Journalism 2.0: Breaking News Has Broken News

Jeremy Evans says journalism is overdue for a digital reboot.

This article was originally published in Cofounder Magazine.

How do you feel when you first read the news in the morning?

Scanning headlines probably results in a variety of emotions. But when it comes to politics, economics, and world news — the ‘important’ stuff — chances are your thoughts are tinged with something else. A mixture of guilt, embarrassment and insecurity at how little you know about that topic, like you’re back at school and haven’t revised properly for an exam.

If this doesn’t happen to you, then you’re in the minority. The fact is most of us are vastly uninformed about the world we live in. For journalists, politicians and businesses trying to communicate with their audiences, it’s the elephant in the room. And it’s a problem.

It’s a problem because it affects how we’re represented. A global IPSOS MORI survey last year showed the gap between public perception and reality on topics like the numbers of pregnant teenagers, immigrants and the unemployed. This puts great pressure on politicians to deal with issues in an unbalanced way in order to get our votes. Lack of understanding has big implications, and I don’t believe we can lay the blame at politicians’ door.

I consider myself first and foremost a journalist, but I founded my startup Explaain after coming to the conclusion that was difficult to swallow: people are uninformed and we — the media — are to blame.

A victim of the web’s success

The irony is that in 2015 we have access to more information than our ancestors could have dreamed of. Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales’ dream was to give us access to “the sum of human knowledge”, but the resulting information overload is only one half of the battle. Half of all data in the world was created in the last two years, but not half of the knowledge. What we’re really missing is understanding.

Journalists have been writing in articles for hundreds of years. Somehow we’ve ended up ‘embracing’ the web by using it mainly to write more articles.

The web has seen plenty of disruption in all sorts of areas of journalism, from speed to personalisation to the surrounding social ecosystem. But there are gaping holes.

One key element that seriously needs an update is the article. Journalists have been writing in articles for hundreds of years. Somehow we’ve ended up ‘embracing’ the web by using it mainly to write more articles. Every technology giant emerging in recent decades has redefined the interface their industry had previously used. In an era where traditional journalism as an industry is in jeopardy, why can’t we do the same?

News is about the ‘now’ — but it’s also about context.

Whether we like it or not, journalists are teachers. A teacher’s job is not to give students maximum information as quickly as possible, but to break it down, clarify it, explain it and repeat if necessary — that’s how people learn. It’s the same with journalism: the more information that is thrown at the reader, the higher the risk that very little sticks.

Journalists are obsessed with the ‘now’: the idea that information that appears old is somehow less valuable. There’s a lot of truth in this and it has always been a journalistic pursuit, but in a few decades the acceptable time frame of the ‘now’ has accelerated from ‘within 24 hours’ to ‘within a few minutes’.

It’s a race to the bottom. Short-term financial pressures mean that selling more ads requires getting more clicks on your story, which means getting there first. But as access to up-to-date information and channels that deliver it spreads wider and wider, journalists and publishers have lost their monopoly on news. Pursuing the ‘now’ is simply not a sustainable industry.

So in an age of almost limitless access to information, what the journalism industry and its audience both desperately need is the thing that news forgot: context.

When we read a news article for the first time, too often we’re like an Android phone attempting to install an iOS update: desperately trying to process new information on something we know nothing about. Without an understanding of the issue — how it’s developed, who the key players are, where the arguments are leading — do we really stand a chance of seeing the implications of today’s headline? Or even remembering more than the basic facts?

Journalism 2.0

My view is that journalism is ripe for disruption, and any innovation we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. New sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight are pushing at the boundaries of ‘explainer’ journalism, and startups like Shorthand and Timeline are exploring new ways of interacting with a story. Big data and open knowledge databases like the new Wikidata project are yet to be fully tapped into.

At Explaain we’re building new technologies to transform the experience of reading the news — instead of feeling like you’re being lectured to, we want readers to feel like they’re interacting with a personal tutor. But we’re also taking a step back from the news and focusing on the issues behind it.

I hope the experience of reading the morning news will be very different in years to come.


Originally published at www.cofmag.com on November 6, 2015.

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