Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Media: The Editorial Problem

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Last week, this blog discussed possible ways to resolve the content-creation void that has increasingly resulted from news media cutbacks and may soon worsen substantially as newspapers shut down their operations. While this strikes me as the hardest problem to resolve in order to maintain a functional news media, as it will inevitably be quite expensive, it isn't the only one. Another significant issue is maintaining relevant editorial decisions such that people still have access to sources that can give them a real indication of what stories are actually important.

One of the most wonderful things about reading a newspaper is that someone (usually a group of editors) has decided what should be in that paper. They have decided what belongs on the front page, what goes below the fold, what goes on page B19, and what doesn't make the cut at all. If the editors do their job well, then their readership has the information they need to make intelligent political decisions. To this day, I continue to be amazed how the reporters and editors of the Christian Science Monitor manage to anticipate international stories that will become important before the rest of the world media takes notice, something I first encountered in 1993 stories about the war in Bosnia. I trust their editors so much that I read the international news section of that paper completely, regardless of whether I think I am interested in a story, because over time that has proven to provide a full grounding in world events.

The most gratifying thing about reading a newspaper occurs not when reading the whole paper, but when one picks out a story about something with a strong interest, but then notices an adjacent article about something completely new. Maybe a diagram or a quote draws attention, and then suddenly the whole article seems worth reading, and turns out to be a real education. That's the power of editorial content--providing the possibility of such serendipitous discoveries.

The whole model of news on the Internet is counter to that kind of event. Editors are considered elitist, even nefarious. People subscribe to RSS or keyword feeds of things that they are interested in, and don't see any other stories. One problem with this phenomenon is that people tend to end up reading only the news that matches their world view, but that can just as easily happen when one chooses a newspaper or network that generally matches their point of view editorially as well. The more dangerous issue is that stories offered up on default gateway pages--the only chance for serendipity--are supposed to use "crowd sourcing" as a form of editorial triage. The more reads a story gets, the higher it appears on the default pages.

I understood the danger of this kind of evaluation back during my only real editorial experience, compiling a summary of news from the outside world for my undergraduate dormitory. I included a section called "They're Talking About It," or stories that I didn't think met editorial muster, but had been so thoroughly covered in the mainstream media that one needed to understand them to be conversant with the outside world. Details of the O.J. Simpson trial, celebrities giving birth, and bizarre crime stories like that of Loreena Bobbitt dominated that section. In a "crowd sourcing" situation, those stories would be tagged as amongst the most important, when in reality they were probably best ignored.

The good news about the editorial problem is that it is not hard to replicate the editorial selections of a newspaper on-line--it's as simple as providing an editorial gateway, and plenty of those exist already in the form of the home pages of newspapers. Furthermore, the job is actually easier since there is no space limitation to worry about. Editors can set an appropriate bar and on slow news days, there will be less news, and on the busy days, there can be more to read.

The main problem is making sure that the editors that make the decisions about those pages can be paid. It would seem that advertising may well be adequate to fund that, unlike in the content collection problem. A secondary problem is making sure that the average person can find those pages, which seems to be a non-issue in the current era since most of these sites are newspaper sites. When a generation grows up without newspapers, it may become more difficult.

There probably will be a need for media literacy in formal education--which is a good idea anyway. A class could point out various editorial sites, go over their reputations in terms of quality and political viewpoint, and have students explore those sites and see if they agree with the reputations. Hopefully, after going through some exercises like that, the students will at least have been exposed to possibility of learning through serendipity, and won't simply rely on whatever the contemporary version of RSS feeds will be in that future era.

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