But before I go that direction, I want to provide a bit more detail about the origin of this venture. Particularly, I want to zero in on an experience I briefly mentioned in the first column: that particular moment, two years ago, when I began to feel torn between serving the “news junkies” and the “newcomers.” Then next week, I’ll break down my decision to take the for-profit route. (So sit tight, Phoebe!)
In the spring of 2009, as editor of Progress Illinois, I directed our coverage of an escalating labor dispute at Hartmarx, a Chicago-based suit maker. The initial batch of posts all required a great deal of context, and each incremental update sagged under the weight of explanation. (The story involved a bankruptcy proceeding and featured a slew of confusing elements: “debtor-in-possession” loans, “stalking horse” bidders, etc.)
As the saga continued, I decided to solve the problem by creating two tiers of coverage. We would write the day-to-day posts with the assumption that the reader had been following all along. After publishing each update, we would then expand and refine a “backstory” page that covered the entire narrative.
As a result, we could condense our day-to-day reporting by replacing all those context-heavy paragraphs with a link that directed newcomers to our comprehensive explainer.
After nearly two months, the Hartmarx dispute resolved itself. As is so often the case with labor reporting, the underlying drama attracted few readers. Nonetheless, this “two-tiered” reporting process was a personal revelation. We’d covered the story in real-time and we’d also created a resource along the way. With that, I was hooked.
Looking back at that explainer, I see that it could be improved in countless ways. It’s too long, lacks a conversational tone, and is more focused on summary than explanation. In the two years since, topics pages have become a common online news feature; our explainer looks clunky in retrospect.
But if a labor battle ever flares up at Hartmarx again, that piece will serve as a starting point for users trying to understand the back story. And to this day, that remains immensely satisfying.
In a recent tweet, Grist’s David Roberts wrote: “I love being a blogger and all, but sometimes I wish my entire published oeuvre didn’t consist of rushed first drafts ” Anyone who has worked in the online hourly news cycle can relate to that feeling. About a year ago, Twitter’s Robin Sloan offered up some economic language to contrast those rushed first drafts (“flow”) with the content that serves as a lasting resource (“stock”):
Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.
What’s interesting to me about Robin’s treadmill metaphor is that the runner could be either the producer or the user. A flow-only diet is bad for all parties. The users feel like they’re simply playing catch-up, rather than amassing knowledge. Meanwhile, the producers exhaust themselves while not building anything of long-term value.