The operating system for news

A lot of people are looking at the way journalism gets made and rethinking the inputs, processes and outputs for it.

Someone coming from a technology point of view would be forgiven for thinking that the solution to the future journalism is an “operating system for news“.

But as much as we might like to break down news into its component parts and treat it like a blockchain on the way to some rendering machine, the information that makes up a story is not the same as the story itself and the role of that story in making change happen.

As the atomization of news progresses we need to be cognizant of what happens when we put too much weight on data that may not be stable enough to support the subsequent effects of the way a piece of information gets interpreted and socialized.

Just as a little thoughtless bug in a piece of software may cause incredible damage, bad data can do the same thing. It can infect journalism like a virus as it spreads and, as a result, our collective understanding of things.

I’m encouraged to see research indicating jobs for people with journalism skills are actually increasing, appearing in government agencies, banks and marketing firms that need help understanding what’s going on in the world, places that collect and generate huge volumes of data.

There will always be more data to collect, faster ways to process it and more interesting ways to output it. There’s a big market for that because there are big entities built on rich data that will devour it.

But let’s not confuse the job of moving mountains with expressing the human condition. Michelangelo famously said,

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

That’s the really exciting opportunity.  There are stories within the volumes of new data being generated all the time that just need insightful people to reveal them.

If you are working in Big Data you must remember that the search revolution failed to grasp the importance of social. Search people viewed the Internet as an operating system, too. But the Big Data world must grasp the significance of stories and how they affect people’s lives if it is to become as important to the human experience as it wants to be.


A different way of thinking about print newspapers

After the failure of Apple’s Newton you’d have trouble finding anyone who thought a computer that fit in your pocket was a good idea. Perhaps it was better connectivity that was missing, but the subsequent failure with the PalmPilot indicated that wasn’t it either.

The number of reasons for the current smartphone surge goes far beyond the limits of the listicle, but the failure of predecessors did not preclude success for the iPhone and the explosive market that followed.

Now, the number of reasons why printed newspapers will not exist in a few years time would make a long listicle, too, but a change in thinking might alter that apparent inevitability.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t decide whether the recent interest in print is a nostalgic inclination, a flooring of the decline or something different, maybe even something new (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Regardless, there is scope for different approaches to why and how to produce a newspaper.

Photo by Michelle Marshall
Photos by Michelle Marshall

We weren’t exactly surprised to see so much interest in the printed version of Contributoria because we intuitively believed people would like it in newspaper format, particularly if it was designed nicely. But the effect on the business has been more than just a nice-to-have.

First and most obvious is that people understand what we’re up to. The mental leap required for understanding community-powered journalism can be challenging even for people who are in the business. But it only takes one or two seconds to explain it when you can give someone the output of what we’re doing to hold in their hands.

They’re encourged to hear that our business model is about membership in a community, but that sometimes requires an explanation. When they see the newspaper they see quality journalism, and that’s something everyone understands.

Second, it buys credibility. New digital brands can take years to develop. And while we have a long way to go before Contributoria is established and mature people are surprised that we are only 6 months old with such a small team. But the Contributoria team is actually made up of several thousand people working together to create something, not just the handful with email addresses.  The newspaper helps to reflect that.

Third and fourth, the marketing options are very compelling and the commercial opportunities have real potential. We can piggyback distribution off other channels, such as the Guardian newspaper (our parent company), and sponsors intuitively understand the value of being part of a print run.

Let’s be honest, though. That’s all justification. The real truth is that we just really like it.

When we have our monthly meeting I bring a stack of the latest issue and drop it on the table. The reaction from that heavy sound, seeing the beautiful covers layered on top of each other, the smell of ink on paper and then picking it up and turning the page is always, “Ooooohh. Nice!”

It’s very satisfying.  And the writers are always on top of us to get a copy out to them as fast as possible.

Until some sort of virtual reality can replace the sense of touch I think people will always value holding a product in their hands.

Again, I can’t say with any confidence that print has a bright future as a medium. The reports of print’s resurgence including newsstand sales increases at The Guardian, The Atlantic and others have to be viewed as interesting indicators but not promising trends.

In our case, I think people like what the Contributoria brand is starting to become, and print solidifies that.

More importantly, being part of the development of the final product draws people in. People feel a sense of ownership of the product having played a part in its existence whether that’s helping to fund it or to create it.

Is the reinvention needed by newspapers a democratization of their production? We’ll see.

But have no doubt that paper still captures people’s imaginations and will continue to do so as long as what’s printed on it is wonderful.