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News as a dynamic, living conversation

“The most interesting thing about the cream rising to the top faster is that the best writers on a given subject can find each other faster.”

Twitter: It’s a combination newsroom, water cooler, stock ticker, and gossip mill, and still utterly addictive to journalists. Among its many other benefits, Twitter has crystallized a certain realization for me about the future of news: the increasing tendency of a set group of talented writers to coalesce around a given topic. Last year’s predictions hovered around this phenomenon, but didn’t quite address it: Michael Maness spoke of “creating a specific community around the narrative,” leading to “narrow and deep coverage over broad and shallow reporting”; Heidi Moore, of “teams of researchers” who would “think about how to contextualize, present, illustrate, and spread key information, whether it happened that day or not.” These communities now appear to be springing up by themselves rather than in response to managerial imperatives; the members of any given group are liable to work for competing organizations. But however it comes to pass, the “news story” is every day becoming more like a dynamic, living conversation than a series of discrete, disjointed, atomized points of view.

maria-bustillosI follow a number of these groups. For example, for Bitcoin, I follow Timothy B. Lee and Adrianne Jeffries; for education policy, Audrey Watters, Diane Ravitch, Ian Bogost, and Aaron Bady; for the NSA and Snowden, Marcy Wheeler, Jesselyn Radack, Barton Gellman, and Thomas Drake. Twitter makes it easy for me to keep track of these writers and the conversations between them. In time, more and better tools may develop so that anyone interested can locate the key writers on a given subject more easily and quickly. But the most interesting thing about the cream rising to the top faster is that the best writers on a given subject can find each other faster, and join forces; these voices in chorus can then shape an accelerating conversation together. This has led, and will increasingly lead, to an exponential improvement in the quality and reliability of news, just through the power expressed in the very old saying, “Many hands make work light.”

One writer referring to the work of another is nothing new, obviously. But the ease and speed with which we can access one another’s work means that the process of synthesizing results has improved quite a lot. It’s now common to find references and links to very recent work by two or three or ten colleagues in a single piece about events taking place in a day’s time; this has only been possible for the last fifteen years or so, and less than that, in practical terms. It’s taking a long time for editors and publishers to figure out how and when to make use of these tools, for example, deciding how much to permit readers to roam away from their own editorial content. But even so, we’ve already grown quite used to “a news story” as a wealth of tightly focused, hyperlinked information, all decocted for us into an easily sharable, easily readable form that we can read on the train or in a cafe as easily as at the office.

The next step, I think, is that taking in the news will mean finding out exactly who’s writing it — who the posse is, who really knows the score, right now — and giving us the ability to follow that person or group of people very easily. In addition to having access to general information via a daily paper, whether online or off, we’ll also be able to follow a gang of writers on those narrow topics dearest to our hearts as readers: the Affordable Care Act, or stem cell research, or fracking and the environment.

Maybe what I should really say is that I’m willing to pay for that service right now.

Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner, The Awl, and other outlets.

                         
Updating regularly through Friday, December 20