What is News? What Could It Be?


all the news that fits we print….

What is news?

The first newspaper was printed in Germany in 1608, some 150 years after the invention of the printing press.

Its format, for the most part, has not changed since.

The newspaper was a child of Gutenberg’s technology –

That technology set the format for ‘news’ delivery. We gather in the information and ‘send it out’ to the public. Later iterations of radio and TV followed suit because those technologies were in many ways similar.

Now, along comes the web.

The natural inclination with any new technology is to plug in old models. Hence, if you go to nytimes.com you will see a newspaper, albeit on the web.

But the web is capable of much more. It is a fundamental transformative technology, much like the printing press, which enables an entirely new architecture.

What does it look like?

The primary characteristic of newspapers is distributive. That is, they distribute the same information to everyone. This is also the model for tv and radio.

But the primary characteristic of the web is an integrated community. Everyone can talk to everyone at the same time. Not the same as a newspaper, radio or TV.

Is it then possible to construct ‘news’ that is reflective of what the web does best?

That is, can we construct a ‘news’ architecture that is not about a few ‘reporters’ delivering information over yet another platform, but rather that is about everyone sharing information, and feedback, with everyone else?

Can this be a different and better kind of news?

John Proffitt, who I think is with a PBS station in Alaska (correct me if I am wrong) writes the following:

I was asked this week by a colleague whether I watched the CNN/YouTube debate. The assumption was that since I’m a “new media” guy I would be interested in seeing it. I was not and I did not see it.

Why not watch?

Because little soundbite answers to canned questions from self-serving media wannabes does not illuminate any of the issues. Just because the web is involved and it’s “new” and “edgy” doesn’t mean it’s good for the democracy. Add to that the false lens of CNN that twists the process to their own ends. We’ve turned over the democratic process to a for-profit corporation. How does all this make sense for us as a nation?

A sustained multi-hour debate would actually get my attention for the very reason that it would (eventually) break through the soundbite artifice and force candidates to finally dig in and deal with issues and show their ideas without coaching.

Anyway — a new model of public engagement and participation is needed. Video is likely to be a big component of that model for reasons cited on this blog before.

So… when do we get started?

Can we put the ‘public’ back in ‘Public Discourse’?

Let’s take Iraq as an example.

The conventional ‘news’ tries to ‘deliver’ information, but it does a fairly poor job.

It cannot get beyond the headlines (which are pretty much a commodity) because the people who work there don’t really know much about Iraq, about Islam, about the history of the region, about the culture about much of anything. So the ‘added value’ is nill.

This is true not only of Iraq, but of any story: economics, oil, health, science.. you name it.

But there are people in this country who are real experts on Iraq… and oil, and science and everything else.  Like Wikipedia, a compendium of shared intelligence and shared knowledge.

On the Today show they might book one or two, or on The Jim Lehrer Newshour – if anyone watched it.

But on the web they can all participate….

We could redefine news… something that has not happened since 1608, so maybe it is time.

We could redefine news to mean a massive, interactive ongoing town meeting constantly being updated with new information.

One gigantic global Wiki dealing in all the important issues of our time.

Using text and video….

And as the web aggregates based on subject, content and popularity….  easily accessible.

A neurological network of our collective knowledge and opinion running 24 hours a day.

Could this be the new news?




11 responses to “What is News? What Could It Be?

  1. The general notion is fine — open marketplace of ideas and all that. Adding video into the still-mostly-text Web is fine. Adding pre-roll on the video to make some profit is fine (if it’s not too damn long!).

    But the free-for-all demands a lot of time, and people are busy. They lean back and surf TV to zone out. They search for video on YouTube and StumbleUpon to get laughs. News is not good zoning-out material, and it’s usually not very amusing.

    I’m only saying we can’t translate the time people spend with video today into a future for online news video. Not 1:1 anyway. Maybe not even 100:1. This is in the latest Pew report.

    You’re 100 percent right about the experts we never find, never see on TV, never see quoted in daily newspapers. They’re out there. Some have Ph.D.s and some are very well-informed hobbyists. But the coupling between finding the expert I want on this thing I’m interested in RIGHT NOW and some pathway I can use to get to that expert — and I need to know I’m on the right pathway, or at least feel like I’m close — that coupling is still out in the ether. Google and Wikipedia are the closest protoplasm we have right now.

  2. I have been reading your blog for several months but have never posted a comment. In general, I agree with what you have been saying, and I really enjoyed this one … Particularly when you wrote:
    “But there are people in this country who are real experts on Iraq… and oil, and science and everything else. Like Wikipedia, a compendium of shared intelligence and shared knowledge. On the Today show they might book one or two, or on The Jim Lehrer Newshour – if anyone watched it. But on the web they can all participate….”

    The problem, as I see it, is that these people are not blogging or vlogging; they are simply not participating. I work with hundreds of them in a major university and, with a few exceptions, they do not participate.

    I imagine that most of them are willing to be interviewed, but the vloggers are too busy pointing the camera at themselves.

    Unleash your VJs on the community of experts in universities, research centers and think tanks. In that way, you will greatly expand the voices that are participating and will provide much more depth to the news … whatever that is.

    Better yet, go into those communities and recruit people to be VJs, where each VJ’s “beat” is a university.

  3. John Proffitt

    Michael — You are correct about me, mostly. I work for a nonprofit public media company in Anchorage, Alaska that is one part PBS affiliate (KAKM), one part NPR affiliate (KSKA) and one part statewide news network (APRN).

    What’s interesting about that is that I’m currently in the center of the problem in the public media world — a nonprofit, (ostensibly) public service company that buys commodity news products (NPR, PBS, APM, PRI, etc.) and distributes them via transmitters in our local area.

    We create some content within the company (mostly news), but it is produced exclusively in the traditional journalistic one-to-many I-bring-you-the-wisdom format that is itself a commodity. Our news sounds like everyone else’s news (except we have more moose and bears and whales). And I shudder to admit how much of our news is picked up from reading local papers, getting AP feeds and just reading the press releases that roll in automatically. That just makes our work even more of a commodity.

    The commodity problem is at the heart of the “news” problem (as well as our public media problem) and points toward the new models you’re exploring in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. When news is 100% commodity and everyone reports the same things the same ways and only a few control the levers of publication, then we get what we’ve got. And our democracy dies, little by little. (Hey everybody — bread and circuses in the digital Coliseum! Bring your iPhones!)

    Your earlier post on the possible new mission for PBS stations — to become publishers and promoters of a democratized media — seems to be part of the solution (of course, the baby boomers in charge will NEVER go this route). The public will need help in getting started and could use the power of old-school broadcasting to reach a broad audience and validate new methods using old models.

    Other commenters on this blog have cried out at the notion of the moron next door publishing a “news” story about their dog’s stupid pet tricks, or just plan lying about some news story and I agree that will be a problem. There sure are a lot of morons out there. But that’s a self-correcting problem over time — cream rises to the top and people know quality when they see it. The worriers should remember we’re at the START of this revolution, and we still have to feel our way forward.

    The trick, it seems to me, is to find the right formula for engaging the public in a new form of discourse, in proving that participaton is not futile (as it seems today in traditional media or politics) and carries benefits beyond getting your book club’s poster on TV behind Al Roker. Public broadcasting long ago gave up the “public” part of its mission in many stations. I hope we invite the public back in. Otherwise, we really are the new Rome.

  4. your first time commenter has it correct- do it on a college campus.

    i get the opportunity to walk around the university of chicago from time to time and can tell you i see a dozen topics screaming out.

  5. I have to agree with both Prof. McCann and “!”. I think universities are great places to ’empower’ the brain trust in this country. If we could supply every university prof with a webcam and link them together to participate on critical issues from their home, think what we could build! Its a kind of on-line Oprah, except about issues of real importance… and with content of value….

  6. It’s interesting… I actually formally pitched this idea to my local university this past winter — shooting lectures, doing interviews, having brief “whiteboard” sessions where professors can explain core academic topics in under 5 minutes — and using all that content for online distribution as well as on-air distribution. The baby-boomer interest, and the money, was just not there, even though it would have been a cheap production series (one paid person and a small collection of college interns).

    I think this approach HAS to happen at some point. This is stuff that’s good for the university (exposure/recognition/credit for their expertise and the value they bring to the community), good for the community (access to higher learning resources without paying tuition, smarter public, previews of classes/professors), and good for the democracy in the end, especially as more topics are brought forward and more people are engaged.

    It would be so cheap to produce and the quality would be just fine. Why can’t my — or anyone elses’ — local PBS or NPR affiliate see this?

  7. Michael, the only way that I can see for your CJ site to work and work well too, is if you use some sort of organized discipline. You’ll need a staff to screen all posting, categorize them and rate them for order of importance and quality of reporting as well as production value. Also separate those who posts under fictitious names and those who are willing to put their names behind their work. This will minimize viewers from having to sort out all the crap from the more credible and reliable postings. This will also encourage better CJs to submit material knowing that it will not get lost among a sea of raw sewer.

  8. “It would be so cheap to produce and the quality would be just fine. Why can’t my — or anyone elses’ — local PBS or NPR affiliate see this?”

    How are you judging “quality”?

    By the content of the product or by the technology needed to produce the product? Just because you have one, does not mean you automatically have the other.

  9. I think we can judge quality by the compelling nature of the content. The technology to do this is easy to acquire. The ability to deliver compelling, intelligent and thought provoking work is another matter, and one that is unrelated to the technology. I watch the network evening news aghast at the incredible level of their ‘quality’ in terms of technology and delivery and the paucity of quality in terms of the content they deliver. It is a shocking waste of time, effort and money. Inexcusable imho.

  10. I agree with Nino that this requires some kind of ‘organizational’ presence, but I think we can do it the way that Wiki does, as a mostly self policing community with a few full time editors.

  11. In response to John McCann’s post,

    I´ve been doing some research for a couple of VJ pieces I want to do for fun this week (I do not shoot for a living). I read your comment when it came out and filed it away in the old noodle. I have a super intelligent uncle who was a Dean at Florida State Univ., so I love and know professors.

    I thought about how I could use the professors here (We have the university of SC here) for my VJ pieces.

    There’s only one problem. Professors are, with few exceptions, (hold on here) boring.

    Exactly what would I be shooting? My roommate in college worked for a professor who was claiming at the time that he invented recombinant DNA before the other guy did. He had wild hair and smoked a pipe, and swore with a British accent and was named Ian and stomped around a lab with all kinds of cool equipment. *That* might be interesting for about 8 seconds. Then what? For the most part, professors work on computers, do some lab work, and teach. Snooze.

    If I have to *fill* a news item then I’m in trouble. I had better have 5 minutes of footage (okay get 15 if you are weak 🙂 ), and cut it back to 2:30 or 3 if anyone will watch it (especially on the web.)

    Think of Terri Gross. Her show is only part news, but she can have you listening raptly for an hour. The stories are even more than 3 minutes long. But they keep your attention.

    Terri can get away with interviews, because she interviews famous authors, musicians, etc.

    A VJ will not pull off an interview. They are *boring*. I can put my camera on a tripod and aim it at the two of us and ask the most fascinating questions in the world, but we are still just two people talking – who cares?

    “So, Professor Jimenez, what do you think about the latest immigration proposals from the Sena……..” I just fell asleep writing that.

    I’m afraid that successful CJ will have to be a large percentage of artistry combined with technology. I’ll never light a scene like Nino on his worst day. My content must be *excellent* or I’m done. I think that may be where B-Roll parts ways with VJ. B-Roll is for professionals in the video production business. VJ would be Nino doing art. But that is a leap of faith for a VJ, isn’t it.

    If a VJ is boring, his/her work will probably be boring. If he is terrible with a camera, or at a loss with NLE, then back to working at The Gap, BA in Fine Arts or no.

    Even a print journalist can produce boring work. It might be excellent writing, but it should probably stay in print if it is boring to watch.

    That is not to say that video is only for the sensational, but to get past the boring factor, artistry must meet with sufficient technological savvy. Then all the other topics of credibility, etc. can be discussed. If nobody is watching, then who cares if the video is credible?

    Pro Wrestling usually has good lighting, good graphics, Pay Per View, and great attendance. I’ll let the reader make the connection.


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