Journalism’s New Role

The primacy placed on speed and volume in the information age has led to an uneven news landscape. “There is an over-allocation of resources on breaking and developing news production and constant updates,” observes Boczkowski. “I think many news organizations are overdoing it.” While headlines and updates are undoubtedly important, their accumulation is problematic. “Increasingly, as the abundance of information overwhelms us all, we need not simply more information, but people to assimilate, understand, and make sense of it,” write Duguid and Seely Brown.

The question, then, is how?

As David Shenk presciently noted more than a decade ago, “In a world with vastly more information than we can process, journalists are the most important processors we have.” The researchers who conducted the study for the AP concluded that the news fatigue they observed among young adults resulted from “an overload of basic staples in the news diet—the facts and updates that tend to dominate the digital news environment.” In other words, the news they were encountering was underprocessed.

In order to address the problem, the AP has made a number of changes in the way it approaches news production. For starters, it instituted a procedure it calls 1-2-3 filing, which attempts to reduce news clutter and repetition (the days of endless write-throughs are over) while also acknowledging the unpackaged and real-time nature of news in the digital world. With 1-2-3 filing, reporters produce news content in three discrete parts, which they file separately: a headline, a short present-tense story, and, when appropriate, a longer in-depth account. By breaking down the news in this way, the AP hopes to eliminate the redundancy and confusion caused by filing a full-length article for every new story development. In 1-2-3 filing, each component replaces the previous component: the headline is replaced by the present-tense story, which is then replaced by the in-depth account.

The AP has also launched a series of initiatives aimed at providing consumers with deeper, more analytical content. It has created a Top Stories Desk at its New York headquarters to identify and “consider the big-picture significance” of the most important stories of the day. It has also begun developing interactive Web graphics to help explain complicated and ongoing stories like Hurricane Katrina and the Minnesota bridge collapse. And for 2008, the AP launched “Measure of a Nation,” a multimedia series dedicated to examining the election “through the prism of American culture, rather than simply the candidates and the horse race.” “Measure of a Nation” packages take a historical approach to covering such notions as myth, elitism, and celebrity in American presidential politics. In one article published in late August, for example, journalist Ted Anthony explains the powerful political influence of the Kennedy family over the past fifty years, drawing parallels between the campaigns of JFK and RFK and that of Barack Obama. As the AP writes in its report, these changes in approach represent “a concerted effort to think about the news from an end-user’s perspective, re-emphasizing a dimension to news gathering and editing that can get lost in the relentless rush of the daily news cycle.”

Much like educational institutions, the best news organizations help people convert information into the knowledge they need to understand the world. As Richard Lanham explains in The Economics of Attention, “Universities have never been simply data-mining and storage operations. They have always taken as their central activity the conversion of data into useful knowledge and into wisdom. They do this by creating attention structures that we call curricula, courses of study.” Institutions of journalism do it by crafting thoughtful and illuminating stories. “Journalists who limit their role to news flashes are absolving themselves of any overarching obligation to the audience,” writes Shenk in The End of Patience. “Mere telling focuses on the mechanics of transmitting information of the moment, while education assumes a responsibility for making sure that knowledge sticks.” The most valuable journalism is the kind that explains. “The first and foremost role that a journalist plays is to provide the information in a context that we wouldn’t be able to get as amateurs,” says Delli Carpini. “And I think that’s where journalism should be focusing.”

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.