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Is The Article Like The Song Or The Album? Deconstructing The News #futureofnews #wjchat June 9, 2011

Posted by Bernard Lunn in Journalism.
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Painters create paintings, musicians create songs, authors write books, developers create systems, entrepreneurs create companies and…journalists write articles. Well, maybe not. Some people are questioning this assumption.

When a disruptive technology comes along it always changes the legacy medium. For example, the invention of the camera forced painters to rethink how they could add value and that led to impressionism, abstract art and other wonderful forms of creative experimentation.

When digital music arrived, it destroyed the concept of an album which started with the 33rpm vinyl format and carried on into CD.

But digital music did not deconstruct further, the song remains the unit that is produced & consumed.

In the news business, the album is the newspaper or the TV/Radio channel. Apart from a few loyalists among the older crowd, online news consumers are not brand loyal, they click around to  get what they want. But the article is still the dominant unit.

Blogging did not change that. Bloggers may write shorter articles, because they have to churn out 4 posts per day. Bloggers may call them posts rather than articles. Bloggers may have found the Publish key a huge liberation from the Publisher’s rejection letter. But, call it what you like, Bloggers still produce articles.

But Twitter may have changed things. Twitter is so fundamentally new as a medium that it challenges older assumptions. A Tweet is emphatically not an article. You can derisively dismiss Tweets as “brain farts” and a lot of them fit that bill. But in the news business, Tweets are one type of “news fragment”. I don’t know what else to call them. Some of these news fragments can become the constituent pieces of an article. That is what all the curation tools are trying to do, assemble Tweets into stories (which are built into the article form factor).

Compare this to other media that deliver creative work:

  • the fragments in a song are things like the bass line, vocals etc.
  • the fragments in a painting are things like paint and canvas
  • the fragments in a book are things like paragraphs and chapters

In those media, would you be interested in consuming the fragments on their own? If you are a creator, maybe. If you play the bass, you might want to isolate Jacob Pastorious’s bass lines from Weather Report to learn from them.

That is the problem we have in the news business. Millions of people love writing. That is what made blogging such a phenomenon. I get it, I love writing. The act of creation is a pleasure. The act of consumption is OK, but not as much fun as creation. So when we see those news fragments, we become fascinated.

When people who are not involved in media and technology ask me why I am fascinated by Twitter, I usually talk about following the early days of a massive story. I was totally glued to Twitter #jan25 when the revolution was happening in Egypt. I have always been fascinated by revolutions, I have lived in the Lebanon and I am fascinated by the news business. So this was exciting to me on many levels.

But as soon as Nick Kristof got to Cairo, I was happy to just read his articles as well as anything by other journalists who really understand the Middle East like Thomas Friedman.

I can also envisage that somebody who is obsessively interested in all things Apple related, they want to drill down to the fragment/source. But how many subjects can we be obsessive about? How many subjects do we want to be “news prosumers” in?

I think the article will remain, like the song and the painting, the primary unit of production and consumption. Journalists, bloggers and what we might call “news prosumers” or “news fanatics” might want to delve deeper into the individual fragments, to go direct to the sources.

That use case, the news prosumer, needs to be catered to. It is really a filter/check box indicated whether you consider yourself an expert on that subject. The expert will get all the latest stuff in reverse chronological order, getting the fragments direct from sources (using their own insights and knowledge to filter out the junk). But methinks that is a minor use case. Those of us in the news business might think it is a big use case as we fall into that use case category, but that is a classic mistake. Also, I think that most mainstream media attempts at doing this will be rejected by the news prosumer fanatics, who will always want to delve direct into the fragments direct from the sources.

In conclusion:

The article like the song remains the same, even while the container (newspaper/channel/CD) is threatened.

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