Most reporters treat each story as if it’s the first time a reader will encounter the topic. That makes sense in a print newspaper, when there is a good chance that the reader really is encountering a topic for the first time. Because of that guideline, for long-term, complicated issues, experienced reporters develop explanatory paragraphs that can be plugged into the story. Those paragraphs serve three important purposes. One, they ensure that the facts are consistent from story to story. Two, they provide the necessary background for readers. Three, they save time.
On the web, hyperlinks make those explainers obsolete, yet they still work themselves into most news stories people read online because the stories are written for print. Also, some argue, readers don’t click many hyperlinks, so if the background is not provided in that story, they will be left in the dark.
Except, with online news, better ways to present complicated stories exist. The same tools, in fact, could be used for almost any story, whether breaking, one day and gone, or never-ending.
The best was unveiled by Google recently, Living Stories. For months, I have been telling anyone who would listen to me (a small group, admittedly) that if I ran an online news site, one of the core concepts would be “living news,” a name I came up with before I heard of Google’s project. Stories would be presented, more often than not, as bare boned news alerts — just as many journalists do when they tweet a quick news tip or post a short blog to alert readers to look for a longer story later. But then those stories would grow within their own defined space, ideally a stand-alone page that has a portal (with latest news updates) on a landing page.
That growth would not be in the form seen on most news sites right now, where that initial blog post results in a longer story on the website, but blog readers are never told where to find it. Instead, that initial blog or tweet would be the first of what would become an information-packed, online news experience.
The growth could include multi-media offerings, such as embedded video or audio. It could include charts (poll numbers, financial projections, donor lists, and so on). It could include locator maps (this proposed nuclear power plant will be located here…). And as the story developed, whether over hours, days or even years, that growth would continue.
Additionally, links would be provided for related content, both in-house and stories done by other organizations. Live feeds of Twitter updates (or whatever social media is being employed) from readers — especially if there is a hash tag for the topic — would be visible.
And so on.
The keys to this truly working would be collaboration between reporters, editors, programmers and graphic artists. Nobody would have sole ownership of a story, either. Instead, as the story grew, their expertise and creativity would be brought to the table whenever possible. For example, one reporter posts a breaking news story, but another reporter has a much deeper understanding of the long-standing issue, so they add context, background and links. Or maybe a graphic artist can pull together a chart showing previous election results and current poll numbers to show how beatable or unbeatable a politician is in the upcoming election.
The ideas are endless, for almost any story. Yet, the traditional media model hampers this because collaboration is minimal. A graphic artist develops a chart at the behest of the reporter or editor. Other reporters, even if they have background, will shy away from adding their expertise to the story because they fear treading on others work.
Even worse, everything developed is done with the caveat that it needs to work for print. So instead of an interactive Google map, the artist develops a locator map in their illustrator program. Reporters focus on their explainer paragraphs instead of building a library of hyperlinks for background. And in the end, the product is a two-dimensional experience that fails to engage an online audience.