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Keeping up with the news shouldn’t be like keeping up with ‘Lost’

August 25, 2009

Thank god for This American Life’s “Giant Pool of Money.” If it wasn’t for that podcast and, later, a Jonathan Jarvis video, I don’t know if I’d understand the financial crisis at all. Which would suck, because I read a lot of news, and not understanding would either mean (1) I’m a huge idiot, or (2) mainstream media just didn’t explain things very well (re: dropped the ball on arguably the biggest story of the decade).

OK, I guess both could have been true. But for the purposes of this post—which spun out of this comment thread on Wired Journalists—I’m going to focus on the second.

I think we’ve all experienced this sort of news confusion before: A big story, like the financial crisis, breaks and the mainstream media just starts talking about it like everyone already knows the backstory. Or at least, by the time you hear about it, MSM is talking about it like you’ve been on board the whole time.

A more timely example would be Pres. Obama’s proposal to reform health care: Can anyone explain to me what the president’s proposals actually are? (Note: “Socialism,” “a public option,” or any variant on those two themes are not valid answers.)

The problem is that MSM has already explained this at some point and since they’re still doing business like it’s 1995, too bad if you missed that explanation the first time. It’s a lot like watching “Lost”: If you were to try and hop on board at Part 1 of last year’s season finale, you’d probably be wondering a few things (SPOILER ALERT):

  • Why does half the show take place in 2007 and the other half take place in 1977?
  • Why is that one guy the same age in 1977 as he is in 2007?
  • I thought these people were in a plane crash together—why/how is everyone trying to kill each other with guns and bombs?
  • I thought that guy was dead—is that his twin? Clone?
  • (At least 90 other perfectly natural things to wonder.)

With “Lost,” go back and watch the first five seasons. But the financial crisis and health care reform are real things—real important things that actually affect real people. I shouldn’t be as confused as I am about a TV show.

Fortunately, there are a few corners of the journalism universe that get it right: PolitiFact presents “Health care: A simple explanation” and The New York Times offers a Topic page with an overview of the issue. The only problem is that these things are nowhere to be found in everyday news stories. Why isn’t the health care reform topic page front and center on NYT’s home page? I should be able to find it without even looking. An issue this big deserves, at the very least, a brief reorganization of a news site.

Overall point: It’s not enough to just throw stuff online and say, “It’s there. Find it.” and blame ADD for people’s unwillingness to crawl your Web site for two hours. News sites need to start acting more like wikis, because as the news flow gets faster and faster, there’s going to be more of a demand for organizational and explanatory journalism. Your readers shouldn’t be straining to figure out what’s going on.

Update: Matt Thompson made an excellent post called Five concrete steps to improving the news, where, among other things, he advises:

Aim to produce a work of journalism so excellent it’ll get passed around for weeks. Put your best storytelling chops to work on this. Try to supplant Wikipedia as the top Google result for your topic. This might not be a single article; it might be a nicely-packaged collection, a wiki, or something else you devise. The key is that it should be long-lasting and distinctive.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. jwales permalink
    August 26, 2009 3:46 pm

    I think this is part of the reason for the popularity of Wikipedia’s stories on breaking news – Wikipedia does something different than a news story normally does… it gives you the back story.

  2. Bart permalink
    August 26, 2009 3:58 pm

    But if you haven’t been paying attention, why start now? I don’t see why news has to be dumbed down for people who are lost in space. Keep up, will ya?

  3. August 26, 2009 6:45 pm

    @jwales – Exactly.

    @Bart – How is providing context and organization “dumbing down” the news, exactly? The problem with serialized news is that it’s an antiquated method of delivery. The only reason it ever existed is because the fastest form of news delivery was in a daily, printed/tangible product.

    The Internet gives us the ability to begin a story and shape it as we go by updating it, attaching new things to it and taking away whatever superfluous fat is left over.


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