The journalist as curator, revisited: Curating your own content

The idea of journalists, particularly editors, as curators has gained traction as forward-thinking news organizations realize the value of being a trusted filter for readers. (Though there are definitely detractors.) And while more news orgs still need to get comfortable aggregating content produced elsewhere, I think we’ve been missing a big part of the curation discussion: the growing importance of journalists as curators of their own newsroom’s content.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading (*cough* back in the spring *cough*) Martin Langeveld’s vision of how content will flow in future newsrooms, and Matt Thompson’s imagining the difficulties of implementing the alternative workflows such “content cascades” will require.

Start with Martin’s notion of content flow in a digital newsroom:

The content cascade starts with raw information. It can be anything: reporter-gathered data, citizen journo input, crowd-sourced information, audio, video, press releases, government data and reports, industry data. … [I]n a digital newsroom, it can be digitally archived and organized, and much of it can be made available online to readers interested in digging into it. …

At the next level in the content cascade model, significance is extracted from content — facts, background, comments and opinions are pulled into traditional “stories” as well as being analyzed, compared, questioned, evaluated, refuted, corrected, updated and otherwise spun and massaged. This happens in editorials, columns, blog posts, blog comments, Tweets, social network interactions, collaborative work by newsroom teams, and, not least of all, in actual conversations at the proverbial dinner tables, water coolers and bus stops, and even in old-fashioned letters to the editor.

Some of this significance extraction will be done by reporters, and some will be done by readers. (Note: “significance extraction” = worst buzzword ever.) Much of it will likely be done by editors.

But if you’re a traditional newspaper editor — who thinks in terms of X number of articles for X pages in X upcoming papers — the content cascade model probably sounds as doable as standing at the mouth of a river and trying to catch two A1 stories in a paper cup. (Note: mixed metaphors definitely intentional).

As Matt puts it:

When people like us talk about being “Web-centric,” we’re telling these editors that their new prerogative is to sift the borderless dumping-grounds of a reporter’s whimsy for shards of insight and curiosity that they might glue together into some recycled wreck of a page.

His post is largely about the structural/logistical/cultural challenges of making this shift, but I’m not sure the shift itself has gotten enough attention.

Of course newspaper editors are already curators in a broad sense: They select which stories, photos, graphics, etc. go in which locations in each section, and guide the process by which those elements are created. But this is a very limited form of curating.

First, story/image selection is often less about deliberate curation and more about puzzle-solving (“How can I fit all the pieces together to make a coherent section/paper?”), hole-filling (“Ohgod, what am I going to use for centerpiece art??”), traditionalism (“Gotta put State of the Union coverage on 1A”), or self-interest (“I really need one of my reporters to have a front-pager this week.”). Think of typical daily budget meetings, where stories are pitched before they’re completed and personal dynamics can have outsized influence on the decision-making.

Second, as Martin points out, the content cascade contains far more than photos and finished stories. And while editors might occasionally ask reporters specific questions about their notes, most editors probably don’t read those notes themselves. They probably don’t read all of their reporters’ Tweets, Facebook messages, and blog posts, or all the resulting comments and responses (on their site and others).

But now we’re seeing that these disparate currents of a news organization’s content stream (note: belabored metaphor grudgingly intentional) engage readers as much as — or more than — the organized arrangement of discrete stories and images on a page.

Consider Andrew Sullivan’s blog and Talking Points Memo.

Throughout the day (and sometimes night) they’re posting original reporting and commentary; links to other important reporting, breaking news, and commentary; entertaining ephemera; comments from readers, often with their own responses; comments from other sites; links to their published work elsewhere; previews of future coverage; Twitter-length thoughts; and engaging photo features.

This is the content cascade model in action. (Keep in mind that all but two of those links are from just two days in the spring.)

Now imagine how much richer a larger news organization’s site — not to mention a newspaper — would be if it tapped into its own cascades this way.

Some news organizations have begun making the shift. The new launched with the kind of unusual design that’s effective for presenting content this way: a blog-style, reverse-chronological approach that lacks the visual hierarchy of traditional news sites. As’s Tony Dearing told Nieman Journalism Lab:

“In addition to covering news and being a journalistic source, our goal was to be a true community hub,” Dearing said. “Taking a very traditional, hierarchical, top-headlines-of-the-day approach did not feel like it was going to really give people that feel or the breadth of what the site seeks to do, which is reflect the entire community and not just the news.”

Gazette Communications in Iowa seems to be heading in this direction conceptually, in terms of both new approaches to news and new ideas about editors’ roles. (Drop a note in the comments if you know of other news orgs moving in this direction.)

Most newsrooms have this material somewhere. Now they have to figure out how to make those difficult logistical changes that will let them put the content stream to good use.


UPDATE: Kevin Sablan has some interesting related thoughts.