The New News Curator

February 14, 2010

children entering the museum, circa 1950s - courtesy Grand Rapids Public Museum 'The Presence Of The Past' photo displayMy passion for the creative and my love for all things nature came from trips as a boy to the Grand Rapids Public Museum. I owe a lot to that place — especially the traveling exhibits that came to my schools — and I always thought it would be cool to work at a museum.

This is on my mind of late, because I've been increasingly encountering the word "curator" as it relates to new journalism. A curator is a person in charge of organizing an exhibition, and we're all familiar with the term as it relates to museums. A museum curator is the person responsible for what's displayed and how it's displayed, and the same is true for journalism's new curators. A museum exhibits the past; journalism exhibits the new, and so the term is highly appropriate.

Here's how Webster's defines the word:

one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit

The word is increasingly finding its way into discussions of new media, because it emphasizes more the role of what's displayed than how it's displayed. Historical news curators are called "editors," but in contemporary discussions about what's happening with journalism, the role of the editor is often about how it's displayed more so than what's displayed. I'm referring to the vetting of reporters' work, the policing of copy and providing the "check and balance" that those critical of, say, bloggers like to use to argue for the supremacy of the old.

But the role of the curator in the news business is of vast importance today, and it will become even more important tomorrow. The "collection" that yesterday's editor had to display came from wire services, press releases, regional affiliations, group connections and, of course, her own staff. But the collection of today's curator is much, much broader, because the explosive growth of personal media has turned anybody into a contributor. This is why contemporary arguments about journalism continue to miss the mark. We're hung up on how news content is to be displayed, when we should be paying more attention to the collection itself.

Jeff JarvisOne of the early users of the term "curator" for journalists is new media visionary, Jeff Jarvis:

Every priesthood, it seems, is having a fit over loss of its centralized control: How dare people pick what they like without history degrees or share what they know without journalism degrees! The nerve!

Except the irony in this comparison is that journalists need to learn better curatorial skills. Yes, in a sense, they've always curated information, collecting it, selecting it, giving it context in their stories. But now they have to do that across a much vaster universe: the internet. I hear all the time about the supposed problem of too much information online. Wherever you see a problem, I advise, seek the opportunity in it. There is a need to curate the best of that information (and even the people who gather it). We have many automated means to aggregate news (including Daylife, where I'm a partner). Curation is a step above that, human selection. It's a way to add value.

So the editor of the past and the journalist of the past had to curate news directly from sources of news and witnesses. Today's curator must also examine the "reporting" of millions of new voices in the mix. Don't think so? Where are people going these days during times of breaking news? Twitter, of course, where the fire hose of output is filled with all kinds of "reporting." And Twitter is but a small example of personal media.

In the "New News Organization" (NNO) model that Jarvis has come up with, the curator role is front-and-center. The image below is from Jeff's PowerPoint and it shows the news ecosystem in a hypothetical market. The NNO aggregates and filters news coming from the community itself. This includes hyperlocal sites, blogs, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and much more. That filtering is the role of the curator. Jeff — and I think rightly — views the New News Organization as equally generating its own content and curating that which the community itself creates.

Courtesy Jeff Jarvis and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism's 'New Business Models for News' program

Curating the community is different than curating sources of vetted journalism.

  • It's continuous — When editors view the work of their subordinates, they're vetting completed stories. Curating the community, however, requires vetting the process of newsgathering, not the finished product. This means that some traditional vetting has to be done in-house, and not in the field.
  • It's unfinished and never-ending — Community news is real-time news, so there's never a "finished product" goal, except as it relates to the finished products of the enterprise doing the curating. But even when that is put to bed, the process of curating continues. To parrot the late Ellen Goodman: It's a bit "like being married to a nymphomaniac; Every time you think you're done, you have to start all over again."
  • It's harder — While I'm certain tomorrow's curators will get to know the people whose work they are curating, there's no question the job is more difficult than simply functioning as a editor over a staff of professional journalists. Decisions carry different consequences, because aggregating the community is never going to be like the manufacturing process for creating finished product news.
  • It's personal — One of the reasons it's harder is because it's personal. In today's professional journalism world, we're taught that we are NOT what we do, but as identity shifts to a blended reality, we WILL become what we do. Personal media will carry the identity of its makers, and I think this may be a bigger deal than we think. Personalities as part of the news? Who knew?
  • It's listening instead of broadcasting — Traditional media curators/editors are vastly more concerned about how THEY are reflected to the community, so most of our policies and procedures are about the outbound display of our exhibition. New news curators will have to be highly skilled at listening, because separating the gems from the noise will require the ability to gets one's arms around the enormity of that which is being created. My community recently went through a snow event, and the school system was roundly criticized on Twitter for not responding quickly enough. A contemporary curator wouldn't know that unless they "listened" to the community of Twitter users.
  • It's a lasting value proposition — The value prop here is that "we will curate the fire hose that is 'news and information' and present it to you in an on-going, consumable fashion." This is the mantra of the New News Organization, and it should be ours already. This is the good news of being the new news curator. It guarantees relevance for tomorrow, because we're right in the thick of all the creating that's taking place across the community. It's as if the people formerly known as our audience are telling us what the news should be, and while that may seem a bit like the sheep leading the sheep to elitists, it is very much a part of the new world into which we are being thrust.

Clay ShirkyCurators — if future curating is to be a purely human endeavor — are the people to which philosopher Clay Shirky refers when he speaks of the fallacy of "information overload."

By the time that the publishing industries spun up in Venice in the early- to mid-1500s, the ability to have access to more reading material than you could finish in a lifetime is now starting to become a general problem of the educated classes. And by the 1800s, it's a general problem of the middle class. So there is no such thing as information overload, there's only filter failure, right? Which is to say the normal case of modern life is information overload for all educated members of society.

...So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information? And, you know, my answer to that question has been: the only group that can catalog everything is everybody.

"Filter failure" is a common theme of Shirky's, and he's absolutely correct. And this is the opportunity for the New News Organization and for all journalists of tomorrow. Technology can "filter," but it takes (at least so far) human interaction to turn filtered information into that which can be consumed and understood by others. Everybody may be participating in that, but to date, the best filters are those — such as Gabe Rivera's TechMeme, which groups together news items by idea or "meme" — by someONE who can provide an element of human knowledge and understanding.

I've recently been discussing the curating of YouTube with a former film student, Jimmy Harris, whose life is YouTube. YouTube allows users to "connect" various actions with Twitter and Facebook, so when Jimmy reviews a video via his YouTube channel, he automatically tells those who follow him via Twitter (@thebluearmy) or Facebook that "this clip is worth watching." In so doing, he's vetting the fire hose that is YouTube and filtering results for friends. There is a future business model here, I'm certain, and I hope Jimmy finds it.

To young people just beginning this adventure, my advice is always to "go forth and make media," because, well, they can. I do believe, however, that for some, the idea of beginning life as a curator has significant potential for the future, for the personal brands of all the writers will need the personal brands of all the curators to help people access their work.

And so the New News Organizations and the personal curators will exhibit the work for many others to see, just as the guy did who made my childhood so rich at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Come to think of it, I owe my all to a rather large group of curators of all different stripes, although I never met them, knew their faces or even knew their names. The question for the journalists of tomorrow is will that be sufficient for you?