The Article Is Journalism’s Yellow Mustard

Launch pad:

CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. Past columns by Josh Kalven, founder of Newsbound, can be found here.

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.

During his 2007 TED talk on Howard Moskowitz (hat tip: Tristan Harris), Malcolm Gladwell described how the food industry went through a similar transition not so long ago. It all started with the diversification of basic products like mustard, which for a long time only came in the “yellow” variety. Then in the nineteen-eighties, the dominance of French’s and other yellow mustards was called into question by the arrival of Grey Poupon, a more expensive Dijon that quickly became a mustard sensation. The industry initially misunderstood Grey Poupon’s success, but Moskowitz’s philosophy of “horizontal segmentation” thankfully prevailed, as Gladwell explains:

Everyone’s take-home lesson from [the emergence of Grey Poupon] was that the way to make people happy is to give them something that is more expensive … is to make them turn their back on what they think they like now and reach out for something higher up the mustard hierarchy: a better mustard, a more expensive mustard, a mustard of more sophistication and culture and meaning.

And Howard looked at that and said, “That’s wrong,” Mustard does not exist on a hierarchy. Mustard exists, just like tomato sauce, on a horizontal plane. There is no good mustard or bad mustard. There is no perfect mustard or imperfect mustard. There are only different types of mustard that serve different types of people.

And so on grocery store shelves today we find honey mustard and stoneground country mustard and spicy brown mustard and horseradish mustard—in addition to yellow and Dijon.

So it is with news: there are many different types of consumers with different consumption behaviors and preferences. There can now be many different formats to serve them.

For instance, we’ve recently gotten better at satisfying the news junkies and their insatiable demand for real-time mini-updates. These are the class of users with whom journalists most identify, so it makes sense that we’ve quickly begun experimenting with new formats that address their needs.

In addition, users with niche interests are now able to access some great tools that allow them to personalize and focus their news experience in those areas.

Further along this plane, we find the population of occasional or emerging news consumers—individuals who are motivated to be more engaged, but whose day-to-day lives aren’t conducive to following the news in steady, regular intervals. The daily article is a terrible format for these users and the real-time river of news is even worse. These are the users with whom I personally identify, and developing Newsbound is my attempt to find the right kind of mustard for their particular needs.

Of course, also found on the horizontal plane is the hour-a-day consumer with an allegiance to a handful of trusted sources. For this particular individual, the traditional article probably works fairly well as a news vehicle.

But are these the dominant users? Are they so prevalent that the article deserves to be the primary mode of delivery? Not a chance.

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Josh Kalven is the founder of Newsbound, a San Francisco-based startup that works to contain and explain complex news narratives. He was previously editor-in-chief of Progress Illinois. You can find him on Twitter or at the following e-mail address: josh (at) Tags: , , , , ,