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May 19, 2014, 5:54 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Building permission structures for short content (Vox edition)

It’s a little thing (literally!), but if news organizations want to capture the full value of their journalists’ minds, they should give them an outlet for things other than traditional articles.

When people talk about blowing up the traditional article model of news, they don’t mean that the standard news article form is bad, per se. They mean it’s inadequate. A traditional story — lede, nut graf, quote, background, kicker — can work perfectly well in some contexts. But you wouldn’t want that to be the only format you can pour knowledge into. Some things deserve to be much longer; some deserve to be much shorter; some deserve to be two sentences and a chart; some deserve to be a video.

To broadly overgeneralize, a lot of outlets have less of a problem going long than they do going short. The New York Times’ lovely article templates, for instance, look downright strange when there’s breaking news and someone posts a one-sentence story. It’s a valuable, timely nugget of information — but it’s surrounded with the same visual pomp and circumstance as a 5,000-word investigation. It still gets a headline, even though there really isn’t anything to summarize.

Or think of how many news sites have no good structural way to express a piece of content that’s little more than: Hey, here’s an interesting story on this other site. Or, Here’s an interesting tweet. Even otherwise very webby places can struggle with those.

So I note with interest that, at Vox, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias each now have a “notebook” in which to post little squibs of content. (Here’s Ezra’s, here’s Matt’s. There may be more, but I checked a few other Vox staffers’ pages and didn’t spot any.) Like this story from Ezra, reproduced here in full (headline: “This is a great line by Megan McArdle”):

“The very existence of a policy issue tells you that it is difficult to solve, either politically or technically.”

The subject is the difficulty of coming up with new antibiotics. More here.

Just 32 words, 19 of them someone else’s, and a link. This one’s a little longer (three grafs!), but again, it’s pretty tossed off.

This form will be familiar to people who read blogs in the early 2000s — the short post that isn’t an “article” but is still useful to readers and offers a low-friction way for someone to share what they know or think.

Some people still post this way, of course, like Glenn Reynolds. But that kind of posting rhythm has been lost a bit with the move to the social web. If you’re starting a news site today, you’re building it around sharable individual URLs. You expect people will click your links on Twitter or Facebook, and they’ll go to a single atomic article page, likely with enough heft to handle an ad or two. It’s a different behavior model from the old days of “reading blogs,” where you’d have a set of websites you’d check in with in turn, and where the small, iterative updates could fit in logically among the most substantial pieces. Social media is all about the stream, but its effect has been to turn online news into a lot of self-standing islands.

Nowadays, if you’re a journalist with something short and unformed to share, there’s a really good chance you’re just going to tweet it out.

So I like the idea of giving journalists a structure and permission to share little things — things that don’t need to be expanded into traditional articles, things that can connect a reporter’s knowledge to an audience’s interest without the templatized exoskeleton of modern web publishing.

The Vox notebooks don’t quite accomplish that — they still live in the same templates as regular Vox stories — but they do create a kind of structural home for sub-content. That’s something more news organizations could use. (In Vox’s case, the notebooks also allow the posts to be connected into Vox Media’s StoryStreams, which makes it possible to “subscribe” to them on Facebook. That’s despite the fact the individual updates have nothing, topically, to do with one another, and there’s no particular reason you’d only want to read Ezra Klein’s short pieces and not his medium and long ones.)

Think also of Quartz’ new Glass subsite, led by former Nieman Lab staffer Zach Seward, which covers the future of television in a link-plus-analysis style. Early attention to Glass has focused on its use of Fargo, Dave Winer’s new outlining software, which is interesting. But more interesting to me is that Glass is, effectively, a permission structure for Zach to post short things he finds interesting about his beat — the kind of thing that otherwise might end up as quippy tweets.

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that Glass’ post titles are tweet length. With the outline items underneath the title, it’s functionally a tweet-plus — sort of like Marc Andreesen’s wish for a 400-character Twitter come to life. (And “post titles” isn’t even the right word — it’s less a headline than a summary/tease/lede.) And whether it’s outlining software or something else, the structural permission needed is one given by the CMS.

I often find myself quoting an old Jason Fried bit on this. He tells a story about a lumber company that always considered its product to be 2×4s. That’s what they made. But in the process of making those 2×4s, they throw off a lot of wood chips and sawdust.

You can think of those as waste. Or you can think of them as byproducts and figure out what value you can get from them.

Every news reporter alive knows a ton of stuff that doesn’t get expressed in her formal work product. We need better ways to capture that unused value. It’s news organizations’ jobs to build the permission structures that can make that happen. Until then, that value will keep leaking out in stray tweets.

POSTED     May 19, 2014, 5:54 p.m.
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