Continuous News isn’t “finished product” news

No beginning. No end. Continuous.Much has been written in this space about the AR&D strategic platform known as Continuous News. Our definition of the concept was first articulated in my 2007 essay, News is a Process, Not a Finished Product,” and it’s a chapter in our book, Live. Local. BROKEN News. Continuous “real time” News IS the future of online news, because it is designed for the online audience for news, which is Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

We can and should stunt all we like in creating rich content portals, niche verticals, microsites, full local advertising solutions, ad networks and hundreds of other options, but if we’re going to be in the online news business, we must be presenting a Continuous News service. We’re having some truly wonderful success stories with our clients, but we still run into people who want to fight about the core assumptions of the concept.

While we believe strongly, for example, that Continuous News should be presented in blog format, with the latest entry at the top, this is a difficult concept for many to grasp, largely because it’s so different from the “lead story” or “banner headline” of finished product journalism. In the old form, completed stories are presented in ranked order of importance, a ranking determined by the skill, training and intuition of an editor or a producer.

The paradigm of ranked presentation is what the newspaper industry dragged with it to the Web in the mid 90s, which was then copied by the television industry, because, well, that’s the way media companies did it. While it’s an oversimplification to blame industry woes on how news in presented online, the reality is it hasn’t exactly blossomed as a viable replacement for traditional forms of media. Meanwhile, the people who built the Web moved in an entirely different direction, in part, because they knew something media companies didn’t — that the Web is a real time database, not a transport system for content.

And so, from the very beginning, media companies were going up the down staircase, and the results are not surprising. The analogy of pouring new wine into old wineskins is appropriate, with the predictable result of exploding wineskins.

The database-driven, real-time Web doesn’t play well with traditional news items, because the values of the Web conflict with the values of what we call “finished product” news, that which we publish in our newspapers and deliver in our newscasts. Speed, transparency, authenticity and unbundled ubiquity are quite different from that which is bundled, carefully constructed, fully vetted, and complete. It is no surprise that the individual blogs of many media company employees are providing the online oomph for their employers. These are designed for the database-driven, real-time Web, and make no mistake, there is no other kind of Web.

So the conflict between the traditional and the new is innate and deep. Try to convince an old-timer that online news should be presented differently than offline news, and you’ll generally get a harumph and horizontal head movement. The resistance can be extreme. We’ve run into media properties that try to promote a hybrid model, with the “top stories” presented in a block at the top, followed by the continuous news stream.

The perceived assumption with those who resist Continuous News is that people both want and need to have everything summarized for them in one place. We would argue that this is elitist, contrary to evidence, and contrary to the established trends of the Live Web (Seth Godin, Google, Wikipedia-Semantic Web) and social media. The creation of an online finished record, therefore, is a throwback to the days of the Static Web and the logic and reasoning of the late 20th Century. For broadcasters especially, transitioning from the static to the live is difficult, because our instincts and traditions tell us to “gather” an audience. However, television news people understand the word “live” better than other traditional forms of media, so the execution of a vibrant Continuous News strategy can be almost second nature.

Let us also note that “the stream” of information in the Live Web is much bigger than that which any website can produce, which is why we need a strategic approach to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Think of it as a giant funnel through which flows a massive flood of information and data that is much bigger than us. Figuring out how to curate the stream is a problem that many are currently working to resolve, but that should not prevent us from shifting our focus to “live,” because we want to be rightly positioned for where things are going, not for where they have been. If, for example, Facebook becomes “the Web within the Web” as some predict, we will be prepared to adapt to the environment. Too much is fluid today and too much is at stake for us to remain in a Static Web mode.

In the Continuous News model, everything is a breaking event. There is no “lead” story, for the only thing that matters is the time. Bits of stories are sufficient and they can be tied together through search, tags and a “more coverage” button, if we believe that’s necessary. Belief that the audience can’t figure out what’s going on — what’s important — is tied to our finished product news genes, but it’s an insult to empowered consumers. Creating news for the Web that appeals to the lowest common denominator is a broadcast mindset. If we challenge people to move ahead and create an environment in which THEY are in control, we will be rewarded by their loyalty. People “get” Facebook’s “News Feed.” People “get” Twitter. And the numbers for both are northbound, so it isn’t really too much of a stretch to make the assumption that they will “get” what we’re trying to do in the Continuous News world as well.

And beyond all of that is the need to fully understand that this “real time” stream is where all of the news business is headed downstream. It’s much, much bigger than simply a discussion of whether our website output should be a part of it. The Semantic Web itself will be able to harvest all kinds of database files simultaneously to provide facts, context, understanding and knowledge. We must be a part of the stream, and the time to begin is now.

ASIDE: I just learned that Albritton’s new online news venture in Washington D.C. will be presented in a form of Continuous News. Note this quote from the Broadcasting & Cable article:

TBD will never be a finished product,” wrote Director of Community Engagement Steve Buttry in its inaugural post April 28. “We’ll always be in motion: constantly updating, improving and evolving. We’ll be a place you visit to watch the news unfold in real time.”

Here’s a caution for Mr. Buttry. The online audience for news is generally at work, so be careful with hot audio on all that video. We don’t want to disturb the guy in the cubicle next door.

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