The Article is Dead. Long Live the Article.
I come not to bury the article but to praise it. Machined to near-perfection over a century of production, the article is ideally suited to its form. It has developed a well-defined role for each of its elements: lede imparting the latest — the news; nut graph delivering the essence of the story and telling us why we should bother to read the rest; background graph bringing us up to speed; timelines and catalogues of issues and players to set the stage; explanations to give context; quotes from various perspectives; and as many anecdotes and examples as fit in print. All this is prioritized so readers can easily navigate through and extract information and so typesetters in newspaper composing rooms with scarce time and limited space could lop off lines of type at the bottom of a story — bars of molded lead — without losing the essence of it. This is our inverted pyramid. It is the form we teach in journalism school, and with it the skills of summary and abstraction (what is the story? — perhaps the most difficult skill a journalist learns), of evidence and example, of completeness and fairness, of narrative and engagement, of prioritization and news judgment. This is the form that envelops the essential logic of journalism: that any event, issue, battle, or person can be packaged and delivered in so many lines of type. That is what we do.
Given the gifts of geeks with many new media technologies, we’ve enhanced the digital article, adding not just photos but slideshows, and not just slideshows but video and audio. We’ve added explanatory visualizations and graphics that move and interact with readers’ commands. We’ve curated related links to give readers more from our own archives or from anywhere on the web. For good and ill, we’ve added comments. The article is enhanced, improved, updated.
But now let’s deconstruct the article into its core assets. Let’s unbundle its elements just as news publications themselves have been unbundled. Draw that inverted pyramid and its constituent elements and then imagine each as a separate entity in its optimal form. Take the background paragraph. It ill-serves everyone. If you know nothing about an ongoing story, it gives you too little history and explanation — how can you possibly hope to catch up on, say, the war in Syria in five lines of type? If you know a story well, this paragraph merely wastes your time and the paper’s space; readers have had to train themselves to skip over it and find the spot where current information picks up again. The background paragraph is a compromise demanded by the one-size-fits-all constraints of news’ means of production and distribution — that is, print.
Freed from those limitations, what should the background paragraph become? A link, of course: a link to an ongoing resource that is updated when necessary and not every time a related article is written. This backgrounder should be a resource a reader can explore at will to fill in knowledge. The result is more personalized, efficient, relevant, timely, and valuable for each user. The backgrounder can be created by the news organization that links to it or it can be created by anyone else and still be only a link away. It is often a Wikipedia article. The backgrounder becomes an asset, as can other parts of the old pyramid: not fishwrap that becomes worthless in a day or an hour, but something of value people return to again and again. As for other pieces of the pyramid: The explainer section of a story might be better delivered on video with a whiteboard for an expert to draw on; the timeline could be displayed as an interactive element; the list of players could include links to their bios and sites and incorporate a search for headlines about them as well as their Twitter feeds; quotes could link to the source material they were drawn from; the news, if breaking right now, might best come via Twitter rather than in the lede of a story that lags behind as it is rewritten; and so on.
A story can be made up of many assets. Once separated, the storyteller has the opportunity to present, and the reader to take, many paths through them. The well-informed reader on a topic can go straight to what’s new and then leave. The novice can start with the backgrounder, then click over to an explanatory essay, then pick up on what’s new. The reader need not travel to all those assets via links and clicks. The assets can come to the reader by embedding them, as Google embeds Wikipedia into its search results. Envision how the presentation software Prezi works: This PowerPoint competitor forces the creator to organize ideas into groups and then draw appropriate paths through them, paths that can be changed based on the audience. So imagine that what was an article becomes a collection of assets — the latest, the backgrounder, the timeline, the players, etc. — and that the journalist can create distinct paths among them: one for the novice, one for the expert, another for a student, another for the policymaker. Each of those assets — unlike an article in an archive — can be updated as needed. Each of the paths can be personalized based on knowledge and need.
Again, these assets need not all be created and maintained by a single source. So if Wikipedia or The New York Times has a great backgrounder, why recreate it? Link to it. Perhaps then we end up with news organizations that specialize not just in beats and topics but in kinds of assets: the latest (a wire service) or explainers (weekly publications like The Economist or Vox, a startup dedicated to the form) or relationships (a now-gone startup I worked on, Daylife, had algorithms to chart connections among newsmakers) or data (see The Texas Tribune). Of course, the people formerly known as the audience (quoth the Rosen) can also create elements of news. May the best assets win: Link to whatever best informs a user on a given path. May the best paths win: Curate the assets that best get the story across. Maybe the best editor becomes the best creator of paths. Maybe algorithms help create paths by finding the most recommended assets from the most trusted sources. In the end, articles become new molecules that bind atoms from an ecosystem of information.
What would it take to do this? Cir.ca, a mobile news application and site, takes an important step in the direction of unbundling the article. It separates elements of a news story so that the service knows what you have read — and the next time you come back, it won’t repeat the same information it already gave you. It stores elements, such as quotes, separately, so they can be inserted into other stories — for example, what the president says about the German chancellor can be used in a story about him or about her, and that creates metadata around that quote, showing its relationship to various threads and people. In a Twitter discussion, Anthony De Rosa, then Reuters’ social media editor and later editor of Cir.ca, said rearchitecting the article would require new culture and procedures in a newsroom. Instead of thinking that we have to produce a complete article for every event and publishing cycle, we instead find or create assets and build paths, updating each as needed. When I wrote about this notion on my blog, some readers objected. Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of Technology Review, argued that articles must be self-contained. He would not force readers to follow links to get the complete story. I agree with not inconveniencing the reader. But Pontin’s premise — like the presumption inherent in the form of the article — is that every reader is the same and one product can satisfy all equally. That is the core assumption mass media had to make: we shared the same interests, information, and needs. That is the fallacy and the weakness of print.
In that conversation with De Rosa, Pontin, and others, I heard journalists fret that they would need new technology — a new content management system (CMS) — to allow them to do all that I suggest. Cir.ca is built atop such a new structure. But we already have the key technology we need to disaggregate the article: the link. Case in point: A few days after the discussion, I was reading an article in The New York Times about cancers being linked to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. The article summarized the findings and linked to the official decision and to source material that listed every one of the 50 cancers. I am personally interested in that list, so I clicked the link. Most people would not be as interested. Their trip through the news need not be cluttered with the details I wanted. The link, in a rudimentary sense, allows The Times to give each of us different paths through the information it delivers: inverted pyramids, crafted and prioritized for each of us. Imagine how far we could take that in reinventing the form and delivery of news. The article is dead. Long live the article.