also experimenting with ways to bring a kind of permanence to the typical transience of online conversations — and with making delineations among various types of sources. The Newsmotion interface features three vertical columns, broken down by source “category”: Official (governments and international organizations), Unofficial (major media organizations), and Citizen (bloggers and small media outlets). The group wanted a site, Rubinstein says, “that could quite easily feed and pull information that’s clearly sourced — by not only relevance, but also by the source itself.”

Moment and memory

And it wanted, as well, an interface that could be equally good at telling stories in real-time and over the long-term. Newsmotion will offer a mix of presentations and angles and narrative devices that will be unified, Rubinstein hopes, via the site’s clean design. Newsmotion won’t just have feeds flowing in from its network of sources; it will also offer documentaries, longer-form narratives, and, intriguingly, serialized content. It will experiment with graphic presentations of data — for example, a “black market index” that uses on-the-ground measurements to trace the black-market worth of goods like diamonds and antibiotics and grains and guns — in conjunction with Pachube‘s real-time data management system.

“I’m very excited about the genre for rethinking how we understand, and how we can act on, information,” says Natalie Jeremijenko, who will be heading up Newsmotion’s indices projects. In part, she told me, those projects are about using data to decipher the world in new ways — and about, ultimately, “changing what’s legible.”

Another way to do that: bring cross-disciplinary approaches to the reporting of news. Newsmotion wants to marry art and information, collapsing the walls that have traditionally divided the two. Artists and musicians, Rubinstein says, have expressed interest in working on multimedia projects on the site, in hopes of rendering information “that is both artistic and journalistic.” For each narrative, Elizabeth Rubin told me, the team will try to answer: “What does this story sound like — what does this story feel like?” For that, experimentation will be at once an end and a means. As Jeremijenko puts it, we’re currently seeing “a real shift in terms of how we tell stories.” And part of that shift has to do with the fact that stories are increasingly powerful forces for change. “All of our efforts at Newsmotion,” Rubinstein notes, “will be done with the goal of maximizing interest, engagement, and the ability to act.”

POSTED     July 8, 2011, 1 p.m.
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