Post-linear journalism: Why the media needs to rethink the story

I recently wrote about the cultural battle around analytics that’s still raging in newsrooms around the world.

While writing that post I noticed that many of the things that we take for granted in digital newsrooms lack well-defined concepts and a conceptual base.

So here’s a few thoughts on that.

How the linear age shaped what the media does today

A lot of the news media we consume today on the web is the way it is because of its past. To understand why some of the news media sometimes feels so weird online, one has to understand how it got that way.

So first, lets look at four things that defined media in the linear age.

1. A fixed time of publication and media consumption

Think about the morning newspaper. The way it was used is pretty clear: in the morning, often while having breakfast or during the commute for about half an hour.

Thus, when producing stories for a newspaper, editors could reasonably expect that a news story was consumed within a very specific time window, most often in the morning hours.

The newspaper as a product and the stories in it were designed to accommodate this.

The news story is a snapshot of roughly the last 24 hours with a special focus on the late hours of the previous day.

A half-life of a classic news story was basically measured in hours. More in-depth reporting or analysis could last relevant for days, but not much longer (as almost all information was tightly tied to the news cycle).

The same is even more true for traditional tv and radio news. Their relevance was meant to evaporate in real time.

2. A relatively constant audience

In a mature linear media environment, the audience for a news product was by and large constant.

Quality print newspaper readers were, generally speaking, either subscribers or loyal buyers of single copies. TV and radio news were listened reasonably faithfully and were a part of the daily routine.

Thus, the news product was built around the idea that the reader would return tomorrow.

Because they returned, it could be presumed that they already knew the information provided in previous issues of the paper of previous broadcasts. This meant that information provided in yesterdays paper was not often repeated, at least not extensively.

This sounds trivial but has huge implications on how information was conceptualised in the linear age.

Information or context was always thought of as accumulating over time by reading a series of separate articles, not primarily from any single article.

3. Coverage as a metaphor for impact and context

The idea of information being accumulated by reading a series of articles from day to day lead to the concept of coverage.

Put simply, coverage meant the total sum of all the stories and the volume of those stories on an issue over a given period of time.

More and bigger stories equaled more coverage.

One could say, for example, that the Presidential race is getting more coverage in the local paper this year. This meant that there were more and bigger stories in the paper during the race than previously.

Coverage was always connected to the linear experience, because the only way to really observe it was to follow the publication from day to day.

Thus, the readers were expected to deduct what the news product thought of as important by following how much ”coverage” an issue was getting over time.

This also sounds trivial but points to two wider points.

First, in a linear environment signalling about the importance of an issue or the depth of the work being done by the media was often communicated implicitly over time, not explicitly in the story itself.

Second, newsrooms generally didn’t need to worry if someone reading todays story understood the wider context, as the context was provided yesterday or was to be provided tomorrow – and the reader could be expected to see those as well.

Thus, the main metaphor for contextual information in the linear age was coverage, which mainly meant a series of articles.

4. Automatic audience

In a linear environment, journalists could often expect to have a relatively large automatic audience for their work.

Once you were hired by a major newspaper, for example, it was pretty much guaranteed that your stories had a huge audience, measured in tens or hundreds of thousands.

Each story had automatic impact.

How this audience got there in first place was a complicated process. Reasons for subscribing to a newspaper, for example, were a combination of the news stories, classified ads, crossword puzzles, the tv guide and other, highly unpredictable things.

Also, the connection between stories and audience numbers was fuzzy.

If there were weeks or days with more mediocre stories, the audience mostly didn’t walk away. This was because subscribing was always about something more than single issues or single stories.

For the journalist, this meant that how a single story was produced was never directly connected to how much audience the story was getting.

This is not to say that the quality of the reporting had no impact on the overall audience numbers. Of course it did, but how this exactly worked was always a kind of mystery. At best, it was indirect.

But generally, for most people in the newsroom, getting the audience to use the product in the first place was someone else’s problem.

From linear to post-linear media environment

By now it should be clear that the web and social media are breaking down – or have already broken down – most of the mechanisms from the linear age.

And yet, many linear story forms and processes survive to this day.

This is because the linear products themselves also still exist and dictate much of what goes on in newsrooms.

To understand the depth of the change, let’s take a look at how the fundamentals are different in a post-linear environment.

1. No fixed time slots of content consumption

Social media has no fixed time slots.

When you share a story or a video on Facebook, it’s first seen by a small sample of people that have liked your page. If the story gets engagement (likes, comments, shares) it’s then showed to a larger group. It gets reshared and, if you’re lucky, reshared again.

If the story is successful, it probably keeps on spreading for days or even weeks. Different people become aware of it at different times.

This is a key difference between a post-linear and linear environments. The window of consumption for most stories is longer.

This is why a video meant for social media, for example, has to be less directly tied to the events of a single day, for example. Because the sharing loop is longer than the typical news cycle, the content cannot get old too fast.

This also spells trouble for the stereotype of the traditional news story. Written as a wrap-up of the last 24 hours and meant to be read during morning hours, is not ideal for a social media environment.

Of course, many newspaper stories never were exactly like this.

News analysis, in-depth reports or interviews age better. But in a linear environment even them are often tied to the news cycle in a way that makes them obsolete in a matter of days.

This can make a story that is just a few days old feel alienating and somehow out of place.

2. A relatively volatile audience

In many countries, social media and news aggregators are the main pathways to news. In some, people navigate to the front pages of media brands (this happens in Finland, my native country).

But for many outlets social (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) and aggregators (Google News, Reddit, Flipboard) are becoming more and more important sources of traffic.

This means that the audience is much more volatile than before.

Audience numbers are more dependent on single stories achieving virality or becoming hits and much less dependent on day-to-day readers.

Loyal digital readers exist, but even their pathways to the content are often more complex than before.

Also, the people who do end up in any given story can not reasonably be expected to have read the previous ”coverage” of the issue in the publication.

Nearly no-one reads a website by scanning through all the stories it has published.

Thus, understanding the wider context of the story as part of ongoing coverage is harder. Also, the reader cannot be presumed to have seen information provided in previous stories of the coverage.

Today, it is much more important to signal these things in the story itself.

Somehow, the story needs to communicate whether the publication considers the issue the story is about high priority or not.

It is also important to intelligently link the story to previous stories that provide context on the issue in general. If this is not done, the reader might not be aware of the wider coverage at all.

In a way, in the post-linear environment, a story becomes an entry point to the wider coverage.

3. Database as a metaphor for contextual information

In the linear age, the metaphor for contextual information was coverage, defined here as a series of articles. In the post-linear age the metaphor is the database.

This is best explained by looking at Wikipedia and the way it is linked to reporting current events.

Think about the war in Syria, for example.

Dragging on for years, many news outlets have covered the war thoroughly and with excellent quality. But a lot of their coverage has come and gone and is mostly sitting unused in a corner of the internet.

If news about Syria breaks now, the context at first is not there. To find that context, digital readers google ”war in Syria” and usually end up in Wikipedia.

Thus, more often than before, context is not learned by following coverage but by searching a database.

But, by and large, news media is organised around the concept of coverage, not database.

Then there are books.

Books are by design meant as vehicles of contextual information with a typical lifespan measured in years. Books still serve this function well.

But in the middle something is missing. The real-time news web is really good at keeping people up to date about what’s going on right now. It is much less good at. keeping people up to date of what all that means.

The linear idea of coverage needs to be complemented by something. Right now, a lot of that is left to Wikipedia.

4. Reach and engagement as measures of impact

As the focus switches from distributing products to distributing single stories, the measures for impact also change.

Circulation is replaced by reach and engagement – both things that were difficult to measure before.

Reach is about awareness.

On social media reach tells you how many people saw your stories in their feeds. It’s how many people opened a newsletter containing links to your stories. Reach is a measure of your passive audience – the people aware about you but not yet engaged.

As we’ve seen, to many newsrooms this audience used to be automatic.

But in a post-linear environment it needs to be constructed again and again, basically around each individual story. This is why distribution of journalism has become a central part of the job for digital newsrooms.

This is why sharing, tweeting and sending push notifications matter. It’s why real-time analytics matter: you can tell if people are even becoming aware of the existence of a story or not.

Engagement, on the other hand, is about active readers.

Measuring engagement has many phases, beginning with the portion of the passive audience that becomes a reader. Clicks.

Clicks are often dismissed as an irrelevant measure for newsrooms, but. this is mistaken: converting a passive audience to an active one is key in achieving impact, and clicks are a decent measure for this.

As a measure, clicks also are the closest thing to circulation: they are an approximation of the active audience but do not alone explain much of what or why the audience actually does.

Time spent on an article is a much better measurement for what the audience actually wants or does.

For a product, the times a person returns in a week or month is also relevant. Understanding how users navigate within the product is also important.

But the main point is that the more non-linear the media environment becomes, the less automatic the audience is.

If a story is not spreading on platforms, many readers will not even be aware of its existence. Without reach, a story is more or less dead.

If the passive readers (reach) are not converting into active readers (by clicking), the experience and connection to the story remain superficial at best.

The audience is not ”simply there”, it needs to be reached, engaged and created, often again and again.

For newsrooms, this is a very different reality than before.

So how could journalism adapt?

As media further transforms from the linear environment to a post-linear world, the distribution and story forms probably will evolve as well. Here’s a few thoughts on what that means and could mean in the future.

1. Stories and products need much more context

As we’ve seen, for an overall picture of a news process, Wikipedia is often better than even the best global news sites.

The same goes for the publications themselves.

It is devilishly hard to find information on what a publication is or what it does from the publications themselves. Few have thorough about pages and even fewer provide a description of themselves on article pages.

But for a reader stumbling on a story from social media, this means that the publication just feels like a ”general news site”, not a brand with a story and worthy of trust.

All this points to a need of more context, both in individual stories and in the publications in general.

2. Stories need to live longer (and get update histories)

Because the sharing and distribution cycles in a non-linear environment are longer (one can find a story on Flipboard, for example, days after its publication) stories need to have longer update tails.

Perhaps news organisations even need to produce more content that has a lifespan of months instead of days. Think about the podcast Serial or long-form articles sold even years after their original publication.

When reporting news that’s spread on social media, reporters could stay on a story longer than just a day or two and work to keep it up to date – either by updating the information or by making sure that links or other elements provide the necessary context.

To keep things understandable, stories could be thought of as having update histories with update descriptions, much like Wikipedia or the apps on App Store do.

This would increase transparency and make older stories feel fresh in a post-linear environment.

An extreme for of this would be a completely separate ”issue page”.

It might look like a combination of encyclopaedic and journalistic information, bringing together all the reporting an outlet has done on an issue.

It could also be modular, attached to the end of other articles to provide context.

3. Analytics matter

Because the audience is not automatic, understanding audience creation, community and story distribution is a key skill in the non-linear environment.

Yet, still, web analytics is seen in many newsrooms as a threat when in fact it is the only viable way for navigating the environment.

Sure, analytics can be abused (if you’re using it to see that people click on Trump stories, you’re using it wrong). But in general, it’s a vital part of the new environment.

4. Stories need marketing plans

It’s not enough to just hit publish in a post-linear environment. Already news desks are pushing stories via social media, tailoring photos for Instagram or using push notifications to bring in readers.

But it’s rare to see this done as a part of the editorial process, something that’s an integral part of every (major) story. Thinking about the way the story looks like on Flipboard, Instagram or Snapchat should be an integral part of the entire production process.

5. Information as a library or database, not coverage

Changing metaphors is also important.

To understand what this means, just compare Netflix, Wikipedia and Spotify to their linear predecessors.

In the linear age, one talked about showtimes, broadcast programming, radio playlists and prime time. On Netflix or Spotify the main functions are search and browsing. There are no showtimes but updates. On Wikipedia, a person looking after a page is not a gatekeeper but an administrator.

Similarly, before one merely ”published” a story. Now the story needs to be delivered as well and the audience built or created.

The way we talk or think about what we do has an effect on what we actually do.

Is ”coverage” the right way to conceptualise information in the post-linear age? Is ”a story” a fragment of coverage or an entry point to a contextual database? Do we ”write new stories” or ”make updates”? Are our job descriptions up to date?

Perhaps thinking in post-linear terms would help us grasp the changes around us a bit better.