Monday, December 9, 2013

How Journalism Can and Needs to Change and Adapt to the Web

Internet has made traditional journalism obsolete. But we have not realized it yet.

Newspapers in print were limited by space and functionality, which restricted the stories they covered to only those very few important ones and some fresh stories. Today's first page news would be buried inside the daily tomorrow, and will be forgotten the day after. There might be a follow up story, but it is published only if it is of enough importance to warrant another covering.

For the public, this means that there is no continuity. Stories stop abruptly. Promises are forgotten. Impressions fade. They are constantly distracted by newer, more exciting events. And they conveniently forget the older, more important ones.

  • What is up with the investigation of that infamous crime?
  • Where is that famous person now? What is she doing?
  • Which film is that controversial director working on now?
  • What happened to that sincere police officer who was receiving death threats from various points? Is he even alive today?
  • Where is that ground breaking cure for the terminal illness? Why can't I buy it from the drug store already?

That is where the internet comes in.

Blogging sites, and micro-blogging sites have up to an extent relieved the pressure on newspapers to publish all the stories they receive. What is not fit for the print edition, goes to the web edition. Permanent columnists are given blogs which they can update at their own will. And individuals can publish on their own, and link to their stories via micro-blogging sites which then take care of content delivery.

But it does not have to stop there.

Newspaper websites can change their form. They can switch to a publish-subscribe pattern. And it needs minimal change to the way they are already working. Here's how it goes.

Every news item will have a "subscribe to this story" button on it. A user (identified by emails, or by creating an account on the site) who "subscribes" to a story will get all the follow up items from that story. Those follow-ups which are not worthy for prime attention, will not go on the front page of the website, but they will nevertheless go to the feed/email/equivalent of everyone who has "subscribed" to the story.

Furthermore, there could even be an encyclopedic division of stories, which a new user can browse and subscribe. That is, on clicking "browse stories" the user would reach a page with many categories listed, like "movies", "celebrities", "politics", "crimes", "disasters", "accidents", etc. Under each category there could be sub categories, like for "crimes", there could be "rapes", "theft", "murder", "bribery", etc. and so on.

Essentially, this website will look like twitter accounts maintained by journalists. Instead of following "people", the user can follow "stories".

But isn't that what content aggregators do?
Yes, and no.
No, websites like reddit and stumbleupon cover only wide topics, not individual stories.
Yes, Google news has "See realtime coverage" button under each story, but this is "determined automatically by a computer" and doesn't connect non-contiguous coverage. For the time being, the function I'm proposing is best served by Wikipedia. Each notable event gets its own wiki article, and volunteers update the wiki with latest coverage of the story. This is unreliable, and not enough.

We need paradigm shift in how journalists cover stories.

If you are a journalist, and you covered a story once, you should make it a point to follow that story up till its end. You should make sure that promises are kept, that justice is served, that people are not forgotten. You should keep the timelines alive. And do not worry about having no audience, because if something is worth covering once, it is worth covering till its completion. If it is not, then you should not have covered it at first.

And media will rise as the relentless pursuer of truth.

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