Thursday, July 17, 2008

Following the story

As I read Gillmor's account of Korean phenomenon OhmyNews and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism's online projects, I continued to mull over how news stories could be edited without having a full-time editing staff.

Sure, the simple solution would be a repeat of the top-down model we're so familiar with - editors assigned to stories could be entitled to a percentage of any income the story generates.

But what about harnessing the power of the Internet and the power of the readers? I'm hoping I can come open with a theoretical model that will do so, rather than simply mimicking traditional publications in an online forum.

The editorial staff at a publication serve a variety of functions.
  1. Direction: Which stories to run, when to kill a story, and how important a story is.
  2. Brainstorming: What would be a good angle for the story? What is missing at first draft? Are there any big holes?
  3. Flow editing: Rearranging the piece so that it reads better.
  4. Copy editing: Maintaining a house style and correcting spelling and grammar.
  5. Fact checking: At least in magazines, fact checking is part of the process.
  6. Standards: Are the reporters being honest? Are they being ethical? Are they truly invested in coming as close to the truth as possible, rather than forwarding their own agenda? When faced with facts that contradict their bias, will they admit it?
Right now I'd like to talk about step two, brainstorming. Among the wide variety of traditional publications for which I've worked or written, there is an equally wide variety of processes used to brainstorm a story. But all of these processes rely on staff.

Here's a process that might achieve the goals of brainstorming without involving staff members.
  1. The story idea is posted on the website's work in progress section
  2. Readers can indicate their level of interest in the story idea and/or leave comments suggesting angles, sources, or relevant facts that should be mentioned in the article
  3. Using their own reporting skills and reader input, the reporter will then do her reporting and post the story's draft
  4. Again, readers will be able to comment on the story with suggestions about questions they feel are left unanswered, things that aren't clear, etc.
  5. The reporter uses those comments to write a final draft
  6. The final draft gets posted online
  7. Professional editors and fact checkers take the final draft and work on the writing style, etc. to create an extremely smooth, well-researched piece, and publish it on a subscription-only portion of the website
What I'd particularly like to see is the story treated as an individual unit. Readers could see a story idea and subscribe to it - they could ask to see every step of the process, or they could ask to see only the final result. Right now RSS feeds, subscriptions, etc. are usually tied to the entire publication, or to an entire section of a publication. But why stop there? Why not let someone focus in on a particular story?

There are lots of problems with concepts like this. For instance, the reporter may be scooped by reporters at traditional publications. Of course, the concept of scooping is arguably outdated. It's unclear, in this day and age, how much it matters to be the first to cover a story. Instantaneous and evolving breaking news coverage started the shift away from 'scooping.' Meanwhile, the ability to tailor what we read using services like Google News Alerts means that more and more, the story is the unit, rather than the publication. And if readers read a story that leaves them with questions, more often than not, they'll go looking for another article that answers those questions. If your story has more information than the person who got there before you, yours is still likely to get read. The extra mile makes the difference.

Another problem is the overwhelming amount of information reporters will have to contend with. Will reporters be drowned in so many comments, he won't be able to sort the signal from the noise? A Slashdot approach to this, allowing readers to rate comments - and respond to them - may help mitigate this problem.

What other problems are there with this approach? Talk to me, cyberspace.

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