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November 08 2010


Energy-efficient journalism, urban planning for news

I came across a great story in The Economist last night — a look at emerging systems of urbanism, part of the magazine’s “Special Report on Smart Systems.” In cities large and small, eastern and western, established and nascent, planners are attempting to bring some of the systematized logic of the world of digital design — strategic centralization coupled with strategic individualization — to bear on the urban landscape.

Take PlanIT Valley, an area just outside Porto, Portugal — which, borrowing the “service-oriented architecture” concept from the design world, is attempting to build itself into “the world’s smartest city.”

Much of the city, which is to cost about $10 billion, will rely on prefabricated parts; its foundation, for instance, will be made of concrete blocks that come with all the gear for smart infrastructures pre-installed. Eventually the entire city and its buildings will be run by an “urban operating system” that integrates all parts and combines them into all kinds of services, such as traffic management and better use of energy.

It’s a neat idea, for informational infrastructure as much as architectural: an urban operating system. Energy-efficient, generally efficient. An approach to civic space that is strategically comprehensive — the product not merely of collective efforts, but of collaborative ones.

We often talk about news as a collective endeavor, as an “ecosystem.” (In fact, if you’re in NYC tomorrow evening, in fact, you can attend Columbia’s 2010 installment of its “Changing Media Landscape” panel, an event whose title is as apparently unironic as it is permanent.) Culturally, though, and viscerally, we tend to understand journalism as a fundamentally individualistic enterprise: A world of beats and brands, of information that is bought and sold — an epistemology built upon ownership. And we tend to see ourselves within that structure as a system only in the broadest sense: small pieces, loosely joined. Very loosely. Individual news organizations — among them, increasingly, actual individuals — decide for ourselves the scope of our coverage, the way of our coverage, the details of our coverage. Because it is our coverage. While, sure, the market rewards niche-finding and, with it, comprehension — and while, sure, we’re certainly in conversation with other outlets as we go along — still, with notable exceptions, most of the discourse we have with our peers in newsgathering plays out via the calculation of competition. In general, we’re all Darwinists. Which is to say, we’re all capitalists — even when we’re not.

Ironically, though, the net result of that core individuality, for all the obvious good that comes from it, is often some form of redundancy. “Designs are often used only once, most buildings are not energy-efficient, the industry produces a lot of waste, and many materials are simply thrown away,” The Economist notes of industrial-age planning strategies, going on to cite a Harvard Business School case study finding that the waste in question accounts for a whopping 30 percent of construction costs. The architectural impulse toward ownership — in this case, the idea that urban spaces’ constituent structures should be singular rather than systematized — is both a means to beauty and artistry…and an inefficiency that’s quite literally built into the system of production.

A similar thing happens in news: In attempting to apply the aesthetic of individualism to a pragmatic public good, to put our stamp on it in a craftsmens’ guild kind of way, we often produce work that is unintentionally, but necessarily, wasteful — because it is unintentionally, but necessarily, duplicative. (Forty reporters covering a single press conference; 2,000 covering the Chilean miners’ rescue, etc.) Just as there are only so many ways to design an office building, or a parking structure, or a green space, there are only so many ways to structure a single news story. But structure that story we do, each of us outlets, because our individual missions are just that: individual. So we repeat ourselves. Repeatedly. And we resign ourselves to the repetition. (Google “Obama + coconuts” today and you’ll get over 2 million hits. Make of that what you will.) And then, because we need some way to control the crowded content of our own creation, we rely on external engineers — Twitter, Facebook, The Huffington Post, Google News — to impose order on the chaos. The coders become the curators become the arbiters. The news, as a civic space, ends up outsourcing the design of its own traffic flow.

Which may be fine. The whole point of a system, after all, is to overcome fragmentation with collaboration — which is exactly what we’re seeing play out, organically, in our news ecosystem. But what if, at the same time, we were more intentionally systematic about the news we produce? What if we applied the operating-system logic to journalism? While there’s certainly a systemic role for redundancy — duplication in journalism provides a crucial check against error, exaggeration, and the like (and, of course, it’s in nobody’s interest to develop the first one to come over the over-centralized oversight of news) — there’s something to be said, I think, for being more broadly collaborative in our thinking when it comes to the news that we — we, the news system — serve up to consumers. (Who tend to care very little about the proprietary structures — the beats, the brands — that defines journalists’ work.) A do what you do best; link to the rest mentality writ large.

The model we saw on display in outlets’ recent collaborations with WikiLeaks could be instructive; a nice balance of competition and collaboration could be one way to bring an digital-design sensibility to the news. Collaboration is no longer the province of utopians and/or nerds; increasingly, it’s defining the systems that are, in turn, defining us. Just as architecture understands that empty space is its own form of structure, journalism increasingly appreciates that connection — links, relationships, permeable borders — is a kind of content unto itself. Openness is architecture.

In a post earlier this year, Josh advocated for the development of a New Urbanism for news, a system of information delivery that offers “a retrenchment from endless sprawl, the construction of concentrated experiences, a new consciousness of how we obtain and consume.” As abundance edges out scarcity as the defining factor of our news economy, we’ll increasingly need to think about news production as a dialectic between creativity and containment. And as a system that, for the good of its consumers, balances the benefits of competition with the complementary benefits of collaboration.

Image via peterlfrench, used under a Creative Commons license.

September 28 2010


“The news we get is McDonald’s”: Communications scholar Pablo Boczkowski on imitation in the news

As journalists, and as users of the web, we have ample opportunity to be creative. There are tons of stories out there — many more than there are, at any moment, journalists to cover them. In fact, the most common worry you hear in our little future-of-news sphere has nothing to do with a dearth of stories…it’s that important stories might go uncovered.

Why, then, is there so much imitation — repetition — redundancy — in our professional media ecosystem?

Pablo Boczkowski, a communications studies professor at Northwestern, has literally written the book on that question. News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance explores the matter (more accurately: the problem) of redundancy. And at a talk yesterday at Harvard’s Kennedy School, part of the STS Circle series of interdisciplinary discussion, Boczkowski highlighted one particularly fascinating element of the book: the paradox that an increase in the volume of information available to us is occasioning a decrease in diversity of news’ content. We’re increasingly getting from news organizations, and producing, what Boczkowski calls “homogenized news.”

Boczkowski’s research, I should note, was limited to two mainstream newspapers, Clarín and La Nación — in Argentina. And its content analyses, which examined 927 print and 1,620 online articles, were conducted between 2005 and 2007, as was its ethnographic study of the newsrooms and consumers in question. So, grain of salt, etc.

Still, though, the study and its findings highlight a phenomenon we see implicitly, if anecdotally: a kind of group-think among journalistic brands, imitation and replication. “Pack journalism,” as it were, applied to content itself. As Pew’s State of the News Media report put it in 2006, “The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories.”

Boczkowski attributes this phenomenon to factors both structural and situational. While, in the past, news organizations were, for the most part, aware of their competitors’ stories only after they were published, the web allows news organizations to monitor each others’ content in real time. The increase of their online presence has occasioned a “lifting of the veil of opacity in the social field,” Boczkowski put it; news organizations now have a window into the workings of competitors that is pretty much always open.

And they’ve instituted processes to keep their gaze trained on those competitors. The papers Boczkowski studied have introduced a role in their staffs that they call the “cablera” (loose translation: “the cable guy”): someone who sits in the center of the newsroom, all day (lunch eaten at desk), and whose job it is to monitor the web, radio transcripts, cable feeds, and, of course, competitors’ websites. Constantly. The cablera then sends relevant updates, via IM, to staffers — resulting, Boczkowski said, in a kind of “constant bombardment” on all sides. And staffers, in turn — with the help of the information provided by the cable guy — are expected to produce six to eight stories a day, in addition to updating the existing ones as needed.

It’s an environment, in other words, that lends itself implicitly to story imitation — as, really, a matter of pure pragmatism. Creativity requires time; the brand of “churnalism” (or, more recently, “hamster-wheel journalism“) that the studied papers seem to expect of their reporters, Boczkowski argues, drives content replication — and, thus, homogenization. Add that to the cultural incentives toward imitation — essentially, there’s a downside risk in missing a story that competitors have, without a countervailing risk for being repetitive — and you have an environment the encourages cross-outlet homogeneity. And, conversely, discourages creativity, enterprise, and innovation.

Which is particularly unfortunate, Boczkowski said, because — in addition to the obvious structural problems that encroaching homogenization creates for and among news organizations — audiences want variety. Particularly now, when the web allows readers to create for themselves a self-selected buffet plate of content to consume, redundancy seems…redundant. “You get everything from the same wool,” Vanina, a 40-year-old teacher, lamented to Boczkowski during an interview. She sensed “something monopolistic” in the news, she told him…which led in turn, she said, to a sense of claustrophobia and confinement. As Boczkowski put it yesterday: “The news we get is McDonald’s.” Sure, we might get some local variation among publications…but “the underlying principle, and the underlying food, is more or less the same.”

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