If you’re the sole founder of an early-stage startup and you’re beginning to execute your concept, there’s a moment where you actually feel the company growing inside of you. You feel yourself organizing your brainpower into different departments: one cranking out content, one designing a website, one recruiting talent, one courting investors. You feel an incredible push and pull between these competing voices, each calling your attention to their own lengthy to-do list. And you remember that this is why companies ultimately grow: because you can’t do it all alone.
That is all a long way of saying that the department of my brain responsible for writing these “Launch Pad” columns was brutally subdued by its rivals this spring. The good news is that, during the intervening months, I launched a beta site for Newsbound and released a fresh batch of explanatory content—a “stack,” as we call it—pertaining to the federal budget debate in Washington.
I also spent a good deal of time following the debate over the “article” as the traditional mode of delivery in journalism. It all began with Jeff Jarvis’s May 28 blog post titled, “The article as luxury or byproduct.” The gist of Jarvis’s piece (and I hesitate to summarize it, as it’s already been misconstrued or cherry-picked so many times) is that, as the default form, the article is over-used and often cheapened by the online news system. From his follow-up piece published on June 12:
How many articles are rewritten from others’ work just so a paper and a reporter can have a byline? How many predict the obvious (every story about an upcoming storm, holiday, press conference, or horse race election)? How often do you see a local TV story with any real reporting and value instead of just someone standing where the news happened 12 hours ago telling you what you and he both read online already? Too many articles passing themselves off as professional journalism are crap and I say we can’t afford to do that anymore. I say we should treat articles with veneration as a luxury.
I couldn’t agree more. Freed from the constraints of print production, we now have all this space to expand our notions of how news updates are delivered and organized. And yet, when it comes to covering big stories and disseminating the relevant updates, major news outlets still spend most of their time rapidly repeating themselves in article form.
In a dispatch from South By Southwest this year, The Economist noted how “wasteful” this all is:
Today’s journalism is shaped by the technological limitations and business models of the pre-internet era. When you can only publish at certain intervals, when the space available is dictated by constraints like the cost of paper and delivery, when success means getting the news out faster than your rivals, when stories have to be self-contained (ie, you can’t link to yesterday’s newspaper piece or radio segment), and when they have to be the same for every reader (ie, there are no browser cookies or logins or anything to let you tell individual readers apart), you have to create journalism to suit: discrete little packages that contain both the latest news and the context necessary to understanding it, written in such a way that the latest events are always at the top, with minimal context because space is at a premium, yet comprehensible to someone coming to it for the first time.
We are so used to this format we give it no thought, yet it is highly idiosyncratic, limiting and wasteful. Journalists spend enormous effort on repeating the same material with slight tweaks, and readers on wading through it.
After he himself “waded through” our current news system in early 2011, Ben Huh kicked off his Moby Dick project by putting the problem in more succinct terms: “Why are we still consuming news like it’s 1899?”
This conversation excites me immensely because it begins to acknowledge the diversity of news consumption habits.