November 30, 2012

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Jackson Pollock[Updated 1 December to add the addendum below. If you're new to this post, start here. If you've read it already, start down there.]

In Journalism as service: Lessons from Sandy, Jeff Jarvis says, “After Sandy, what journalists provided was mostly articles when what I wanted was specifics that those articles only summarized. Don’t give me stories. Give me lists.”

Journals aren’t going to stop giving us stories, because stories are the main attraction. But lists are the service. They are also the frontier, because journals on the whole suck at lists. That’s what we’ve been learning over and over and over again, every time something Too Big happens. (Sandy, Katrina, the Arab Spring, the financial meltdown, yada yada.) We get plenty of stories, but not enough lists. Or, not the lists we need if we’re affected by the event.

Back when Sandy was going on, I stayed in Boston and blogged it live. One of my main sources was The Weather Channel, aka TWC — on TV, more than the Net. (My “TV” was an iPad channeling our Dish Network set top box in Santa Barbara.) As I recall, TWC had two main reporters on two scenes: one in Point Pleasant, New Jersey and one at Battery Park in Manhattan. Both had lots of stories to tell and show, but as a service TWC missed approximately everything other than what happened in those two places. I say approximately because the damage being done at the time was widespread, huge, and impossible for any one news organization to cover. (And TWC actually did a pretty good job, as TV channels go.) Seen as an outline, TWC looked like this:

SANDY

  • General coverage from studios
    • TWC
    • National Hurricane Center
  • Field coverage
    • Battery Park
    • Point Pleasant

That’s far simpler than what TWC actually did at the time, of course. But I’m trying to illustrate something here: that coverage itself is an outline. Also that cover, as both noun and verb, is something no single news organization can create, or do. They all do a partial job. The whole job, especially for a massive phenomenon such as Sandy, requires many journals of many kinds.

In a way we have that with the Web. That is, if you add up all the stuff reported about Sandy — in newspapers, on radio and TV, in blogs, in tweets, on social media — you’ve got enough info-splatter to call “coverage,” but splatter isn’t what Jeff needs. Here are his specifics:

I wanted lists of what streets were closed. I wanted lists of what streets the power company was finally working on. Oh, the utility, JCP&L, gave my town, Bernards Township, lists of streets, but they were bald-faced lies (I know because my street was on that list but their crews weren’t on my street). The town and our local media outlets only passed on these lists as fact without verifying. I wanted journalists to add value to those lists, going out to verify whether there were crews working on those streets. In a word: report.

I wanted media organizations or technology platforms to enable the people who knew the facts — my fellow townspeople — to share what they knew. Someone should have created a wiki that would let anyone in town annotate those lists of streets without power and streets — if any — where power crews were working. Someone should have created a map (Google Maps would do; Ushahidi would be deluxe) that we could have annotated not only with our notes and reports of what we knew but also with pictures. I’d have loved to have seen images of every street blocked by trees, not just for the sake of empathy but also so I could figure out how to get around town … and how likely it was that we’d be getting power back and how likely it would be that buses would be able to get through the streets so schools could re-open.

But instead, we got mostly articles. For that’s what journalists do, isn’t it? We write articles. We are storytellers! But not everything should be a story. Stories aren’t always the best vehicle for conveying information, for informing the public. Sometimes lists, data bases, photos, maps, wikis, and other new tools can do a better job.

What Jeff wanted was a painting, or set of puzzle pieces that fit together into a coherent and complete painting. A good outline does that, because it has structure, coherency, and whatever level of detail you need. Instead Jeff got something out of Jackson Pollock (like the image above).

We need outlines, we get splatter. Even the stories, high-level as they often are, tend to work as just more splatter.

How do we get outlines? Here are some ways:

  1. If you’re a journal, a journalist, a reporter, a blogger… start responding to the demand Jeff lays out there, especially when a Big Story like Sandy happens. Provide lists, or at least point to them. It’s a  huge hole. Think about what others are bringing to the market’s table, and how you can work with them. You can’t do it all yourself. Nor should anybody.
  2. Listen to Dave Winer, who has been working this frontier since the early ’80s, and has given the world lots of great stuff already. (Here’s his latest in outline form.)
  3. Start looking at the world itself as a collection of outlines, and at your work as headings and subheadings within that world — even as you don’t wish to be confined to those, and won’t be, because the world is still messy.
  4. Go deeper than wikis. Wonderful as they are, wikis are very flat as outlines go. They are only one level deep. So is search, which is worse because every search is temporary and arcane to whatevever it is you search for at the moment, and whatever it is the engine is doing to personalize your search.

It’s not easy to think of the world as outlines. But seeing the plain need for lists is a good place to start.

Addendum

After reading the comments, I should make a few things clearer than I did above.

First, Jeff’s line, “Don’t give me stories, give me lists,” does not mean stories are wrong or bad or without appeal. Just that there are times when people need something else. Badly. Giving somebody a story when they need a list is a bit like giving somebody who’s fallen overboard a meal rather than a life preserver. It’s best to give both, at the right time and place. One of my points above is that no one journal, or journalist, should have to do it all. A related point I didn’t make is that pulling together lists, and linking lists together, is less thankful work than writing stories. True, writing stories isn’t always easy. But story-writing is rewarding in ways that compiling lists are not. Yet lists may save lives — or at least hassles — in ways that stories may not.

Second, seeing “the world as outlines” does not require that any one person, site or journal produce lists or outlines for anything. The totally flat and horizontal nature of hyperlinks (and, not coincidentally, wikis) makes it at least possible for everything to be within a link or few from everything else. While this linky flatness can excuse what I call “splatter” above, it also suggests a need for mindfulness toward coherency, and the absent need for anybody to do everything. As structure goes, the Web is more like scaffolding than like a building. If we see journalism as outlining, and lists as an essential part of any outline, and hyperlinks as a way of connecting multiple lists (and stories) together, we can make multiple scaffolds function together as a coherent whole, and ease the labor required, say, for piecing one’s life back together after a storm.

Third, we are dealing with a paradox here. Outlines are hierarchical, and — as David Weinberger put it so well in Cluetrain — hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Thus one of the things that makes the Web a web also makes it a poor place for persistent structure. Yes, we can create buildings of sorts. (For example, anything with a domain name.) But all are temporary and vulnerable to future failings or repurposings. Big as Facebook is, there is nothing about the nature of its mission or corporate structure, much less of the Web beneath it, to assure the site’s permanence. (I have exactly this concern about Flickr, for example.) Built into the Web’s DNA, however, is a simple call to be useful. That too is a call of journalism. It is a more essential calling than the one to be interesting, or provocative, or award-worthy, or any of the other qualities we like to see in stories. A dictionary is poor literature, but a highly useful document. It is also a list. A bookshelf with several dictionaries on it is an outline. So is a library.

Fourth, there are many reasons that outlining hasn’t taken off as a category. Some are accidents of history. Some have to do with the way we are taught outlining in school. (Poorly, that is.) But the biggest, I’m convinced (at least for now) is that we fail in general, as a species, to see larger pictures. We fail to see them in the present moment, or in the present situation (whatever it is), and we fail to see them across time. This is why even people called “conservatives” see little reason to conserve finite resources for which there are no substitutes after they run out.

Fifth, we need new development here. My point about wikis is that they don’t cover all the ground required for outlining the world. Nothing does, or ever will. But we can do other things, and do them better. It’s still early. The Web as we know it is only seventeen years old. The future, hopefully, is a lot longer than that.

Meanwhile, a grace of a storm like Sandy is that it can make a serious journalist call out for something serious that isn’t journalism-as-usual. And that the result might be better scaffolding to hold together the temporary undertakings we call our lives.