Journalists are also using News Genius to comment on primary documents, telling a story through annotations rather than merely incorporating that source into a traditional news story.
“I think one of the great things about the internet is that most primary documents are online,” says Salmon. “And one of the weirdly less great things about the internet is that people don’t read them anyway.” He believes that part of the reason for this is that journalists aren’t good at linking to them, but another reason is that readers are bad at following links. “If you write an article and link to a primary document, even if you say ‘You should really read this, it’s really good,’ most people won’t,” he says. “So anything we can do to bring them front and center is a good thing.”
“In terms of literacy, we’re hoping to bring a better understanding of those primary documents through annotation,” explains Dean. Examples of this include Alexis Madrigal’s annotation of the transcript from a Google conference call about its self-driving car, embedded on The Atlantic, Felix Salmon’s annotation of Janet Yellen’s Federal Open Market Committee statement, embedded on Reuters, and Nicholas Carlson’s annotation of an email from Steve Jobs, embedded on Business Insider.
Annotation can also be useful to correct bad reporting such as the recent Newsweek article about the man (apparently) behind Bitcoin. (Here’s a Poynter piece about that process interviewing News Genius executive editor Liz Fosslein.)
“I think we’re in the early days of this and it appeals to people with a sort of bloggish sensibility, because blogs are conversations,” Salmon says. For Web-native journalists who are used to comments, conversations, and stories which react to each other, annotation is a welcome tool, especially as news organizations experiment with ways to make comments more useful. Both Quartz and Medium, for example, allow readers to comment on specific paragraphs rather than on a separate part of the page.
Other tool-creators experimenting in this space seek to personalize the reading experience depending on whether or not a reader needs extra information. For example, Dave Winer’s Fargo, an outlining tool that allows users to expand or collapse information as needed, has been used by Quartz to power Glass, its notebook about the future of TV, which presents information through a series of expandable lists. Similarly, two graduate students at MIT Media Lab, Kevin Hu and Alexis Hope, are working on FOLD, a context creation platform for journalists that allows them to add elements to a story that “fold” out from the primary text; they call these “curated tangents” in the form of maps, images, text, and GIFs that can be attached to different text modules in a story.
By helping readers, like Rochowicz’s students, become more aware of their news consumption habits through community commenting, and helping journalists, like Salmon, tell stories in a more engaging way, annotation tools—Ponder and others—can help readers grow more thoughtful about the news they consume.
“[Ponder allows students to] break apart issues and pull together their classmate’s perspectives on those issues,” says Selkirk, “in, I think, the truest sense of news literacy: to flesh out the issues and get beneath the surface.”
Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.