Some have argued that the story was a product of necessity — newspapers had a fixed news hole to fill, and newscasts only had so much airtime. Context was often sacrificed as a result, because with a fixed amount of space, only the newest information is fit to print. But in the online era, there is no news hole. So what does that mean for the story, and if it’s dying, what will replace it? Is the story dead as a building block or do we need to be building new ways of presenting information using stories?
“The story was all we had before — it’s what would fit onto a newspaper page or into a broadcast show,” Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at The City University of New York wrote in his blog, Buzz Machine. ”But a discrete and serial series of articles over days cannot adequately cover the complex stories going on now nor can they properly inform the public.”
Furthermore, newspapers are on fixed publication schedules; the format of the newspaper simply lended itself to telling readers what happened in a given 24-hour period, not everything that has happened in a given storyline. That’s great for an interesting feature story, but doesn’t do justice to a complex issue such as healthcare reform.
So what is emerging online as the new “atomic unit” of news?
Some say it’s the topic and point to Wikipedia of all places as an example. Compare the Wikipedia page on Cash for Clunkers to the latest newspaper story on the program and you quickly see how much more information is on one Wikipedia page compared to one page on a news website. It’s unlikely you’re going to sit down and read all 4,500+ words in the Wikipedia story, though, and there are obvious accuracy issues. But some journalism scholars still point to the possibilities Wikipedia’s format has for news. Most of the information in the Wiki was probably reported at one time by most major newspapers who reported on Cash for Clunkers, but as journalists, we just don’t organize our information on the Web in a way that is as permanent, or as context-packed as a Wiki. If you want to see some attempts at this, check out Times Topics from the New York Times and also see how AP is looking at doing something similar. For a smaller example, look at Columbia Tomorrow, a project from Matt Thompson at the Reynolds Institute at Mizzou. Google thinks there’s value in “contextual news”; they’re experimenting with adding Wikipedia in Google News searches.
The story model also assumes regular readership, which is something that also may not exist in the online era like many thought it did in print. We can no longer assume someone who read about a crime one day heard about the arrest the next. Google’s Marissa Mayer compared the change in the “atomic consumption of news” to what iTunes and the mp3 has done to the music industry. “As with music and video, many people still consume physical newspapers in their original full-length format. But with online news, a reader is much more likely to arrive at a single article,” Mayer said during Congressional testimony in May.
Neither option can replace the story, though. Scan Wikipedia, and much of the source information points back to newspaper articles. That begs the question, could a newspaper such as the Detroit Free Press produce a great page on former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick? His Wikipedia page was viewed more than 500,000 times last year and most of the links are to Free Press stories. After all, most daily newspaper stories are written to last just one day. What are the monetization possibilities of topics pages that are built to last forever on the Web while being updated as a given topic evolves, all the while pointing readers to additional reading in the form of stories or documents hosted on a newspaper’s Web site?