In his own words: A selection of Matt Thompson’s blog entries Part 2

The W-bomb

Sept. 22, 2008

You can’t tell from my blogging, but I’ve gotten rather sensitive about the word “Wikipedia.”

Earlier this year, after I’d written my research proposal, I was casting about for a title to communicate the core concept I hoped to pursue. I recalled a whitepaper by Shayne Bowman, Ellen Kampinsky and Chris Willis called “Amazon-ing the News,” which I thought snappily conveyed what they were about. Just before sending it off to the folks at Reynolds, I slapped on the title “Wikipedia-ing the News,” with a little note-to-self to think of something better.

So now, every time my project gets introduced, the word “Wikipedia” is thrust into an expectant void, and opinions are formed before I say the first word about my research. Thus, as I mentioned, I’m a teensy bit sensitive. But it’s probably time to confront the W-bomb head-on.

When I mention Wikipedia, my listener’s full attention turns automatically to the “wiki” part. It’s editable by anyone. All of the tricky issues inherent in the public, anonymous provenance of the site’s information come rushing to mind before we even get to the “pedia” suffix. But that suffix is where my fascinations — and my research questions — begin.

Let’s get the wikinoia out of the way. The news site I’m theorizing will be completely agnostic as to who creates the content. You could make a version of this news site where all content comes from (1) a newsroom of professional reporters and editors, (2) a nebulous and voluntary set of “citizens from the community,” (3) a hybrid of professional journalists and community contributors (more on that much later), or (4) Maureen Dowd. I don’t care. (OK, except for 4, which would be a travesty. I do not in any way authorize the use of my ideas to further MoDo’s influence on the world.)

As I mentioned in my last post, “encyclopedia” is too small and ancient a word to describe Wikipedia. The site has no predecessor for how it organizes archival and contextual information while accommodating breaking news, how itshepherds dozens of competing voices towards consensus, how it manages to make information more valuable over time rather than less, how it incorporates communities, how it became the most search-engine-optimized site on the Web …

The site has no predecessor, period. There’s a ton for news sites to learn from it. And there are many questions to address for how to translate what we learn to a journalism context. It’s not the only inspiration or example I’ll draw on for this project, but it’s a big one.

What is Wikipedia?

Sept. 18, 2008

Or: The 1991 problem

As I sort-of argue in my research proposal, Wikipedia isn’t an encyclopedia, but that’s the best word we’ve got. (Actually I called it a “useful shorthand,” but I meant that to be backhanded.) Given its unbound, dynamic, hyperlinked nature, we just don’t have the vocabulary to really describe what Wikipedia is, so we use the word encyclopedia as a familiar point of reference.

Call it the 1991 Problem. We’re still stuck with the language of 1991 while discussing the technologies of 2008.

Imagine yourself trying to describe an iPhone to an average Joe from 1991. By calling it a phone, you instantly constrain the fellow’s sense of what you’re describing. “Well, yes, it’s a telephone. But it doesn’t have any wires and you can use it from anywhere. Also, the whole thing is a computer that you operate by touching the screen. And it’s sort of a hyper-charged Walkman, too. Oh, and it can tell you where you are on a map, and which of your friends are nearby, and where the nearest pizza place is. And don’t get me started on visual voicemail …”

The iPhone is to the telephone what Wikipedia is to the encyclopedia.

en · cy · clo · pe · di · a [en-sahy-kluh-pee-dee-uh] — noun — 1) a book or set of books containing articles on various topics, usually in alphabetical arrangement, covering all branches of knowledge or, less commonly, all aspects of one subject.

When we say “encyclopedia,” that’s (^) what’s running through the head of Joe from 1991. Wikipedia encompasses a compendium of fantastically diverse pages, some of which are merely collections of links to other pages, each of which features a thoughtful conversation about the material included or excluded from the page. It’s a set of procedures for organizing vast and diverse subsets of information. It’s a sizeable and devoted community. It’s a Web application. “Encyclopedia” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I want there to be a 1991 problem for news. I want to make a news site so novel and amazing Joe wouldn’t even know what hit him

Give a Reporter 5 minutes…

Sept. 8, 2008

I just sat in on a budget meeting/class at the Columbia Missourian, where the topic du jour was city planning and zoning. City editor Scott Swafford gave a wonderfully informative 30-minute spiel on the basics of Columbia zoning.

More than almost anything else, zoning determines a place’s character — what its neighborhoods will feel like, how vibrant its downtown will be. Many of the most arresting local stories originate on this beat, as residents’ notions of what their city can become clash and fuse with each other.

But many zoning stories also dull readers with droning accounts of arcane city planning processes, byzantine rules and obscure details. Scott distilled some of those rules and processes down to a perfectly digestible essence in his 30-minute lecture, explaining, for example, what it means for a parcel of land to be designated “C-3? (general business district). He also walked through the evolution of the principles that now govern zoning in the city of Columbia, giving us a useful backgrounder on the current hot topics and what they mean for the future of the place.

I couldn’t help but think that most residents of the city probably don’t know this information, but would find it fascinating. That’s the type of information reporters and editors often possess in spades, but it appears in their work only in sporadic trickles. If we could easily deliver this sort of background to our audiences, I think we could create a market for more information on this topic, and rescue our zoning stories from the page B4 backwater where they currently fester.

In the coming days, I’ll write more about the information surplus that news organizations enjoy (but don’t employ).


Sept. 3, 2008

Many people use the terms “news” and “journalism” interchangeably. But what is news? I think most folks would say it means what’s new, accounts of the latest developments affecting some corner of the world.

Until recently, newspaper editors defined news as “important developments over the past 24 hours.” Editors of newsmagazines might expand that time horizon by a few days; Web editors will contract it to within a few hours. But there’s no escaping the time-bounded nature of “news.”

My understanding of journalism is broader. To me, journalism is the constant effort to deliver a truer picture of the world as it is. The “latest developments” provide one lens through which to capture that picture. And as long as journalism was primarily delivered by static media, that lens made perfect sense.

The Web, however, makes possible other ways of delivering that picture of our evolving world. It allows us to shirk the tyranny of recency and place more emphasis on context — the information that often gets buried beneath the news.

The title of this blog is a provocative misnomer. I don’t think news is going anywhere anytime soon, and I certainly think it remains a useful way of hooking our attention into the context surrounding the latest developments. But I do want to end the headlock news has placed on journalism. For all our handwringing and speculation, our conferences, our books, etc., news is as old as humanity and will survive us all. What ails in journalism — and what we have the opportunity to fix — is context.

I want to hear much, much less about the future of news, and much more about the future of context. I want to shift the focus of our books and conferences from how we’ll deliver the latest developments to how we’ll help our audiences better understand the state of our world.

For the next nine months, I’ll be at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, attempting to lay out a vision of a news website centered around context rather than time. I’ll be blogging my explorations and discoveries here, and welcoming your insights. Journalism has a moment of great opportunity before it. Let’s figure out how to rise to the occasion.

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