What makes journalism good?
It’s tricky to fit into a pithy description. The efficacy with which it explains the world? How well it “tells a society about itself, acts as a pollinator of information”? Makes it entertaining? Holds it to account? Engenders thought, comment, participation, action?
It’s a beautiful thing to articulate a view of the world that enriches the reader’s own. It’s a trick frequently requiring brilliance, long hours and inky cuffs (RSI, at any rate). It takes facts, opinions, inspiration, speculation, corroboration, statistics, anecdotes, quotations — base ores awaiting transmutation.
Journalism’s paramour is speed — the enemy of quality. Traditionally newspapers have always greased the press liberally to wring the most speed from their production processes. Daily print cycles, multiple morning editions, last minute inserts, fresh covers, hastily distributed errata.
As a story develops, the number of potential viable articles tends to rise linearly over time. Facts emerge, new perspectives come to light, two-cents are thrown in.
For a journalist, there’s a critical mass of unpublished material to be reached before publication. It might just as well be an iPhone snap as months of thorough research, but it’s enough to hit some bar of their own choosing.
In the print world, we’d measure the fastest turnaround between material emerging and publication in hours. If something newsworthy happens at six that evening and is discovered right away, the chances are it can’t be reported on until the first edition tomorrow morning.
And then came the internet. The minimum possible latency between discovery and publication is now measured in seconds. Milliseconds even, if your reporter happens to be a robot. The emergent “live blog” format has popularised the idea of a continuous stream of updates not unlike a Twitter feed.
These are a reaction to an arms race over speed in digital publishing. A key indicator of quality for a news source is how quickly it informs you (or how quickly it reliably informs you). A home page without a piece for the event of the minute loses perceived relevancy. Few prefer to be the second breaking news push notification on the same story.
The challenge of this low latency is that it pushes the cognitive load of collecting, arranging and interrogating information back onto the reader. Traditional journalism summarises the events flow. Live reporting comments on the flow in real time.
It turns out deriving the current state of the story from a stream of updates is really pretty tricky. What are all the facts that are true at this moment in time? Harder still is working out what’s changed since you last looked at the story. It requires you to remember the last state you saw, then process each mutation of the facts sequentially until you arrive at the present day.
At the Guardian, we’ve begun experimenting with some of these challenges on our live pages. The key events panel gives readers an at a glance view of a potentially long running, live updating story.
Writers tag updates as they go. The same labeling will be used to push important developments to users who are following the story on the next release of our iOS and Android apps.
Media companies increasingly need to find ways to sift, prioritise and contextualise in real time and in parallel with the events stream. It’s a subtle but important shift.
We should start to see new formats combining the best of live reporting and traditional journalism, creating stories at once fresh and intelligible.
In short, it’s rather an interesting time to read about cricket.
Thanks to @TomGrinsted for making this intelligible.