We need to reinvent the article

This post is outdated.

Not the content, necessarily, but the way you are consuming it. Much of the discussion about reinventing media/journalism happens in a frustratingly small spectrum while instead we ought to be reconsidering everything. No really, everything.

Perhaps the biggest reason traditional content creators are being usurped by seemingly unrelated and non-journalistic web services is because the foundation of journalism is broken. In other words: we need to reinvent the article.

Skeuomorphism and not letting go

In the design world, skeuomorphism is applying characteristics of one medium to another, often in an anachronistic fashion. In the digital world this often means that our on-screen elements are representative of physical objects. Think of the iPad “notes” application that looks like a physical notebook or envelopes as an icon for email.

While quaint, these skeuomorphic designs actually slow the advancement of knowledge and, as a result, the development of new ideas and perceptions. As Jon Gold writes “The priority for us as visual designers should be to out-innovate skeuomorphism – not just for ourselves, but for the next generation.”

The article is several generations of skeuomorphism. The article appeared in its current form (a headline, byline, and several paragraphs of text) as early as 1886. Aside from adopting the link, most online content in 2012 is frighteningly similar to 19th century standards.

Despite the fact that more than half of Americans walk around with devices featuring geolocation, an accelerometer, light sensor, voice input, camera and super-fast data connections, we’re still serving content as if it were written on a dead tree. It’s time to rethink our approach.

New rules for online content

We should no longer default to the article – When I raised this point at BarCamp NewsInnovation this year, Automattic’s Andrew Spittle wisely said that journalism needs better “sensible defaults.” Each bit of information that comes across the desk of journalist should be handled differently.

Not everything is a narrative. 

Content never really dies – The article was created in a world where journalism would be consumed and literally thrown away at the end of the day. Online content never dies. So why are we creating a new “package” of content every time there is a development in a storyline? It’s the reason Wikipedia is often more useful than any journalism: it contains the full history of often-complicated and nuanced news subjects on one page.

Content is not in a vacuum – When we present information to the internet, we immediately receive feedback, yet the content often remains static, with the exception of a few comment counters or tweet button numbers. Let’s start small, like using Twitter to write our headlines.

The atomic unit of journalism is the fact. Not the article. Or the topic. If we distill journalism down to the fact, it becomes easier to compare, rearrange and manipulate our reporting.

Answer the user’s demands. By defaulting to the article, we are falsely assuming that the article format is the easiest way to provide all needed information to the reader. However, when readers click on a headline (especially one they’ve seen through social media) what they’re really doing is trying to answer a question.

For example, when I see the headline “Trades dominate first round of NFL draft” in Twitter, my “question” is “Who got traded at the NFL draft?” All I really want is a list of NFL draft trades. I don’t need an article.

We’ve long confused “information” with “journalism.”1

It’s the reason lists like “The 7 funniest cat photos” can rack up social media shares and pageviews because the question “Gee, I wonder what are the seven funniest cat videos?” is directly answered by the content format of the list. The form of the content needs to directly apply to its subject.

Where do we go from here?

Circa founding editor David Cohn2 summed up the problem in his latest post on the company’s blog:

Creating “content” implies a certain packaging. We are producing “video” content or “text” content. Even “multimedia” content denotes a packaging with a pretty bow for the consumers to appreciate. If information, as they say, wants to be free – then it can be packaged in unique ways that content cannot.

At BCNI I proposed a few “half-baked” ideas to solve the problem and its something that’s occupied a lot of my thoughts and conversations of late3. Throughout the Summer I hope to start teasing those ideas with my new-found free time. If you’re interested in hacking together some solutions, get in touch.

  1. For more on that, I highly recommend this post by Stijn Debrouwere []
  2. And all around gentleman []
  3. Again, I’m a hit at parties []

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