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Journalism From searching to learning

Digitization & Media Last update: Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Tags: Jonathan Stray, journalism, journalism theory, learning, media theory

A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon an interesting post by Jonathan Stray about journalism as an editorial search engine. It describes journalism as a system for learning about the world.

Jonathan Stray is an editor of the news agency AP, and in his view, journalism should take an even stronger guiding function. It is still too much focused on telling its own stories, an inadequate approach for today's plenty of information. We rather need a hybrid journalism using editorial and algorithmic news aggregation, realized by journalists-programmers. Some ideas and additions regarding this topic.

The word "write" in various sizes
Writing, writing, writing… Does journalism lose its guiding function because it focusses to much on writing stories?

License: WRITE by Karin Dalziel, CC BY

Ethics of aggregation

In order to reach this goal, journalism today still lacks a kind of "ethics of aggregation", which Stray defines as the simple idea of "Other people's content is content too":  

It’s very hard for the culture of professional journalism to accept this idea, the idea that they should leverage other people’s work as far as they possibly can for as cheap as they can possibly get it, because many journalists and publishers feel burned by aggregation. But aggregation is incredibly useful, while the feelings and job descriptions of newsroom personnel are irrelevant to the consumer. As Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy put it, “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else,” and the idea that a single newsroom can produce the world’s best content on every topic is a damaging myth.
Jonathan Stray

As a reader, I still get the impression that editorial staff is driven by some linking guidelines, based on the misinterpretation of SEO to use the least amount of links possible, especially not links towards the competition. But "competition" is a word which might be important in economic areas, but should not have a right to exist in journalism, as far as I am concerned. This is not only purely idealistic, but also practical: If a reader does not want to stay, he won't stay, and no "please do not link to external sites" policy of the world will lock him into his own browser.

I see two possibilities to deal with this situation:

  1. The user takes a look at the own content, navigates somewhere else and discovers that the other content is also good.
  2. The user takes a look at the own content, navigates somewhere else and discovers that the other content is also good. In doing so, he remembers how he found this valuable content, possibly even making him think about the source in the future.

Everyone should for herself decide which of these possibilities is preferable. Personally, I did already limit my usage of popular news sites because I grew upset about having to manually search for the referenced, but not linked source. Phrases like "scientists found that…" are not useful for readers.

The loss of Rivva: Where is the guide?

Since the loss of Rivva, there is a huge gap in the German blogosphere, making it hard to find interesting topics. If a site repeatedly points me to interesting contents which I would have never found otherwise, ideally even making it possible to adjust it to my interests using diverse RSS feeds… I really do not see why that should not be a business opportunity. And isn't this overview not only practical, but an integral part of the journalistic profession?

A great example of this guiding principle from a journalistic viewpoint is the great research by Andy Carvin about the question whether there are really weapons from Israel used in the conflict in Libya. Andy Carvin and his followers collected evidence making this claim doubtful. He would never have found this voluntary help if he had not excelled in being a valuable promoter and evaluator of information about the Arab world for weeks.

Journalism as learning about the world

At the end of his post, Stray uses a phrase hitting me like a bomb. It contains an idea I've never had before, although it fits my personal focal areas very well:

What I am suggesting comes down to this: maybe a digital news product isn’t a collection of stories, but a system for learning about the world.
Jonathan Stray

What I like about his are the following thoughts:

  • constant re-orientation: The idea behind phrases like "life long learning" is valid for journalism as well: To understand the world, we constantly have to orientate ourselves over and over again, always revising our assumptions.
  • focus on the user: The idea of journalism as a system for learning focuses on the user. It is not the journalist who understands the world and passes his knowledge over to the readers. However, it is the user who selects a journalistic product based on his questions and interests, because he is looking for answers. This shift in focus leads to a couple of interesting questions which are often ignored, e.g. concerning the right presentation of journalistic content.
  • focus on the process: A "journalism" system would ideally learn during this process, like a teacher who constantly revises his lessons based on the reactions of students. Journalism could as well evaluate its reporting and the effects it has on readers. The conclusions could lead to an even better journalism.
  • being open to forms of presentation: Understanding journalism as a system for learning means asking the question of the ideal presentation of subjects. This leads to a couple of interesting fields of study, like the multimodal design of a post. This also avoids naive views like " I don't mind the form of presentation because each topic can equally well be presented in any form" or "the form of presentation or medium x is superior and will therefore save medium y".

[via Medial Digital]