The news story is suffering an identity crisis. For a century at least, it was secure in the knowledge that its discrete inverted pyramid, with novel information at the top, was the best and only way to share scoops. But the news story has been Rip van Winkled—its form no longer fits the platforms people are using to read it (or, increasingly often, to not read it). “I think we need to rethink that article format and replace it with something that better resembles and takes advantage of the Web, not taking the print format and slapping it in a digital space,” emailed Anthony De Rosa, Reuters’s social media editor, who often participates in public tweet exchanges about news packaging. “Why we haven’t evolved from this in over a decade is a mystery to me.” Instead, traditional articles ricochet through an unholy interactive mishmash of retweets, aggregation, curation, embedding, blog commentary, and Facebook sharing.
A host of experimenters and theorists are vying to anoint the new news story—that is, the most basic unit of information conveyance. There is plenty of overlap among them, but here are some options being considered:
Imagine pulling apart the components of a traditional print news story—lede, nutgraf, quotations by main players, broader context—and housing those pieces in different places instead of within a one-time-only inverted pyramid. Then keep the contextual bits—about people, issues, and places—consistently updated, available for linking when related news breaks.
The link as the basic news unit gained vocal support early this summer, when media platform wonks including De Rosa, CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis, Reuters and CJR’s Felix Salmon, and NYU’s Jay Rosen held an impromptu Twitter discussion, which, in turn, inspired a post on Jarvis’s blog. He wrote:
Take the background paragraph. It ill serves everyone. If you know nothing about an ongoing story, it gives you too little history. If you know a story well, it merely wastes the paper’s space and your time. It is a compromise demanded by the one-size-fits-all constraints of news’ means of production and distribution.
Freed from those limitations, what should the background paragraph become? A link, of course: A link to an ongoing resource that is updated when necessary—not every time a related article is written. It is a resource a reader can explore at will, section by section to fill in knowledge, making it more personalized, efficient, and valuable for each reader.
Mother Jones does a version of this, maintaining long, detailed explainers on breaking news topics, but they’re more comprehensive, each pegged to one major event, than the bite-sized topics envisioned by Jarvis & Co. And of course Wikipedia offers the world’s largest repository of continuously updated topic pages, but its democratic editing process adds an element of risk.
“What I would like to see,” notes De Rosa, “is actually two things: regular updates in the form of short bursts and the ability to tell the system I have already seen something. The newest information should appear at the top and dynamically update. They should take the form of text, video, photos, infographics, whatever helps best explain the latest update in the story,” with links to explainers that help nonexperts penetrate dense concepts.
De Rosa’s ideal news platform sounds a lot like Cir.ca, a forthcoming app that will allow users to follow stories and, when updates break, view just the latest information. Cir.ca, slated to launch in October, is the brainchild of Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh, along with partners David Cohn and Arsenio Santos. Its target audience is busy smartphone users, said Cohn, Cir.ca’s founding editor.
“We break [stories] down into specific points,” he said. “We know what facts there are, what stats there are. The next day, we don’t have to repeat these points that they’ve already consumed. They’ve read it. We know they’ve read it. What they really want is the newer information.”