Journalism as a process, not an end

Came across an interesting post by Dale Dougherty of MAKE magazine on the O’Reilly blog, in which he writes about how a blog post on the premature burning of the Burning Man was reported by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid on his blog. Dale details how Scott repeatedly updated his post, until it became much like an evolving news story.

More than one person has made the point that hardly anyone cares about whether some wooden structure in the desert built by a bunch of aging hippies was torched a few days early or not, and that is probably true. But Dale’s point is not the nature of the story itself, it’s the process that Scott used — frequent updates, complete with photos.

This isn’t really all that new. Wire services like Reuters and Bloomberg do this sort of thing all day long, filing updates to stories as new information comes in, correcting mistakes, etc. In most cases, newspaper journalists take all of this stuff and blend it into a story that gets published the next morning. But with the Web, there’s no need to pick an arbitrary moment in time and “publish” a supposedly comprehensive story — the story evolves over time.

We can see this kind of thing on some newspaper websites, including the Globe’s, when there is a breaking story — although too often we resort to the traditional story format. Other examples include the entries at Engadget and other blogs when they “live-blog” an event, and the entries at Wikipedia on breaking events, such as the recent highway collapse.

That, to my mind, is effectively real-time journalism, and newspapers should be doing more of it.

5 thoughts on “Journalism as a process, not an end

  1. Jon Udell has a good way of describing this idea. I heard it in one of his podcasts recorded shortly after he joined Microsoft. I’m not quoting it exactly but he talked about how InfoWorld stories were a process, with reader conversation up front and afterwards, with a particularly well-baked part of the process (the published story) in the middle.

  2. Unfortunately too many news organizations (and the journalists that work for them) view a story as the end product. No matter how significantly things change, the story is done and on to the next thing.

    A few years ago, I emailed a reporter at a large daily and mentioned that a key premise of his story was wrong. He refused to believe it; he was on to the next story and didn’t care.

    I went back and took a look at how The New York Times has handled two major disasters in its ethics — Jayson Blair and Judith Miller. Many of these stories still are presented with either poor disclosure of the issues or none at all.

    Most readers of this blog probably know to take with buckets of salt anything by Blair or Miller; but most regular readers would scroll past the byline.

  3. Resounding applause for this — All too often, the real story is the ‘second day’ story, when more facts are available. It drives me crazy to see a ‘breaking news’ story where they just grind the same sensationalistic info for 24 hours and then send the fact-finding to a back page, despite the many efforts of bloggers and others to get the real facts out there.

  4. I haven’t been in or studied the field for a long time, but I think part of the process of a completing a story is the story leaving the writer’s hands and going to the editor(s). Only after that does it get published. The editor ostensibly provides the oversight that allows you to call journalism journalism. How do you keep that oversight in place with small bits and pieces trickling in all the time? Maybe it’s one area where journalism will never catch up with blogs.

    Or maybe there’s a way to retool the process. We toss around the concept of community press and citizen journalism. Guys like wikipedia have proved more or less that community oversight of an unfolding story can work too, and as this blog entry says it worked well with the bridge collapse.

    I wonder what it would take for a regular news source to follow a model like that.

    I’m sure there are other ways, but I’m going out on a limb by saying that’s even the problem.

  5. I think that’s a good point, Troy. Editorial oversight is a key part of journalism — and how that works when a story is taking shape moment by moment is difficult to answer exactly, although wire services seem to do it. And I think allowing intelligent readers to be part of the process makes sense as well.

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