News is Not a Story

December 22, 2010

Technology that connects all of us in real time is allowing for new definitions, systems and considerations as we look at this thing called "news," and it will change the news content "industry" forever. Things that we have taken for granted for centuries now require the glare of skepticism, because while we're comfortable with the roots that put us where we are, we must admit that this is a new place. Did the fathers of "the press" ever imagine a day like this?

So let's set aside our assumptions for a minute and consider the word "story." It's more than just a word.

The Hardy BoysI grew up with Frank and Joe, The Hardy Boys, a fictional series of books about teenage boys solving mysteries that were written by a variety of authors under the collective pseudonym of "Franklin W. Dixon." Much of my sense of curiosity and my ability to solve complex issues originated with my love of the Hardy Boys stories, and while politically correct historians have tried to paint the books as fostering everything that's wrong with being a white man, I owe much to those wonderful stories. Perhaps that's why there's so very much wrong with me.

Stories have been around since the beginning. They are the way cultures have passed down everything from history to laws to philosophy. Ancient proverbs, from the West to the East, have been given — often in story form — as a way for one generation to pass along its wisdom to the next.

But what exactly is that story form? Wikionary defines a story as "An account of real or fictional events." There are great storytellers and there are not-so-great storytellers, and they all strive to create something — from scratch — that has a beginning, a middle (or many middles) and an end.

I've written a few stories in my life. I published a series of spiritual fables in 2006 that I'd written over many years, and I learned that the hardest part about writing a book — which is actually just a series of complex and interwoven stories — is to create a working outline. That's where the real creativity is expressed; the rest is just prose. Putting words on paper is one thing, but weaving those words onto the skeleton of a story is the real challenge. What's the beginning, the middle and the end?

Like other stories, accounts of news events have beginnings, middles and ends, too, but we're at the dawn of an era when that may no longer be sufficient. The more I think about this, the more I'm convinced that the story form for news is and always has been artificial, a mechanism suited to serve only the production cycle of publishing and not the news itself. Today, technology is allowing us to view news another way — as it's happening — and that spells trouble for those institutions who live on the news "story."

News reports or stories are the core of finished productions, whether those are print or broadcast. The crafting of a story is an art form that appeals to those drawn to the content side of the news business, and the word "storyteller" is an honor granted to the best. Stories are awarded for excellence, and scoops presented in story form are the goal of anyone who carries the badge "reporter."

The news isn't biased, but the storyteller is. Facts aren't biased, interpretations are. It's in turning the event, the issue, the problem, or the investigation into "the story" or "the report" that produces the bias. We humans intuitively know this, and so we judge the news by the people presenting it, whether that's done in print, audio or video. We've lost trust in the press, because we've lost trust in its storytellers.

If we could present the news in non-story form, it would lose much of the problematic bias of storytelling. We would also be working in sync with the back end of the Web, because the Web efficiently feeds on that which is new, not that which is presented in story form regardless of how beautiful those stories read to us. The Web doesn't care. Its spiders hone in on information that's new, and isn't that what "news" is all about?

This is not merely a semantic argument.

We teach our clients Continuous News, which is presented online in blog format. Continuous News isn't "finished news," so there's no need to present items as finished stories. Traditionalists have difficulty with the concept, so an ongoing event often gets a single entry updated many times rather than presenting new items as the news advances. The problem with this is that the search engines view each item as "new," whereas a single entry updated isn't seen the same way. This is what I call paying attention to the front end of content presentation, while the Web cares only about the back end.

In a recent event involving the death of a law enforcement officer, one client updated a single item 18 times during a 5-hour period, because the tendency for traditional media is to package facts into a story. The station was first to report the incident, and Google News Alerts picked it up right away, but each of the updates went unnoticed by Google. That's 18 times that Google News Alerts could have sent people to the station's site but didn't, because the news department wanted to make the "story" complete for users.

Here's a tip for everybody. People are very capable of figuring things out for themselves. Besides those 18 items could all have been joined by tags and links.

This is not to say that stories don't have their place in current events distribution, but if we can stop calling them "news," we can figure out other programming concepts that involve them. Perhaps "stories" in a news context deserve another title, because in today's definition of news, they just seem so, well, old.

One of the essential arguments of postmodernism is that the grand narratives — the big themes and stories — that hold our culture together all begin with someone's point-of-view, and that if such narratives can be deconstructed, we'll learn just that. History, postmodern philosophy teaches, is really just a connected series of assumptions based on what the ruling elite of the time believed or needed to advance the culture.

This is one of the reasons — perhaps the biggest reason — that Wikileaks is seen as such a disruption to the Western status quo. Wikileaks is an exercise in deconstruction, because the real thoughts of the diplomatic corps prove that the public is fed one thing, while the government thinks and functions differently. The modernist hierarchical rule is undercut, because the truth is out, and that truth rarely matches with the assumptions of the grand narrative.

This is why Jay Rosen's work is so important as our culture advances in the hyperconnected age. More than any other current observer, Rosen targets the press and the narratives produced by people with access through confidential sources. In the elevating of its own status in the culture, the press now finds itself in league with those whose power derives from pulling the wool over the collective eyes of the masses. Now that we're all connected, this is a problem, because, as Rosen has brilliantly pointed out, we can not only talk back to the press, but we can talk to each other. This is new under the sun, the importance of which can't be overstated in an era of change.

So the concept of the story, big and small, has played a significant role in the rise of the modernist culture, and it shouldn't shock anyone that "the news" of the hyperconnected universe — the postmodern era — is in real time bits and pieces. It's a very honest form of news, and one that allows us all to participate in the process and make up our minds together.

Dave WinerDave Winer has created or helped create blogging, RSS, RSSCloud, OPML, Podcasting and many other new media tools, all based on the real time aggregation and assembly of streams of information. However, history will record his "river of news" concept as his most significant contribution to the media culture of the 21st Century. Winer's river is the ultimate end of all of these tools, the way news will be displayed for all to see downstream. It will be bits and pieces along with some stories and ads in unbundled form.

My thinking has been strongly influenced by Dave's ideas (2007: News is a Process, Not a Finished Product), and our "Continuous News" clients are all reaping the benefit of that. Now their competitors are picking up the mantle and running with it themselves. They have no choice. The audience is demanding it, and it's just a matter of time before this is the standard for news, not the exception.

The story served us well during a previous era, just as the concept of family trees served families well in an age gone by. In today's world of stepfamilies, the tree is an archaic, romantic symbol of what used to be, and so it is with stories and the news. The concept can still serve us well, but let's stop calling it "news." All stories include some form of bias, and that's all right. Perhaps by separating them from the definition of news, we can find a better use for the perspective they bring.