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

The year we contextualize the news

“We’re limiting the opportunity for our readers to understand all the intersecting impacts by reducing context to a few paragraphs of background.”

My prediction isn’t particularly snazzy. It doesn’t require drones or sensors or wearables. It gets back to common sense, highlighting our role as an industry in creating informed citizens. 2014 will be the year of contextualization.

lauren-rabainoNews organizations have so far been bad at contextualizing information. We publish articles on a 24-hour news cycle and expect readers to figure out how to connect the dots on their own. We use one sentence near the top of a story to rehash concepts we may have covered at length in previous articles. Rarely do readers follow a story from the beginning — but when they jump in at the middle, we don’t help guide them through what they’ve missed. And we essentially write new content that we then throw away at the end of the day. Content shouldn’t die by design.

For those news organizations lucky enough to have CMSes that let them tag and categorize content robustly, they might be able to make automatic topic pages. Or if their editors are savvy, little nuggets will be hyperlinked to previous coverage. But even these mechanisms — when used at all — still rely on the user to read through every link to figure out what the story is and which pieces of it are important.

We’re finally — just barely — starting to get the hang of publishing content online, optimizing it, integrating multimedia, using data to find and tell stories, making it work on mobile. This doesn’t inhibit all that. As we contextualize, we’ll improve all that.

What does contextualization mean?

The sixteen-letter word is a vague one that can have many interpretations. In this case, I’m specifically talking about topical contexualization. This means guiding readers through large, convoluted news topics: the topics we send our reporters to cover, to obsess over, to write about every new development. The topics for which we are authorities.

For niche brands, this might mean something like technology or fashion. For local newspapers, it might mean local government or community issues. No matter the topic, we are going to see a shift in how we help people understand where information fits and what it means. I’m talking about getting away from the article as the entry point and ending point for understanding news.

The episodic story is dead changing.

Events don’t happen on 24-hour news cycles, and the most important of those events can’t be captured in 2,000-word stories. But that’s how we publish, because that’s how newspapers and daily broadcasts are designed. Topics that impact our lives have winding histories, key players over time, topical shifts that are important to understanding the whole story. They don’t really start over every day with a new angle, as we’d force readers to believe. We’re limiting the opportunity for our readers to understand all the intersecting impacts by reducing that important context into a few paragraphs of background on each new development we write about.

The argument against the episodic story is by no means a new one. Jay Rosen wrote about the topic five years ago and held a South By Southwest panel on it. Matt Thompson wrote at Nieman Lab in 2009 about adding context and depth to how we report news. Sean Blanda did a talk about it last year. There have been many others.

But this is the year we’re actually going to do something about it.

Want informal proof? More than half of the teams at the Global Editors Network hackathon at Yahoo! in November dealt with context, from topic explorers to breaking news timelines to topical activity streams. This is the year we’re going to do it because our readers and editors demand it of us.

An investment newsrooms will have to make in helping redefine contextual storytelling is going to be the innovation hubs in our newsrooms. Yes, I’m talking about the news apps teams or data teams or any other developer teams who are able to quickly iterate and push ideas to market, all while empowering culture changes along the way. I shouldn’t have to say this in 2013, but because I know newsrooms, I know I still must plead with newsroom leaders to demand more developers.

Examples of places that are thinking about this

So what does this look like when it’s all said and done? It’s up to us, and it’ll hopefully be ever evolving. Some news organizations have already started, but no one has gotten it quite right.

ProPublica’s topic pages get us closer to contextualizing huge topics. For every major series that they cover over time, there’s a landing page that lays out:

  • The story so far
  • Featured stories in the series
  • A list of all stories in the series, reverse chronological
  • Filterable by major-stories-only if you don’t care about the in-betweens

Vox’s StoryStreams are similar, but not used as often for hard-hitting, longterm stories as much as they are for in-the-moment events or sports games. Continual updates around one event are captured in a “stream” that includes a link to posts that make up the stream. The problem with Vox’s streams is that once you’ve entered any point within it, you’ve lost the connection back to the context, and where that point sits on the timeline.

The Washington Post’s 9 things about Syria story made the rounds a while back and was applauded for bringing a human approach to a complex topic. Though this is hardly a technical solution to the problem, it’s the right attitude and direction.

Taking it to the next step

Topic pages aren’t enough. Topic pages with filters aren’t enough. Wikis aren’t enough. We’re going to dramatically re-think how we publish content, and it won’t happen without culture changes, open minds and a little experimentation. This year, we’ll:

  • Stop thinking of content as unstructured text with headlines, bylines, ledes, nut grafs, etc. There will be an emphasis of the pieces of information that make up those stories.
  • Create more living content that gets updated at a canonical source as a topic evolves.
  • Start thinking more holistically about stories and writing content in non-narrative formats.
  • Come up with better mechanisms to organize the information that makes up articles.
  • Integrate more structured data into everything we do, blurring the lines between “news apps” and “stories.”

We probably aren’t ready to kill the narrative or the episodic story just yet. Maybe that’ll be a prediction in 2018. But we’re going to start.

Lauren Rabaino is news apps editor at The Seattle Times.

                         
Updating regularly through Friday, December 20