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News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News: What I Will Say at SXSW is where and how Jay Rosen lays out his current thinking on new agendas for whatever journalism will become after we’re done with the current transition.

He has long been concerned with how explanation is “under-emphasized in the modern newsroom” and offers excellent examples of how explaining should work, as well as ideas about how to institutionalize it. For example, “The goal is to surface the hidden demand for explanation and create a kind of user-driven assignment desk for the explainer genre, which is itself under-developed in pro journalism”. He adds, “Are there other ways to surface this kind of demand?”

I’d call attention to the imperatives of stories, and the role that might be played by new sets of well-explained facts that can help frame or re-frame a story.

See, stories are what assignment editors want. They’re also what readers want. And stories are different to some degree from the current vogue-word narrative. They do overlap, but they are different.

A few months back I visited the subject of story in What’s right with Wikipedia? — a piece I wrote in response to a What’s Wrong With Wikipedia story that had run in the Wall Steet Journal. I don’t know if that story was part of the WSJ’s GOP-aligned “What’s Wrong With Everything Liberals Do” narrative, but in any case I felt the matter needed explaining. Some Wikipedians did a good job of showing how there wasn’t much of a story there (read the piece to see how). For my part, I felt the need to explain what stories are actually about, which is problems, or struggles. Said I,

Three elements make stories interesting: 1) a protagonist we know, or is at least interesting; 2) a struggle of some kind; and 3) movement (or possible movement) toward a resolution. Struggle is at the heart of a story. There has to be a problem (what to do with Afghanistan), a conflict (a game between good teams, going to the final seconds), a mystery (wtf was Tiger Woods’ accident all about?), a wealth of complications (Brad and Angelina), a crazy success (the iPhone), failings of the mighty (Nixon and Watergate). The Journal‘s Wikipedia story is of the Mighty Falling variety.

In his piece Jay mentions what a good Job the Giant Pool of Money episode of This American Life did of bringing sense to the country’s financial crisis. This gave rise to the PlanetMoney podcast, which is also terrific at explaining things. PlanetMoney feeds some of its best stuff to NPR’s news flow as well. One good example is Accidents of History Created U.S. Health System, which made it clear how we got to our wacky employer-supported health insurance system. Go listen to it and see if you don’t have a much better grasp on the challenge, if not of the solutions, currently on the table.

My point here, or one of them, is that the real story isn’t Obama vs. Intransigent Republicans (the Dems’ narrative) or Sensible Americans against Government Takeover (the Reps narrartive), but that we’ve got a health care system that burdens employers almost exclusively, rather than individuals, government (save for VA, Medicare and Medicaid), or other institutions. It’s an open quetion whether or not that’s screwed up, but at least it’s a question that ought to be at the center of the table, or the “debate” that been both boring and appalling.

This is consistent with what Matt Thompson says in The three key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, # 2 of which is WHAT WE MISS (1): The longstanding facts. But we also miss seeing the role that longstanding overlooked facts might play amongst the three story elements: protagonist, problem and movement. Take the problem of employer responsibility as a structural premise for health care. By itself, the problem just sits there. We need a protagonist and a sense that the story has movement. In the absence of either, we look for other defaults. Thus we cast Obama and his opponents as the protagonists, or to get into characterization as the issue if the topic gets logjammed, which it has been for awhile. So we hear about problems with the president’s charactrer. He’s not leading. Or … whatever. You can fill in the blanks

Meanwhile, we live in a world where employers are almost nothing like they were when the current health care system solidified at the end of World War II. In many towns (Santa Barbara, for example) the (or at least a) leading employer is “self”. Tried to get insurance for your self-employed butt lately? How about if you’re older than a child and have a medical history that’s other than perfect? Scary shit. Does the Obama plan make things better for you? According to this story in CNN, “Health insurance exchanges would be created to make it easier for small businesses, the self-employed and unemployed to pool resources and purchase less expensive coverage.” Hmm. “Easier” doesn’t sound like much relief. But doing nothing doesn’t sound good either.

So the easy thing is to go back to covering the compromise bill’s chances in Congress, and the politics surrounding it. That at least makes some kind of sense. We have all our story elements in place. It’s all politics from here on. Bring in the sports and war metaphors and let automated processes carry the rest. Don’t dig, just dine. The sausage-machine rocks on.

As Matt says, “… rarely do we acknowledge what we’re pursuing. When our questions make it into the coverage at all, they have to appear in the mouths of our sources, resulting in paltry, contorted pieces like this one, from the AP. Or they’re attributed to no one, weaseled into a headline that says only, ‘[Such-and-such] raises questions.’ Whose questions? Not ours, certainly.”

I also wonder if we’re barking up the wrong tree (or down the wrong hole) when we obsess about “curation” of news — a favorite topic of mainstream media preservationists. Maybe what we need is to see explainers as advocates of our curiosity about the deep questions, or deep facts, such that they might become unavoidable in news coverage.

This, of course, begs the creation of whole new institutions. Which is the job that Jay has taken up here. Let’s help him out with it.

[Later...] An additional thought: statistics aren’t stories.

I remember hearing about what were later called the killing fields of Cambodia, after refugees reported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were murdering what eventually became more than a million people. Hughes Rudd delivered the story one on the CBS Morning News, as I recall between items on the Superbowl and Patty Hearst. He said that perhaps half a million people were already dead. But the story wasn’t a story. It was an item. It wasn’t until Sydney Shamberg ran “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” in the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine that the story got real. It got human. It had a protagonist. It became a movie.

I thought about this when I noticed there were exactly no comments following my Gendercide post. Here’s the fact that matters: countless baby girls are being killed, right now. But that’s not a story. Not yet. Not even with help from The Economist. I think the job here isn’t just to get more facts, or even to get the right name and the right face. The story needs its Dith Pran, and doesn’t have her yet. (Or, if it does, news hasn’t spread.)

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“I make my living off the Evening News
Just give me something: something I can use
People love it when you lose
They love dirty laundry.

Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry”

Look up “Wikipedia loses” (with the quotes) and you get 20,800 results. Look up “Wikipedia has lost” and you get 56,900. (Or at least that’s what I got this morning.) Most of those results tell a story, which is what news reports do. “What’s the story?” may be the most common question asked of reporters by their managing editors. As humans, we are interested in stories — even if they’re contrived, which is what we have with all “reality” television shows.

Lately Wikipedia itself is the subject of a story about losing editors. The coverage snowball apparently started rolling with Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages, by Julia Angwin and Geoffrey A. Fowler in The Wall Street Journal. It begins,

Wikipedia.org is the fifth-most-popular Web site in the world, with roughly 325 million monthly visitors. But unprecedented numbers of the millions of online volunteers who write, edit and police it are quitting.

That could have significant implications for the brand of democratization that Wikipedia helped to unleash over the Internet — the empowerment of the amateur.

Volunteers have been departing the project that bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” faster than new ones have been joining, and the net losses have accelerated over the past year. In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia …

That’s all you get without paying. Still, it’s enough.

Three elements make stories interesting: 1) a protagonist we know, or is at least interesting; 2) a struggle of some kind; and 3) movement (or possible movement) toward a resolution. Struggle is at the heart of a story. There has to be a problem (what to do with Afghanistan), a conflict (a game between good teams, going to the final seconds), a mystery (wtf was Tiger Woods’ accident all about?), a wealth of complications (Brad and Angelina), a crazy success (the iPhone), failings of the mighty (Nixon and Watergate). The Journal‘s Wikipedia story is of the Mighty Falling variety.

The Journal’s source is Wikipedia: A Quantitative Analysis, a doctoral thesis by José Phillipe Ortega of Universidad Rey San Carlos in Madrid. (The graphic at the top of this post is one among many from the study.) In Wikipedia’s Volunteer Story, Erik Moeller and Erik Zachte of the Wikimedia Foundation write,

First, it’s important to note that Dr. Ortega’s study of editing patterns defines as an editor anyone who has made a single edit, however experimental. This results in a total count of three million editors across all languages.  In our own analytics, we choose to define editors as people who have made at least 5 edits. By our narrower definition, just under a million people can be counted as editors across all languages combined.  Both numbers include both active and inactive editors.  It’s not yet clear how the patterns observed in Dr. Ortega’s analysis could change if focused only on editors who have moved past initial experimentation.

Even more importantly, the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal are not a measure of the number of people participating in a given month. Rather, they come from the part of Dr. Ortega’s research that attempts to measure when individual Wikipedia volunteers start editing, and when they stop. Because it’s impossible to make a determination that a person has left and will never edit again, there are methodological challenges with determining the long term trend of joining and leaving: Dr. Ortega qualifies as the editor’s “log-off date” the last time they contributed. This is a snapshot in time and doesn’t predict whether the same person will make an edit in the future, nor does it reflect the actual number of active editors in that month.

Dr. Ortega supplements this research with data about the actual participation (number of changes, number of editors) in the different language editions of our projects. His findings regarding actual participation are generally consistent with our own, as well as those of other researchers such as Xerox PARC’s Augmented Social Cognition research group.

What do those numbers show?  Studying the number of actual participants in a given month shows that Wikipedia participation as a whole has declined slightly from its peak 2.5 years ago, and has remained stable since then. (See WikiStats data for all Wikipedia languages combined.) On the English Wikipedia, the peak number of active editors (5 edits per month) was 54,510 in March 2007. After a more significant decline by about 25%, it has been stable over the last year at a level of approximately 40,000. (See WikiStats data for the English Wikipedia.) Many other Wikipedia language editions saw a rise in the number of editors in the same time period. As a result the overall number of editors on all projects combined has been stable at a high level over recent years. We’re continuing to work with Dr. Ortega to specifically better understand the long-term trend in editor retention, and whether this trend may result in a decrease of the number of editors in the future.

They add details that amount to not much of a story, if you consider all the factors involved, including the maturity of Wikipedia itself.

As it happens I’m an editor of Wikipedia, at least by the organization’s own definitions. I’ve made fourteen contributions, starting with one in April 2006, and ending, for the moment, with one I made this morning. Most involve a subject I know something about: radio. In particular, radio stations, and rules around broadcast engineering. The one this morning involved edits to the WQXR-FM entry. The edits took a lot longer than I intended — about an hour, total — and were less extensive than I would have made, had I given the job more time and had I been more adept at editing references and citations. (It’s pretty freaking complicated.) The preview method of copy editing is also time consuming as well as endlessly iterative. It was sobering to see how many times I needed to go back and forth between edits and previews before I felt comfortable that I had contributed accurate and well-written copy.

In fact, as I look back over my fourteen editing efforts, I can see that most of them were to some degree experimental. I wanted to see if I had what it took to be a dedicated Wikipedia editor, because I regard that as a High Calling. The answer so far is a qualified no. I’ll continue to help where I can. But on the whole my time is better spent doing other things, some of which also have leverage with Wikipedia, but not of the sort that Dr. Ortega measured in his study.

For example, photography.

As of today you can find 113 photos on Wikimedia Commons that I shot. Most of these have also found use in Wikipedia. (Click “Check Usage” at the top of any shot to see how it’s been used, and where.) I didn’t put any of these shots in Wikimedia Commons, nor have I put any of them in Wikipedia. Other people did all of that. To the limited degree I can bother to tell, I don’t know anybody who has done any of that work. All I do is upload shots to my Flickr site, caption and tag them as completely as time allows, and let nature take its course. I have confidence that at least some of the shots I take will be useful. And the labor involved on my part is low.

I also spent about half an hour looking through Dr. Ortega’s study. My take-away is that Wikipedia has reached a kind of maturity, and that the fall-off in participation is no big deal. This is not to say that Wikipedia doesn’t have problems. It has plenty. But I see most of those as features rather than as bugs, even if they sometimes manifest, at least superficially, as the latter. That’s not much of a story, but it’s a hell of an accomplishment.

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I’ve been a Wall Street Journal subscriber since the 1970s. I still am. The paper shows up at my doorstep every day.

I’ve also been a subscriber to the Journal online. It costs extra. I’ve gladly paid it, even though I think the paper makes a mistake by locking its archives behind a paywall. (Sell the news, give away the olds, I say.)

I’d still be glad to pay it, if the Journal made it easy. But they don’t. No paper does, far as I know. In fact very few media make it easy at all to give them money for their online goods.

As it happens, my Journal online subscription just ran out. To fix matters, the paper’s site prompted me not to renew, but to update my credit card. So I went through the very complicated experience of updating that data, with the form losing most of the data each time I had to fill in a blank missed on the last try. (Why separate house number from street name?) In the midst it wouldn’t take my known password, and I had to have them do the email thing, through which I got to create a new password after clicking on a link in an email sent to me by the WSJ “system.” Even after doing that, and getting the new credit card info in there, and everything seemed to be fine (no more mistakes noticed on the form)… I can’t get in.

Did the payment go through? I have no idea. The credit card, from Chase, also has an impossible website. I don’t even want to go there.

In any case, I can no longer get in. At the top of the login page, it says “Welcome, Doc Searls.” Below that it tells me to log out if I am not myself. And below that it says

Your Current Subscription(s)
None

I can still access my Personal Information, which includes rude questions about my income, the number of people in my organization and how many stock transactions my household made in the past 12 months. Earth to Journal: Readers hate filling out shit like that. Why put readers over a grill like that? Does it really help sales? Please.

Okay, between the last paragraph and this one I somehow got far enough into the site to actually read some stuff. Specifically, this Peggy Noonan piece, and this PJ O’Rourke piece. In the midst of hunting those down, search results that failed said this:

No Information Available

Your subscription does not include access to this service.

If you have any questions please call Customer Service at 800-369-2834 (or 609-514-0870) or contact us by e-mail at  onlinejournal at wsj.com. Representatives are available Monday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. & Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (ET). Subscribers outside the United States, click here.

Good gawd.

Why put readers through #$%^& ordeals like these? Not to mention a website that’s already cluttered beyond endurance.

Because it’s always been done this way, they say. “Always” meaning “since 1995.”

Actually, it’s gotten worse in recent years, all the better to drag eyeballs across advertising, and to maximize the time readers spend on the site.

Hell, I’ve been on the WSJ site for the last hour, hating every second of it.

We can do better than this. I say we, because I have no faith at all that the Journal, or any of the papers, will ever fix problems that have been obvious for the duration. The readers are going to have to tell them what to do. And I mean all of them at once. We need one basic way to interact with media and their systems for accepting payments. Not as many different ways as there are media, all of them bad.

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So the Wall Street Journal runs Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web, by Vinesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads. It’s dated today, but hit the Web yesterday. Among other things it says,

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

I declined to post on this yesterday because I suspected that this was simply a matter of edge caching: locating services as close to users as possible, to minimize network latencies and maximize accessibility. Akamai‘s whole business is based on this kind of thing. Much of what we now call the “cloud” — including conveniences provided by Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others — are back-end utilities that benefit from relative proximity to users. It’s all part of what Nick Carr calls The Big Switch.

As Richard Whitt of Google puts it here,

Edge caching is a common practice used by ISPs and application and content providers in order to improve the end user experience. Companies like Akamai, Limelight, and Amazon’s Cloudfront provide local caching services, and broadband providers typically utilize caching as part of what are known as content distribution networks (CDNs). Google and many other Internet companies also deploy servers of their own around the world.

By bringing YouTube videos and other content physically closer to end users, site operators can improve page load times for videos and Web pages. In addition, these solutions help broadband providers by minimizing the need to send traffic outside of their networks and reducing congestion on the Internet’s backbones. In fact, caching represents one type of innovative network practice encouraged by the open Internet.

Google has offered to “colocate” caching servers within broadband providers’ own facilities; this reduces the provider’s bandwidth costs since the same video wouldn’t have to be transmitted multiple times. We’ve always said that broadband providers can engage in activities like colocation and caching, so long as they do so on a non-discriminatory basis.

All of Google’s colocation agreements with ISPs — which we’ve done through projects called OpenEdge and Google Global Cache — are non-exclusive, meaning any other entity could employ similar arrangements. Also, none of them require (or encourage) that Google traffic be treated with higher priority than other traffic. In contrast, if broadband providers were to leverage their unilateral control over consumers’ connections and offer colocation or caching services in an anti-competitive fashion, that would threaten the open Internet and the innovation it enables.

But there is a political side to this. The WSJ is playing the Gotcha! game here, “catching” Google jumping “the line” across which its postion on Net Neutrality is compromised. According to Whitt, it’s not.

Net Neutrality as a topic is complex and politically charged. One can argue with Google’s position on the topic. But I don’t believe one can argue that edge caching deals are a compromise of that position, simply because these deals are nothing new, and do nothing to squeeze other companies out of doing the same kind of thing (so long as Google doesn’t make the deals exclusive, which it says it’s not doing).

Hat tip to my colleague Steve Schultze, who is on top of this stuff far more than I am.

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