Digidave http://blog.digidave.org Journalism is a Process, Not a Product Wed, 05 Mar 2014 20:17:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 My advice to J-schools: Start a tech reporting class http://blog.digidave.org/2014/03/my-advice-to-j-schools-start-a-tech-reporting-class http://blog.digidave.org/2014/03/my-advice-to-j-schools-start-a-tech-reporting-class#comments Wed, 05 Mar 2014 20:16:52 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4141 I’m adjunct faculty at Poynter this year, so I’ll be writing the occasional piece for them. My second piece is advice to j-schools.

Almost every journalism school either has or intends to revisit what they teach. Even before Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton led the call for a reformation of journalism schools, the momentum was clear: there was going to be educational disruption, and every school needed to position itself as the J-school of the future.

In recent years, much of what has happened falls into two categories: bringing “entrepreneurship into the curriculum” or using the “teaching hospital” metaphor. Both have merits. And the recent Knight education challenge fund administered through ONA is a great way to continue to push boundaries. And in that vein, I want to offer a third option, one that I haven’t seen widely adopted but that I think could bear fruit.

Your J-school should have a technology reporting class.

READ THE REST AT POYNTER.

 

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Design Thinking and where creation happens http://blog.digidave.org/2014/02/design-thinking-and-where-creation-happens http://blog.digidave.org/2014/02/design-thinking-and-where-creation-happens#comments Mon, 24 Feb 2014 22:03:39 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4135 This month’s Carnival of Journalism asks about Design Thinking and if we’ve used it or how we get our creative juices flowing. Our host is Donica Mensing.

The quick answer to the design thinking question is: Formally. No. I’ve never used “Design Thinking.”

Since I’ve never worked with a professional “design thinker” maybe I’m misinformed, but the majority of what I understand about D-thinking is that it’s market research. Well, it’s slightly better. It’s the TED-talk of market research. And while I do love me some TED talks, they also need more scrutiny. Onion Talks are a perfect satire.

Staunch d-thinking advocates will probably push back on the “market research” label. And I admit, there is much more to the rich tradition of design thinking as a means for designers to solve problems. But I think as D-Thinking’s spread to other disciplines, what translates the most is the idea of sympathy for users and trying to identify their problems. To me, this is market research. It could just be a potato/potato (pronunciation) difference as opposed to apples and oranges.

At least from my observations: Design Thinking doesn’t come up with solutions. It’s just a means to clarify the problem. Post defining the problem, perhaps Design Thinking has a method of clearly exploring potential solutions through sketches, prototypes and mind-mapping, etc. But I don’t think these are specific to Design Thinking. If they are – then who isn’t a design thinker?

My experience with “getting creative juices flowing” is a mix of a few elements. There is the Aha moment. The spidey-sense moment and the ability to pivot. 

The Aha moment: It’s the most adrenaline filled. The initial idea is a spark and the goal during this period is just to take that spark as far as you can. It’s a phase of white board drawings, features upon features and ideas pouring out. The biggest problem with this phase is that  you can come up with features that would take your current resources YEARS or more to execute and it becomes harder to find the initial spark that started it all (which is what you have to execute on now). In short, the Aha moment is the time for dreaming. But you have to wake up and remember the kernel of your dream.  The minimal viable product – that’s what you have at the moment.

The Spidey-sense: In almost every project I’ve worked on, at some point, I get a “spidey-sense” that something is wrong about a specific aspect. The night before Assignment Zero launched, I couldn’t sleep. I knew deep down that one part of the project wasn’t right and wouldn’t work. We had to do a hard pivot in the middle to bring the project to completion. I was young at the time and I only wish now I had spoken up more about my internal spidey-sense. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I think everyone has it.  I would call it “creative.” It’s your internal voice that tells you: “something new needs to happen here, because the current conditions aren’t working.” You don’t have to act on your spidey-sense ASAP. But you should follow it. Find out if others have that sense and if/how users are experiencing your product and if they have the issue you are imagining (or other issues) This part might also be D-thinking?

The Pivot: This is related to both the Aha moment (cutting down on the excess) and the Spidey-sense (redirecting when you realize things have gone wrong and users have a problem). It’s the low to the Aha’s high. It’s also the release of tension created from your Spidey-sense. It’s how projects iterate and push forward. And it is wholly creative both in that you are re-inventing the project and in the sense that creating anything is also about what you choose NOT to do.

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The CMS of the future – its main output isn’t “articles” http://blog.digidave.org/2014/02/the-cms-of-the-future-its-main-output-isnt-articles http://blog.digidave.org/2014/02/the-cms-of-the-future-its-main-output-isnt-articles#comments Sat, 08 Feb 2014 01:21:43 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4132 I’m adjunct faculty at Poynter this year, so I’ll be writing the occasional piece for them. My first piece is about the Content Management System, the assumptions that are baked into most CMSes, and what it means to re-think those assumptions. How can a CMS work not to produce “articles” but stories that persist over time and have structure. Read more at Poynter.

———–

You sometimes hear what we do at Circa described as “chunkifying” — taking the news and presenting it in mobile-friendly chunks. And while on the surface this observation is correct, it misses the bigger picture.

Yes, each “point” of Circa is a single unit of news — something designated as a fact, quote, statistic, event or image. We thread these points together to tell stories. The end result is succinct and allows us to track which points a reader has consumed, powering our unique “follow” feature.

But I often respond to talk of chunkifying by pointing out that what we’re really doing at Circa is adding structure to information — and it could be the most powerful thing we do. Indeed, there’s an increasing amount of discussion around “atoms” of news. But the interesting thing about those atoms of news isn’t that they’re short — that’s another surface observation. The interesting thing is how those atoms combine.

The assumed output of a reporter is the “article.” That’s what reporters are supposed to produce during their work day, and it’s the default unit by which journalists organize their data. There’s plenty of information in the text that’s produced, but how much of that information is structured? In a typical content management system (CMS) you’ll find a headline field, a main text field, information about the article’s creator, a date of its creation and maybe a field for some meta-tags — usually basic nouns — included as an afterthought, often for SEO purposes.

If I just described 90 percent of the CMSes you’ve used, read on. (Full article at Poynter).

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The pull of technology, the push of entrepreneurship – using Willy Wonka as a metaphor http://blog.digidave.org/2014/01/the-pull-of-technology-the-push-of-entrepreneurship-using-willy-wonka-as-a-metaphor http://blog.digidave.org/2014/01/the-pull-of-technology-the-push-of-entrepreneurship-using-willy-wonka-as-a-metaphor#comments Fri, 10 Jan 2014 23:40:37 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4109  What tech-utopianists posit is a world where institutions that were organized during the industrial age get re-structured for the information age.

Such a fundamental shift tickles the imagination. Pick any industry, cultural norm, social activity and re-imagine how it would function when the cost of sharing information is negligible and you have the ability to find like-minded people instantly. With the “internet of things” it is very much at your fingertips.

At its best, innovation expressed through entrepreneurship is a form of cultural critique. They are projects that take us one step closer to the new structure of institutions.

I like to think this is what I did with Spot.Us and doing with Circa.*

An entrepreneur in this way is a kind of renaissance person. They aren’t just building a company or website (or chocolate factory), they are making a statement about the world and we should hope it’s a refined, informed and well rounded statement. All code is political, all platforms define something about the purpose of the content it creates.  

This is why, when Zuckerberg says anything about privacy, even in passing, people take pause. We intrinsically know that as much as Facebook is a company, it is also a critique, a kind of statement about how things should be according to its engineers. Zuckerberg has control of the elevator and can push any button to take it in any direction he wants.

I think BitCoin may be the greatest technological critique of 2013. It is the Napster of capitalism. Even if it does not succeed – the genie is out of the bag. The critique has been made and understood. Society takes a step forward.

Of course for every utopia there is a dystopia. 

Technology companies in this view are a result of a bubbled industry. They rely on a temporal advantage of having knowledge of a relatively obscure skill (coding) to produce simple services. What do they do with this position of power?

I have seen the best of my generation spend their energy trying to create the next Angry Birds. 

Haters gonna hate, right? Well, I say kudos to those who are successful. To the creator of Dots, my hat is off (and please send me $20, I know you can afford it). But you cannot in good conscious turn around and hold the position that you’ve made a contribution to society. At best you’ve entertained people. But we have no shortage of entertainment and Dots doesn’t push the boundary anymore than Tetris did in 1984.

Too many startups aren’t interested in really pushing boundaries so much as a quick exit and there are few checks against their ability to do this. There is little passion or aim. And technologists wonders why there is a class clash happening in San Francisco.

Now I don’t want to be the judge of what startups are making a cultural critique and which are utterly pointless. We get into gray territory when we examine the copycat startups (We are X for Y: i.e.: “We are Uber for dry cleaning!”) where it’s debatable if they are critiquing an institution – or just shipping code quickly to corner a market. I’d argue it’s often the latter – but the point of this post is not to point fingers but to think through a general dividing issue.

What is the value of entrepreneurship and the San Francisco culture where it is seemingly bred? Are we the sages, the explorers going out ahead of the rest trying new and interesting things, leaving signs along our trail for the rest of society to follow? Are we ”the music makers and we are the dreamer of dreams”?  Or are we merely the pillagers, gun-slingers making our own rules until civilization catches up? What we undertake could be the “egregious exploitation of technology and individual’s hopes for a better world for the sake of personal financial gain.” (credit) 

—–30—-

*Spot.us was partly a comment to the larger journalism community. A way to say: Hey, let’s fundamentally re-think the flow of money in our industry. Here’s what it looks like if we make it more transparent and more participatory. Discuss…..

Circa is making a different kind of critique: Hey, what happens when we re-think assumptions about “articles” as the default and finite container for news. Discuss…..

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Which came first the Jelly or the Fluther? http://blog.digidave.org/2014/01/which-came-first-the-jelly-or-the-fluther http://blog.digidave.org/2014/01/which-came-first-the-jelly-or-the-fluther#comments Tue, 07 Jan 2014 23:03:28 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4103 Today Biz Stone launched “Jelly.”

You might love it. You might hate it: ”Yahoo! Answers for the bourgeoisie.”

If you watch the intro video of Jelly you’ll be introduced to Ben Finkel, CTO.

For what it’s worth – below is an interview I did with Ben in 2008 about his then startup Fluther.  In the interview Ben explains that a “Fluther” is a flock of jellyfish and that the jelly was an important metaphor for the project. Fluther was a social question-and-answer site. 

Fluther was acquired by Twitter in 2010. I presume this is where Biz and Ben met.

From a TechCrunch article today: ”

“We chose the jellyfish to represent our product because it has a loose network of nerves that act as a ‘brain’ similar to the way we envision loosely distributed networks of people coordinating via Jelly to help each other,” Stone notes. It’s not the first time Stone’s q&a interested have been piqued by the amorphous imagery of a jellyfish.

 But the Jelly metaphor I think was something Ben brought to the table. He makes a reference to it in this interview from 2008. You’ll note that user adoption is something I harp on a few times in the interview. I don’t keep coming back to it because I want to be a jerk, but because I know firsthand how hard it is for a small, young endeavor to take off. I wanted to find out how it was going for them and if they had any ideas/tricks/advice/etc.
I’d hate for the answer to be that you need to be bought or become friends with a Biz Stone……. Instead, I hope there is just something truly different or unique about the product. I remember Fluther and will be curious to see how Jelly works (how Fluther has evolved) and even more curious to see user adoption.
(If you don’t see the video – it’s here)

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I’m mad as hell. Social Media: We’re the illusion http://blog.digidave.org/2013/12/im-mad-as-hell-social-media-were-the-illusion http://blog.digidave.org/2013/12/im-mad-as-hell-social-media-were-the-illusion#comments Mon, 30 Dec 2013 18:39:40 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4084 Two or so weeks ago the Internet had its latest meltdown around Justine Sacco’s racist tweet. (disclaimer – I am in no way defending her tweet with this post).

At the time I was the first person to do an @ response to her on Twitter (I didn’t discover it though, just the first to respond). I went along with my day and didn’t think twice until…. her tweet became a worldwide phenomena. It seemed like all of Twitter was waiting for her to land and spitting all kinds of vitriol at her (some threatening physical violence).

I still stand by my initial tweet. It wasn’t over the top. It was partly a question (is this real?), but somehow I was the first small chant in what became a mob. That’s not what I wanted. It brought to the forefront a feeling I’ve had about the Internet of 2013 and social behaviors that has been bothering me. It’s hard to put my finger on it. It’s not the obvious critique about internet mobs and yada yada (yawn…. is that just a republication of the last story when this happenedRather, it’s something more base than that.

In the 1976 satirical movie The Network there is a scene when the main character goes on a rant about how television is a charade. A kind of shadow cast on the wall of Plato’s cave. Take four minutes. It’s a great rant. Then look yourself in the mirror and admit you’ve had these thoughts about television before. This is not a far leap to make IMHO.

Social Media is different. But, it really isn’t 

Sure, social media is different from television. After all, “we’re the real thing” and social media is made up of us. Therefore, social media is also “the real thing.” Then remind yourself that the word “real” can be co-opted. Half of television are “reality” shows now.

I posit that socializing on the internet is to real social activity as reality television is to actual reality.

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” - Andy Warhol 

Andy Warhol couldn’t have been more right about this. What he failed to include was the notion that everyone will think they are famous for much longer than 15-minutes. When a “real person” is cast on a reality show, we are not seeing the truth. We are seeing a performance. And while there is no “casting” online – much of what we see is a farce. It is directed. It is mediated and produced. Even moreso for those whose professions (digital gurus, social media editors, etc. etc) are inherently connected to the online world.

Perhaps there was some of this around the scandal of Justine Sacco’s tweet.

From John Bercovici: Only this, maybe: Justine Sacco was not the first person to get herself fired for saying something stupid on Twitter. She won’t be the last. Every medium and technology ever invented carries its own perils, but there’s something about social media in general and Twitter in particular that invites and rewards self-damaging behavior …. Because the feedback of other users is such a central part of the experience, we learn to seek it, tailoring our voices over time to maximize our retweets and favorites. And because it’s such a big, noisy party, we come to learn — as Justine did — that it helps to be just a little bit outrageous.

 

 

 

 

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A Note to Myself Circa 2004 http://blog.digidave.org/2013/12/a-note-to-myself-circa-2004 http://blog.digidave.org/2013/12/a-note-to-myself-circa-2004#comments Wed, 18 Dec 2013 16:58:33 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4052 This month’s “Carnival of Journalism” is to write a note to yourself in the past. So – it’s 2004. I am 21 and about to graduate college. Here’s what I’d tell myself about the path of my career. The good, the ugly and hopefully some advice. 


(if you don’t see a video above, refresh)

Let’s Begin With Story time

The Road Less Taken: In 2005 you leave for NY.  Wired lets you hire your replacement (those fools!) so of course you hire your roommates boyfriend (who you had become friends with). Fast forward to 2014 next month. He is still working there. His job title has changed …. but he took your job and has ridden it for almost 10 years. He has a wife and a kid and is able to provide. So here’s your Braveheart Moment….

William Wallace: ….. many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!

 You took that chance. You left the comfy job that could have lasted a decade and went out into the world. You’ve taken an unconventional career path. A career more akin to “gigging” rather than working for a company for 10 years. You are in the middle of the ride as you write this note to yourself. It’s hard to know if it will all work out. There is an element of jumping out of a plane and weaving the parachute on the way down. This is accentuated as you get older and start to have concerns about mortgages, family, etc. But the view is pretty thrilling.

Let’s start off with the good news. There is little to regret. Everything works out. Yes, you hate your internship now at the Nob Hill Gazette. You will live out of your car for a month in SF (nothing dramatic, just can’t find a place to live) and a closet in NY for a year – but you have a blast.

The thing that set you up was an intellectual curiosity. You studied and pondered the flow of information. That lead to a career in journalism (a profession that deals with the flow of information). And then your first big break: You started out as a technology reporter. I can’t underscore that enough as your first saving grace. Starting out at Wired was the perfect place to get your feet wet.

As a technology reporter you became fascinated with how the flow of information itself is evolving and you began to realize that the trends you report on in other fields can also be applied to journalism.

Some highlights along the way that touched on this theme.

You were one of the first journalists to openly recognize and participate in “Digg.” You were a “top 50 digger” which is embarrassing to say now, but was cool at the time. Digg and its community laid the bedrock for the rise of Web 2.0 and certainly a new way to think about the news. You had a front row seat and participated if only in a small way.

You were part of the first major experiment in crowdsourced journalism. Hell – you helped write the book on “crowdsourcing” (research assistant!). During that time you helped create a blog that made it into the Technorati 200.

You were the founder of the first major experiment in crowdfunded journalism. It was during this time you began to crystalize your role in the journalism community. Your career was about experimenting with the process of journalism – making it more transparent and participatory.

You’ve had the chance to work at (or study) at 5 Universities in real concrete ways and organize half a dozen conferences – all around the concepts you love, participatory journalism or how media companies must evolve to to become technology companies. Which is to say – you’ve had a kind of consistent theme (or thesis) behind your work.

You are part of the first major effort to reform storytelling so it is structured not around “articles” but  a different phenomenology of news. This same effort pioneered what a mobile news organization could look/feel like.

It sounds all like a magic carpet ride from 2004. A whole new world!

 So what’s the bad? 

A letter to yourself 10 years ago wouldn’t be of any value if it didn’t provide some harsh views as well. Then we can take the good, the bad and maybe have some real advice.

You will feel like a bit of an outsider. Despite the resume-like list above, what you do is on the outskirts of the journalism industry. You receive critical praise for your work within the digital journalism community, but outside of it – you’re mostly gawked at.

An analogy you like - it’s not unlike an artist that has received praise from critics or other artists but is relatively unknown by the public. Your work is a bit too theoretical (too much of a statement on the process/form of journalism itself) for the industry to fully embrace. Meanwhile, you are too much in the real world (entrepreneurial is the word they use) to fully be academic. Somebody on Twitter recently put it: “@Digidave Spot.us was a pioneer. The semi-obscure but seminal punk rocker who paved the way for Madonna.” 

Your goal is to effect change in the larger industry. You’ve made small pushes, but if we are honest with ourselves, we are left feeling like it hasn’t happened…. yet. That can leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but it’s important not to get bitter.

Know the difference between arrogance and confidence. Know the difference between being different and being disliked. Work is the #1 thing you’ll do in your life. It’s where you’ll spend more time than any other hobby – so make sure it’s something you are interested in.

Facts of life

Be prepared: There is an east coast bias in the journalism industry. Like it or not you are a Californian. The call to come home meant accentuating your “otherness” (see above graphs) from most major media companies and some missed opportunities. San Francisco is much more livable though. Friends, family, the whole deal – it’s worth the trade. Quick discussion on east coast bias here

Remember to keep your head down rather than worry that “everyone else is busy doing better than me.” It’s a natural feeling, but it’s as much a lie as Facebook is (all those happy posts). Don’t fall into the trap of worrying about Twitter/Instagram/RebelMouse/YadaYada followers. There is an opportunity here in terms of career – and you know folks that make their claim on it, but it’s not for you. You are a starter, not a star. Maybe this hurts your career, but you are not interested in flurry-filled info-posting. You want to be more than a (well-greased) cog in the info-wheel. You want to design. You want your designs to be critiques.

Learn to pace yourself: For a period of time you believed that because the Internet didn’t sleep, you couldn’t either. This is patently not true and not sustainable. Work hard when you can, but learn to not feel guilty when you step away. There were definitely a few years where you were burning your candle on both ends. You are more valuable working at a sustainable level then being a flash in the pan on any one project.

Find Great Mentors. Be one when you can: The space you work in is also relatively small. Be kind. It comes back in waves. You have no reason to be anything but giving, because along the way you find great mentors yourself. They are too important/many to try and list here. But always keep your eye out for who you can learn from.

Don’t be afraid of failure:   As long as you are working in the journalism experiments – you can’t be afraid of failure. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. If you wanted a steady job where you knew the patterns of success – you could have stayed at the job in 2005. 

 

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Saying goodbye to inconspicuous privacy http://blog.digidave.org/2013/11/saying-goodbye-to-inconspicuous-privacy http://blog.digidave.org/2013/11/saying-goodbye-to-inconspicuous-privacy#comments Sun, 01 Dec 2013 01:04:48 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4063 I took part in a survey recently of thought-leaders. One of the questions was on the future of privacy. If we think it will persist and what it will look like in the year 2024. What I (roughly) wrote.

Publicity will be assumed.

This doesn’t mean people will assume that one is merely in “public.” Instead, one will have to assume that anything they do could have “publicity.”   How somebody becomes a meme will be a commonplace story. When in public, people will be aware that anything they do could get publicity. Any action isn’t just public to those present, it’s potential publicity is international and 24/7. The meaning could very well be beyond your control.

Privacy will be a privilege and even the act of being private will be known. One cannot just “be private.” Rather – they have to take conscious steps towards it and people outside of the private circle will be able to note when somebody is being private. Today, if we see somebody using SnapChat, we know the conversations they are having will self-destruct. It is a signal that privacy is being enacted. In this scenario one cannot privately be private. There is no such thing as inconspicuous privacy.

 

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October/November Carnival of Journalism!!! http://blog.digidave.org/2013/11/octobernovember-carnival-of-journalism http://blog.digidave.org/2013/11/octobernovember-carnival-of-journalism#comments Mon, 04 Nov 2013 23:24:26 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4036 So – it has been revived. The Carnival of journalism. And this is my October contribution.

The prompt this month is about journalism education.

To start, a disclaimer: This is not where I’ve been putting too much thought lately. I taught at UC Berkeley’s J-school for a year and at the end decided the time wasn’t right for me to teach. I left and joined Circa. But Eric Newtown at the Knight Foundation, I believe, has very much put his mind in this space lately. His opus magnum can be found here: “Searchlights and Sunglasses.”

Luckily, there was a fallback question: “Should we teach J school students how to aggregate?” That is the question I want to address.

First off a technicality: consider this distinction between aggregation and curation. With that in mind, I believe strongly that j-schools should teach curation. Aggregation is perhaps something everyone already knows. It’s easy to gather stones together, (Turn, Turn, Turn) but it’s much harder to polish the stones and turn them into a gift.

In some respects, “curation” is what journalists have always done. Journalism is a process of collecting information, filtering that information and then distributing that information (caveats that the information is accurate and collected ethically, etc). So when we talk about teaching “curation” at j-schools – aren’t we describing what is already done? Why is this confusing?

Probably because of newfangled jargon: Now we are talking about curation on “social media.”

“Social media” (See #1 and #2) feels newfangled and therefore brings up questions that, IMHO, don’t really exist. It’s a smokescreen conversation as a result of not recognizing old behavior in new patterns. What do I mean?

A hopefully not too raunchy analogy to make my point. 

The internet doesn’t create new behaviors or paradigms. It exposes those paradigms which already exist in new light.

There was a moment where people pointed a finger at Craiglist because it enabled prostitution. A fair accusation – but this accusation somehow often morphed into blaming Craigslist for the existence of prostitution. Here was something we refer to as “the oldest profession in the world” – and when it appears online we treat it almost as if we’d never heard of it before. It was organized differently here – therefore this new website must be the cause of it.

Everything old is new again

The example above, which shows an example of scorn – also goes for websites that get praise for taking existing human behavior and organizing it online.

The small contributions of funds in order to enable larger projects has existed since the start of organized religion. Put it on a website, call it “crowdfunding” and people think it is a new behavior that was invented in the last 5 years. It isn’t.

Why do I point to these?  

We continually treat the phenemena we see on the web as if it’s new. When most of the time it isn’t new behavior – it’s old behavior and motivations organized in new light. The charge of a journalist remains to collect, filter and distribute information. One could easily call that curation.

So when it comes to J-schools teaching curation, the question isn’t “should they” – but rather – “what are the ways” curation should be taught.

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The Archetypes of News Stories http://blog.digidave.org/2013/10/the-archetypes-of-news-stories http://blog.digidave.org/2013/10/the-archetypes-of-news-stories#comments Mon, 14 Oct 2013 13:15:17 +0000 http://blog.digidave.org/?p=4007 It was a mind blowing moment. Gilligan’s island was still (at that time) the longest continuously running program in syndication. I grew up on it. And here was my high school English teacher positing why it was so popular. It was easy to grasp, he explained, because all the character are archetypes.

  • The Skipper – The Hero or The Explorer
  • Gilligan – The Innocent or The Jester
  • Mary Ann – The Virgin
  • Professor – The Wise Wizard/Creator
  • Ginger Grant – The Whore/Temptress
  • Thurston Howell III – The King
  • Lovey Howell – The Caregiver
  • Extras (mad scientist, gangsters, surfer, Russian cosmonauts, etc) – The Outlaw

With this combination of characters – how could a show ever get boring? There is also, of course, the notion that in all of human history – only 7 stories have ever been told. SOURCE.

 

  • Overcoming the Monster — Stories like Beowulf, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, Jaws, and many of the James Bond films, where a hero must defeat a monster and restore order to a world that has been threatened by the monster’s presence.

  • (2) Rags to Riches — These stories feature modest, generally virtuous but downtrodden characters, who achieve a happy ending when their special talents or true beauty is revealed to the world at large. Includes any number of classics such as ‘Cinderella’, David Copperfield, and the Horatio Alger novels.

  • (3) The Quest — A hero, often accompanied by sidekicks, travels in search of a priceless treasure and fights against evil and overpowering odds, and ends when he gets both the treasure and the girl. The Odyssey is a classic example of this kind of story.

(That’s right 80′s children. I went there!)

  • (4) Voyage and Return — Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, other stories of normal protagonists who are suddenly thrust into strange and alien worlds and must make their way back to normal life once more.

  • (5) Comedy — Not always synonymous with humor. Instead, the plot of a comedy involves some kind of confusion that must be resolved before the hero and heroine can be united in love. Think of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Marriage of Figaro, the plays of Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan, and even War and Peace.

Fish out of water!

  • (6) Tragedy — The terrible consequences of human overreaching and egotism. The Picture of Dorian GrayJulius CaesarAnna Karenina…this category is usually self-evident.

  • (7) Rebirth — The stories of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Mary Lennox would fall into this basic plot type, which focuses on a threatening shadow that seems nearly victorious until a sequence of fortuitous (or even miraculous) events lead to redemption and rebirth, and the restoration of a happier world.

Even within these stories a familiar pace can be set. Just run through the paces and poof – you have a movie. If you’re a modern consumer of movies, you’ve probably even noticed this second order magnitude of similarity – it’s that moment when you realize a movie you’re watching is almost the exact same as another.

Avatar is the same story as The Last Samurai and is the same as Dances with Wolves: White man warlord ends up behind the lines of a native people. Learns and eventually respects native people’s culture. Falls in love with native woman. Fights alongside natives to repel the initial invading forces.

Guess what: Tropic Thunder was just a remake of the Three Amigos: Actors go on a journey – they think they are acting but end up in a real war situation, use cunning to win. Return (voyage and return) with valuable life lessons.

But news reflects the real world. And the world can’t be collapsed into simple tropes can it? For fun, let’s give it a shot! 

So I present to you: News Tropes.

It's not exhaustive (open to suggestions).

1. The Struggle for Power

Often in the politics section. These stories range from “X slams Y” to actual political movement (like votes or legislation… remember those!) taking place. Most horse race coverage falls into this category and is just leading up to a clear moment where the media can claim somebody as a winner and another as a loser.  See my love of The Daily Show for more. Put sports stories here – with the stakes being much lower (or higher depending on who you ask).

2. The fall from grace

People love a good fall from grace story. Everyone has a schadenfreude string to pull. News organizations turn into sharks that have smelled blood when they detect a fallen hero. Every detail about the hero’s life is curated to create the clearest picture possible about how person X who was a trusted and loved Y turned out to be a horrible human being because they did Z. It can be a sports star that has done drugs (Armstrong) a leading figure that has fallen for a woman (Petraeus, Weiner) or it can even be the absurd (Mante Teo).

3. Can you believe somebody did this?!

I prefer to call this trope: “Florida Man: Stupid people doing stupid shit.“ Sometimes (but not always violent) they are red meat to a daily news org. These stories focus on a person doing something out of the norm of everyday accepted behavior. Crimes can almost be defined as such, so they almost always fall into this category. But so do random acts like scaling a building in NY. The story of Ariel Castro who kidnapped 3 women and held them captive for over a decade is a recent example. If you’ve never followed the Twitter account @_FloridaMan, give it a shot.  It’s filled with…. these stories. These are the stories that haunt you. Somebody died in a cockroach eating contest. That’s a benign example. Man kills wife and posts photos on Facebook. Now we’re talking.

Much like “comedy” these don’t  have to be depressing. This guy eats nothing but raw meat! This woman swam all the way to Cuba!

4. Longcat is long! The affirmation of something new

They are less about abnormal happenings and instead about slightly new ground made in a niche. Science stories fit here. This “smart” water will mark thieves with bacteria to prove their guilt. These guys built a robot that is going into space! Something was invented or happened for the first time. Press releases use this trope too often and that’s why they are ignored.

Check out this long cat cat. It’s Looooooong!

5.  Well that event just happened

These start out and we often call them “breaking news” stories. When they are natural disasters, they tend to stay in this category, with more detailed info over time. CNN is at their best when breaking news events are natural disasters. If it’s anything that involves the actions of people (a gunman, terrorist, etc) it can develop into other tropes like #2, #3 or if it’s given context – tropes #1 or #10. CNN is at their worst when breaking news events need to develop into another trope.

6. The Profile: Meet This Person

Occasionally the profile is negative, but most often – it’s highlighting an individual and their triumph in some personal endeavor. In larger stories they are just anecdotes, but sometimes it’s the entire story. The best place for reporters to lay big wet sloppy kisses on unsuspecting members of the public. This kid raised money for Haiti relief.

7. Shocking statement: Something was said on Twitter, TV, etc. You missed it. Here it is.

Personally getting sick of these. A ton of blog posts every day is just a breakdown of crap that was said on TV the night before or on Twitter. Useful…. I guess? The media became meta-aware of this trope after Twerk-gate on the MTV Music Awards. How did Cyrus get so much media attention when we couldn’t get any for Syria? Because she played RIGHT into this trope and news orgs all played along!

Are you an aging pop star that hasn’t gotten enough attention lately? Do something crazy on TV or say something mean on twitter and everyone will write about it tomorrow. Personally I’m not a fan of the Twitter guilt posts where an organization finds racist comments from people after something happens to shame them. Not condoning the racist tweets, but I see little value in collecting them. You might as well write an article: “There are racist people in the world. They say dumb shit.”

8. This financial transaction happened, X is the (potential/actual) result.

Most business/technology stories fall into this category. Perhaps this is just a niche of #4.

9. The inside scoop

At its best, this is Jay Rosen’s “thought scoop” and at its worst, this is an editorial column. Ezra Klein, Wonkette, everyone who is an “insider” into an industry/niche and peddles their closeness. Talking head punditry on TV. PandoDaily and other tech-elitist blogs that believe their opinion/analysis of something is brilliant/unique (Hint: unless it’s a “thought-scoop” it’s not).

(500 Journo points for whoever can identify the person Larry King is interviewing)

10. Data says X

Arguably one of the more respectable tropes. It’s when new data (or data set) is released and then a news story gives it context. A UN report comes out on the rates of malaria, poverty, etc., in various countries. A scientist publishes  findings in a journal, the government releases data on X (anything from census to the budget). Sometimes reporters get the information via FOIA requests, sometimes it is handed to them in a press release. The data doesn’t need to be in numerical form. Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, these are stories where “data” are documents. The idea is the same: A discrete bit of information that wasn’t known before is now accessible somehow and this new data becomes the crux of a story.

 

Are there more? Probably. You tell me! 

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