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.”
A similar news filter—a platform that culls the Web so readers don’t have to—is Evening Edition, billed as “the perfect commute-sized way to catch up on the day’s news after a long day at work.” It offers a few heavily linked recaps of world news on its once-daily update, though it’s a “what you see is what you get” setup, whereas Cir.ca will let people select stories to follow.
Related services offer opt-in filters like Cir.ca’s but with a social media element. News.me and Paper.li both compile daily collections of links. News.me crawls users’ Facebook and Twitter connections, pulling out stories with overlapping shares, essentially saving users from having to navigate their own overwhelming social media feeds. Paper.li also pulls from social, but not just accounts connected to a user, to create a daily page of links on a chosen topic. And Storyful combs social media to find newsworthy conversation.
Another new filtering platform is Medium, whose beta version launched in August. The brains behind the project include Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone. But the venture isn’t microblogging—rather, it’s more like a professionalization of Blogger, which Williams helped launch back in 1999. Anyone can use Medium to self-publish content, creating topics that contain stories. Those stories are ordered by reader popularity or newness. The topics can be open to user contributions—creating more of a forum or discussion feel—or not, meaning collections can also act as straight-up purveyors of information, still displayed based on what appeals to readers. “Medium is designed to allow people to choose the level of contribution they prefer,” the founders wrote in the site’s introductory note. “We know that most people, most of the time, will simply read and view content, which is fine. Together, the contributions of many add up to create compelling and useful experiences. You may be inspired to post one time or several times a day—either way is okay.” Medium could be a tool that allows existing media companies to rejigger how they offer content, using collections to attach explainers to news updates.
Social media is much more than a filtering tool—it’s already the new news platform in the sense that many websites get the majority of their clicks referred from sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. At a Future of Media panel held at NYU in May, both Buzzfeed co-founder Jonah Peretti and Jezebel editor in chief Jessica Coen said that Facebook is their biggest traffic source. “I’ve really started to think less about ‘what are people going to search for,’” Coen said, “and more about what can I assign here that I know people feel strongly about.” Now folks like Cory Booker (yes, that Cory Booker) are creating platforms based on the share without worrying about that former pillar of traffic, search engine optimization. The Newark mayor, Nate Richardson (ex-Gilt City), and Sarah Ross (formerly of TechCrunch and Yahoo) are building #waywire, a social video network aimed at young adults slated to launch this fall. “#waywire is constructed to function like a personalized wire service,” Ross said, including a mix of original, in-house content; videos from media partners; and user-generated contributions. Each video will be presented alongside five related videos to help build context into the experience. “We’ve created a system where the video is more easily shared,” said Ross. “You can automatically syndicate that into one of many social networks.”
Other interesting and relatively new sharing tools include Storify, which helps users create narratives by collecting other social-media snippets, like tweets, and CNN iReport, which includes user-generated content in story coverage.
The link offers discrete facts or topics as the atomic news unit, but in that model, readers seek out the information that interests them—it doesn’t have a means of enticing them to click. In social, the click incentive comes from knowing the sharer. When neither scenario applies, enter the meme, a bit of cultural shorthand that reaches the familiarity of slang. Memes are best known as the purview of very unserious Internet trends like Huh’s I Can Has Cheezburger, a bottomless collection of cat pictures with ungrammatical captions. But Buzzfeed, another site known for viral posts of baby animals, is reimagining the meme as a vehicle for news.
In late 2011, site co-founder Peretti started to shift the site’s focus, poaching Buzzfeed’s now editor in chief, Ben Smith, from Politico and hiring a stable of journalists to do original reporting. But the new hires don’t solely post traditional stories. Instead, Buzzfeed aims to make news viral using the same formula it does with a montage of corgis: by making it entertaining. The bottom of every story, just like the bottom of every animal medley, has meme-y reaction buttons like LOL, WIN, OMG, CUTE, and FAIL. As Smith noted in a July interview with Nieman Journalism Lab, some stories are embellished with visual memes; a short dispatch about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s military promotion included a humorous photo scroll of Kim and a collection of GIFs with celebrities clapping for him.
Another news-as-meme outfit is Upworthy, live since late March, which bills itself as a “social media outfit with a mission: to help people find important content that is as fun to share as a FAIL video of some idiot surfing off his roof.”
Upworthy has intentionally kept its focus, so far, on offering visual content via Facebook. It makes frequent appearances in users’ newsfeeds once they “like” it, presenting important issues with clever headlines and packaging . . . which makes it a kind of meta version of all of the foregoing: It filters memes or links so they can be shared. No pyramids anywhere in sight.