Daily journalism and monkey screech

Macaque photographed at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, MalaysiaI have a theory. Maybe some grad student will test this. My theory is that you can take a random story from a newspaper, and a random person from the community, put them together, and have about a 50 percent chance that the person won't understand it.

If you've been following an issue, the latest story is likely to make sense. If you haven't been following along, the latest incremental nugget may make as much sense as a macaque. It's a data point without context. A fact without meaning. And that's our problem. For a large and growing segment of the community, the paper is full of monkey screech. We might get the emotional context now and then, but mostly it's a puzzle.

You can see how we got here. Newsprint and broadcast air time are scarce. Stories must be short and to the point. The bulletin, which is easy to write, crowds out the explainer, which is hard. Journalists use terms such as insurgency and talk about analysts and use other code words that are full of meaning for those inside the circle, and meaningless for those outside.

As journalism has to compete with more and more glittery fun from the world of programmed entertainment and YouTube videos, the audience wanders away from the continuing story, and loses the ability to understand the daily report.

I am thinking about this because tomorrow morning I'm off to Washington for a "Future of Context" discussion put together by Matt Thompson for the Reynolds Journalism Institute. It's timely. We have no shortage of crises to face in journalism right now -- finance, business models, technological transformation of the media landscape, rise of the amateur, decline of the institution, you name it. Add context to that list.

One of the benefits of the Internet is measurability. I don't have to guess about the readership of a story. I don't have to guess about reach and frequency. I have data that, under duress, can be persuaded to reveal truth. Some of the truths that I have wrung out of this data are troubling.

One that I've mentioned many times in the past: On the Internet, there are no average readers, but there are clear groups. One very large group visits a news site perhaps once or twice in a month, looking for something specific and then moving on. Another group, distressingly small, behaves more like the imaginary daily newspaper reader of the past, visiting not only daily but perhaps multiple times a day. For the second group, incremental stories may make a great deal of sense. For the first group, most conventional journalism is wasted.

We need to move beyond monkey screech. I have some ideas about that, and so do some other folks. I look forward to the conversation.


Pithy quote heard recently (and paraphrased here): "Figuring out what's going on from the news is like trying to tell time by looking just at the second hand"

Will you be liveblogging or tweeting the major points of the conference? I think there is a lot of potential for how formats for news can evolve online, and it will be interesting to see what is approached.

Maybe ... if we have wi-fi and I can use my laptop. My thumbwork isn't good enough for extensive live-tweeting on my Crackberry.

Isn't evergreen, Wikipedia-style content the most obvious solution? I just came across this smart analyst who's trying to lead an anti-news insurgency: http://www.newsless.org/2008/09/hello-world/

Newsless is written by Matt, who's currently on a fellowship at RJI and convening the session I'm attending.

Wait a minute. What you call monkey screech might actually be intelligent writing on a subject your readers are familiar with. How many times have you read, "In 2001 terrorists hijacked two airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center." Is this the kind of context you want? The kind that makes most of your reader scream "what do you take me for, an idiot?" One of the problems with news today is that it is so elementary. This is why niche sites do as well as they do, because they can make assumptions about the intrinsic knowledge of their readers, and cater to it. Local sites can, and should, do this too. When you have to stop and explain where an area is that "everyone" should already know, or stop and explain that the mayor was a former NBA star for the umpteenth time, you look like an idiot. You readers think you're treating them like idiots too. So while in general I'm pro monkey screech, I will say that on the web -- as another poster suggested -- there can (and should) be links to evergreen content. This frees the writer from heaping in tons of idiot-ifying context and like a wikipedia article, the reader can browse at will for all the background information they desire. This, of course, leads to longer time-on-site and more pageviews and all that other web-goodness that we so desperately need to monetize. Seems like a win to me.

Marc, I think you've pinpointed a big problem: We have two audiences for each story, not one, but we write as if there's only one.

Consider a story about an incremental development in an ongoing issue -- say, efforts to redevelop the downtown area by using special-purpose sales taxes. A lot of people are going to be affected but most of them haven't been paying very much attention.

Your typical old-world newspaper story won't explain why they should care. It won't provide enough context for the casual reader to make sense of it all.

On the other hand, your typical "concerned citizen" probably knows more about the subject than the reporter and finds the story painfully inadequate (and maybe even wrong).

A "learn more about this" link to some sort of evergreen, encyclopedic reference page seems like an obvious first stop toward solving the casual visitor's problem. But is anyone doing a good job of this? Most "topics pages" that I find on news sites are little more than automated link barns. An entry point needs to begin with a synopsis, which should be crafted by a reporter with expertise in the subject.

But there's a second problem, or perhaps opportunity: What about the "concerned citizens" who form that group that Dan Gillmor has identified when he says "my readers know more than I do?" Can we turn these reference centers into active processes that pull in members of the community who are interested and motivated?