Just the facts?

Last month, I put myself on the hook to keep writing about ways that we might sustain investigative journalism. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is taken from Clay Johnson’s recent work, “The Information Diet”.

I’ve touched upon Johnson’s work before. His book calls on us to seek out and consume more source information, reducing what he feels is an over-reliance on processed news.

In somewhat of a companion piece, paidContent’s Mathew Ingram reports on “Why we need to blow the article up in order to save it”. The post explores some of the recent thinking by Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, David Weinberger and Dave Winer about the way journalism may (should) work in the future.

It’s interesting that some of the debate in the paidContent report centers on the density of a Reuters article covering the recent facebook IPO. At Klopotek’s Publishers Forum, held last month in Berlin, Andrew Johnson of Thomson-Reuters described work the firm is doing to ingest entire articles and assign metadata that enables deeper and alternate modes of presentation.

Rather than try to build an article from the ground up, Johnson’s Thomson-Reuters team is working to reverse-engineer the article to pull out contextually relevant data, akin to keywords. The ingestion process captures companies, markets, financial instruments and legal and governmental actions, among other items.

Still, I’m not sure that Thomson-Reuters would describe this work as “journalism”. It may support research or downstream journalistic efforts, but at its heart it is a deconstruction.

I tend to feel the same way about the claim that the “atomic unit of journalism is the fact.” If we follow Clay Johnson’s direction, “facts” are source information, potentially available to all of us. It’s useful and important to seek them out, but if the mere recitation of facts is journalism, then we’re all journalists (and maybe we are).

That is to say, I think there’s more context to journalism, investigative and otherwise, than the deconstruction allows. An effective search process still brings you back to the reporting; we can seek out the source information on our own. A few embedded links wouldn't hurt.

There is also more than one way to search. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who created the company that is seen as Thomson-Reuters’ primary competitor, recently told those attending an All Things Digital conference:

“I always thought the broadsheet presentation has real value… The fallacy with [getting only the news you want to read] is I don’t know what I want to read. I want someone to tell me what to read.”

As reported by Dylan Tweny at Venturebeat, Bloomberg still reads eight (print) newspapers a day. As firms like Thomson-Reuters look for ways to better deconstruct the article, I wonder what replaces the broadsheet scan.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.